As most readers of this blog are by now aware, a top YA blogger was caught plagiarizing, and the fallout has been significant. (Just Google “plagiarism” and “The Story Siren”).
I’d like to make three points about it, from my own point of view as a philosophy professor who specializes in feminist ethics, and as someone who does a good amount of clinical ethics work outside the academy:
(a) The important of the apology: I’ve seen some bloggers asking what the point is of an apology. Of course, no apology has the power to reverse time and undo the moral wrong that has been committed. But I don’t view ethics as a ledger you keep clean. Ethics is a way of being in community. The Story Siren’s plagiarism created rifts in the community. In particular, it damaged the trust on which the book blogging community is based. A good apology can help begin the process of moral repair. What we got from The Story Siren, beginning from the moment she asked her victims to keep quiet, continuing when she deleted her own plagiarism post, and then again when she reworded her own (already inadequate) second apology post, was the kind of apology that seeks to repair personal damage and restore personal social status, much like the celebrity and politician apologies we see on TV every week.
A restorative apology is not focused on the self, but on re-building community. Since The Story Siren appears to be moving on, business as usual, I doubt one is forthcoming. I’m sorry that she has opted not to take this opportunity for educating and strengthening the book blogging community. I won’t bore you with my idea of the elements such an apology would contain, but I will make a prediction based on my many years as an ethics consultant working with health care providers who have made medical errors: without a meaningful attempt to take responsibility and restore trust, The Story Siren will never fully recover. With them, she may become more admired and influential than ever.
(b) Blogging is writing: I’ve been distressed to see the many defenders of The Story Siren who have claimed that there is nothing new in blogging, so there’s no possibility of plagiarism. My own undergraduate students sometimes say the same. Putting aside the question of plagiarism and “common knowledge”, I see this as part of a general view of blogging that it is somehow not writing. My fellow academics will defend their blogs by talking about how it helps them “with their writing”, by which they mean … other writing: journal article writing, monograph writing, grant writing, etc. Authors will say blogging helps them “with their writing”, too. By “writing”, they mean novel writing, short story writing.
But blogging IS writing. It may not be the same kind of writing as writing a novel or a journal article, but it is writing. I’m sorry that so many YA bloggers think so little of what they do. It’s as if, to some of them, creating blog posts is like taking a piss. You’ve got to go, and it just flows naturally. But that’s not my experience as either a creator or reader of blog posts. I see bloggers talking about how they are wrestling with a difficult post, editing a review for the tenth time, killing themselves trying to make sure their tone and words are appropriate for their post. Even The Story Siren’s “apology” post nods to the effort book blogging takes by making reference to the “pressure” she was under.
When I look at the book blogging community (by which I mean everyone who writes about books), by and large, I see a hard working, reflective, self-aware group of writers.
(c) Women and moral autonomy: Perhaps the most distressing facet of this whole thing is the tendency to characterize legitimate ethical questions and well-grounded moral judgment as jealousy, hatred, pettiness, or some other selfish and nonrational phenomenon. I have seen the same thing happen in the romance community. I think I’m uniquely situated given that my main job is teaching the history of ethical theory, and my other job is to help manage ethical conflicts in a large hospital, so I’d like to share what this looks like to me.
The history of Western moral philosophy, as diverse as it is in other respects, is, by and large, a history in which women are absent. Beginning well over two thousand years ago, and continuing through to the twentieth century, moral philosophers have claimed that women cannot be moral agents for a variety of reasons including their powerful emotions, their weak wills, their inability to grasp rational moral principles, their biology, and their social roles as caretakers. A moral agent, by the way, doesn’t just take morally praiseworthy and blameworthy action, but also makes moral judgments about other moral agents. I’m not going to throw quotes at you, but before you dismiss them for being philosophers, recall that these men, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, etc., are products of societies which largely agreed with them.
I wish I could say that the opinion that women aren’t fit to identify ethical issues and make moral judgments — that is, act as full participants in the moral community — is a relic of the past. But I can’t, because I’ve seen too many times the way women’s legitimate ethical concerns are brushed off as … jealousy, hatred, pettiness, or some other selfish and nonrational phenomenon. How else to explain that when a male physician refuses to perform a procedure he thinks is unsafe or unwise, he is applauded for his conscientious objection, but when a female nurse attempts to do the same, she is reprimanded? The physician gets kudos, while the nurse “needs more education.” I’ll spare you many, many variations on that theme I have seen in my career.
My point is that the very ability to name something as an ethical issue, and to hold others accountable for it, requires a certain amount of social power. Historically, and at present, some groups have less of that power than others. I’m sorry to see some women participate so eagerly in a tradition that casts women as morally stunted, selfish children, unable to think past their own out of control emotions.
Thanks to everyone who has written in the past week on this.