A headline on Slate Magazine’s site reads “Why Did This Marxist Philosopher Plagiarize a White Supremacist Magazine?” It sounded more like a play in Cards Against Humanity than an actual plagiarism news headline but it turned out to be both very real and very accurate.
The headline, and ones like it, center around Slavoj Žižek, a well-known Marxist philosopher who regularly writes for The Guardian and is well-known in intellectual circles. He is accused of plagiarizing passages in a recent book review from a white separatist publication American Renaissance.
To make matters even worse, the book being reviewed was an anti-semitic work and, though Žižek didn’t share the viewpoints of American Renaissance, he did share a great deal of descriptive language and background.
But while the story certainly is ripe for inflammatory headlines, underneath the harsh language lies an interesting story about plagiarism and the excuses for plagiarism. It also offers an inside look at how plagiarism happens and how, in some cases, people justify it.
So, let’s get past the headlines, take a look at exactly what happened and what everyone can learn from it.
The Basics of the Scandal
In 2006, Žižek an essay for the journal Critical Inquiry in which he reviewed a book entitled The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth Century Intellectual and Political Movements, an anti-semitic work that Žižek described as “barbarism” and widely panned.
However, a blogger who goes by the name “Deogolwulf” posted a side-by-side comparison of Žižek’s work and an earlier piece by Stanley Hornbeck, who penned a review of the same book for American Renaissance, widely considered to be a white supremacist magazine.
Though Hornbeck and Žižek had very different views on the book, their descriptions of the book closely matched, often times with whole paragraphs being used either verbatim or near-verbatim.
When questioned about the apparent plagiarism, Žižek responded by saying a friend of his had written the text for him to use. Furthermore, he added that none of the alleged plagiarism dealt ideas or thoughts on the book and only with description about what was in the book.
Critical Inquiry, for its part, did agree that the use of the text was a case of plagiarism but said that the case was “complex” since Žižek does not appear to present anyone else’s ideas as his own.
Still, the publication said that, if they had known the passage was being quoted without citation, they would have asked Žižek to add it.
A Deeply Flawed Defense
Žižek’s defense basically comes down to two points:
- He Was Given the Word to Use: That a friend gave him the words involved with the intent that he use and take credit for them.
- That he Claimed No Ideas as Hist Own: That the plagiarized portions were not relevant to his views or ideas about the book and were merely descriptive.
However, both arguments fall short for a multitude of reasons.
The first argument ignores several fundamental principles about writing and plagiarism, most importantly that plagiarism is not just an offense against the person who is plagiarized, but against the audience and the public.
After all, plagiarism isn’t just taking work that was created by someone else, it’s lying and claiming it as your own. By using the words of other people as his own, he still knowingly misled his editors and readers.
Furthermore, every author has a responsibility for a work that bears their name. Whether it was ghostwritten, drafted mostly by assistants or written firsthand, when a work carries your name it is your responsibility to make sure that the prose is accurate, properly-cited and written to your standards.
This, of course, assumes that the excuse is legitimate. Many plagiarists claim that a friend or colleague provided the text in question though the colleague is never named nor does anyone come forward to admit the deed. In all of the times I’ve seen this excuse with plagiarists I’ve dealt with, never once has it been verified as true.
The second excuse is much more troubling to me, the notion that, since he wasn’t taking ideas or opinions from others, that it wasn’t a plagiarism or at least not as serious of one.
In a book review, being able to accurately describe or summarize a book is crucial to prove understanding. It also highlights the reviewer’s take on the book by exposing what they felt was important or unimportant in it. While the description of the book may not be the reviewer’s views, it’s still a window into them.
Furthermore, describing the book is part of the work of the book review. By plagiarizing from another reviewer, he’s using the efforts of others to save himself time while giving nothing to those who helped him. It is still a form of freeloading.
Most importantly though, the description is part of the review. By putting his name on the review, whether he intended to or not, Žižek told his audience that the review was his writing, unless otherwise stated. That is makes the byline, at least in part, a lie.
And that, in turn, is the fundamental problem with Žižek’s response. Even if we give his arguments as much credence, there is no escaping the fact that he, at least tacitly, misled his audience into believing that they were reading a review written by him when he was aware much of it came from elsewhere.
Žižek committed plagiarism. While there can be arguments as to how serious the plagiarism is or what the repercussions should be, what he did was plagiarism. Regardless of whether or not he got it from a friend.
To be clear, this doesn’t have to be the end of Žižek’s career, especially if there isn’t a pattern of plagiarism discovered in his other work. If it was a one-time mistake, then it is a blemish, but a survivable one.
However, Žižek’s excuses are, at best, disingenuous and come across as attempts to either deflect blame or minimize the issue. A simple apology would have likely done more to help the issue blow over than attempts to trivialize the offense.
In short, Žižek’s scandal isn’t just an interesting case study in plagiarism, but a case study in how to handle an allegation of plagiaries. Or rather, how not to.
In the end, Žižek’s plagiarism snafu will likely be remembered just as much for how he handled it as the actual allegations against him, which places him in an even worse light, especially among academics and authors that take plagiarism issues very seriously.