“You shall not steal; you shall not deny falsely, and you shall not lie to one another.”
Stealing and lying are put together in this verse for an excellent reason. When caught stealing, a thief’s most instant response may be defensiveness and denial, making stealing and lying causally related. I steal, therefore, I lie. Alternatively, stealing may be another type of lying, specifically when stealing involves intellectual property. In Jewish law, we have a category of deception called “genevat da’at,” the stealing of knowledge. This does not only involve copyright infringement and crimes involving money. Specifically, genevat da’at usually refers to taking another’s idea and calling it your own. We have a word for it: plagiarism.
You steal someone else’s thoughts and lie to others because you make it seem like you are smarter, kinder or more competent than you really are. This has become a problem of immense proportions because of the pressure to succeed combined with the ease of access offered by the internet. How else can we explain acts of mass cheating that have taken place in Jewish day schools recently, where foundational values of honesty and integrity have been comprised for the sake of better SAT scores and college acceptances? Accomplishments are faked on resumes, and more than one journalist in recent years has stolen a story.
A recent New Yorker article, “The Plagiarist’s Tale”(Feb.13-20, 2012) helped me understand the mind of the plagiarist. Quentin Rowan wrote a spy novel called Assassin of Secrets in James Bond style. The style was so much like a James Bond novel that someone realized it actually was heavily excerpted from Ian Fleming’s actual writing. But not only Fleming. Rowan took pieces of multiple authors and strung them together so cleverly that an outside observer found 34 different acts of plagiarism in the first 35 pages. Someone actually thought that Rowan did it intentionally, as a literary art form.
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