Thieves of the mind
When I get home from work after a long day in the company of numbers and tax statutes, I try to unwind—as millions of Filipinos do—by watching television. However, since the election season is in high gear, an hour of primetime TV is usually punctuated by campaign ads, ranging from the amusing to the maudlin. There’s a whole host of candidates out to persuade us that they’re worthy of our votes, and I’ve discovered that with each passing election, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to find a candidate I can really believe in. I can’t help but wonder—is it because we become more cynical with age? Or is it because, strangely enough, we become—in a certain sense—more idealistic, demanding more from our politicians than mere campaign promises, popularity and charisma?
The experience of the past three decades has taught us that honesty and integrity are definitely among the most important character traits that should be found in anyone who wants to serve in a public office. More often than not, both of those values are equated with the battle against corruption, especially when it comes to the use of public funds. As someone who has seen life on both sides of the tax system, I can attest to how difficult it can be to pay—and to collect—taxes, which is why I really appreciate the President’s efforts to eradicate graft and corruption in the Government.
There is, however, another kind of honesty that I think people have lost sight of these days, and it’s a form of honesty that I hope Pinoys will remember when they troop to the polls a week from now. Those who recall the firestorm that erupted over the unattributed use by a famous public figure of certain statements made by an Internet blogger will know whereof I speak.
Plagiarism is a word we don’t often hear in the news—nevertheless, in recent months that word has been rearing its very ugly head, and not just here in election-happy, politics-mad Manila. Little over half a year ago, there were reports that roughly 125 students in venerable Harvard University were investigated for cheating on a yearend take-home examination; more than half of those students were forced to withdraw from the university for a length of time, while a fourth of them were placed under disciplinary probation. Then came the news in February of this year that the German Minister of Education—of all people!—was stripped of her doctorate after it was found that parts of her doctoral thesis, a paper that was written more than three decades ago, were copied. As if that were not shocking enough, just a few weeks ago, the Chief Rabbi of France resigned from his post in France’s top Jewish religious organization after admitting to charges of plagiarism in two of his books.
I can’t help but remember a very simple, but very important admonition my mother always told me and my siblings in the early years of our education: Do not cheat! It was a very straightforward, uncomplicated reminder, but it carried a weight of significance that has remained with us to this day. My mother wanted us to understand that honesty was something that went beyond simply telling the truth—she wanted us to understand that there was also something known as “intellectual honesty,” and that consisted in turning in assignments that were the product of our own efforts, and not anyone else’s. Wise woman that she was, she wanted us to understand that the child who would cheat on a piece of homework might someday compromise on his professional ethics and his personal values.
In a sense, plagiarism is cheating, and a form of dishonesty in itself, because the one who plagiarizes attempts to build up for himself a wholly undeserved image of erudition and learning through the theft—yes, theft!—of another’s thoughts and ideas. It can be even more disturbing than the stealing of money or of objects, because the theft of someone else’s ideas is somehow far more personal and violative of that person’s rights. Money can be earned again, objects can be replaced—but having one’s very thoughts “stolen” or “misappropriated” goes to the very heart of a person’s self. I daresay I would not be remiss in saying that one who plagiarizes is a “thief of the mind.”
Being accused of plagiarism casts a shadow on one’s credibility that can never truly be erased or forgotten, and if the charge is proven, can cost a person his career, as the sorry example of the German Minister will show; or derail one’s academic life, a bitter lesson learned by the Harvard students caught cheating on their exam. But that is how it is in Germany and Harvard—the picture in Manila, however, appears to be far different. At least two well-known public figures were the subject of widespread criticism for plagiarism, but to date, nary a whisper can be heard about an official censure against both of them. What truly disturbs me, though, is that while the general public raised their voices against the misdeeds of these two individuals, their own colleagues failed to say anything that could be taken as honest, unequivocal criticism of what they did. Should this be taken as tacit approval, or as a belittling of the seriousness of the issue? Either option is a disquieting thought, because it sends the very unsavory message—particularly to our young people—that high-ranking public officials, who are supposed to set examples in abiding by the laws of this land, apparently care too little about whether or not their own colleagues would stoop to intellectual theft.
I am reminded of an unhappy experience of a good friend (himself a former denizen of “the Yard”) some years ago. At the time, my friend was teaching at a prominent graduate school, and had given his students a case study as a major assignment. Reading through the case analysis reports submitted to him, he realized—to his shock and dismay— that not only did some students submit compositions that seemed remarkably similar, but that some portions of their reports sounded suspiciously like a management book he’d read a year or two ago, or worse, were actually “carbon-copied” from the Internet! Looking through the “bibliography” that he’d required each student to include at the conclusion of their reports, he discovered that the book and the websites they’d lifted whole paragraphs from were nowhere on their lists of references.
My friend, as expected, hit the roof. But before confronting his students, he decided to discuss the problem with the dean. What his students had done was not just cheating, but also plagiarism—intellectual dishonesty, pure and simple. He was angry, and above all, deeply disappointed in his students, remembering that when he himself was a student, cheating and plagiarism were “capital offenses” that merited the penalty of expulsion, or at the very least, suspension. Indeed, if you couldn’t be honest as a student, how could you be expected to be honest as a professional?
He was unprepared, though, for the tidal wave of dismay and disenchantment that washed over him (and I can still see the pained expression on his face) when the dean told him that the errant students had to be let off with a slap on the wrist. If the school expelled or suspended them, the dean said, enrollment might shrink to levels that might merit closing the graduate school altogether. It just wasn’t possible anymore—or so it seemed—for a student to turn in an assignment that was purely a product of his own efforts. My friend was flabbergasted: his conscience demanded a far harsher punishment than what the Dean recommended, but what could he do when the school’s administration would clearly not be supportive of the sanction that was due this academic offense?
It’s been quite a few years since my friend told me that story and he quit teaching long after, finding it difficult—to say the least—to continue teaching in an atmosphere where the school bigwigs turned a blind eye to intellectual theft. Through the years, however, I’ve never ceased to wonder what would become of those young people whose acts of “academic robbery” went unpunished, and who would thus never be encouraged to think for themselves, to be honest in their estimation of their own capabilities, and to honor the ideas of other people. And now, looking back on that incident, I think not only of that public figure who never betrayed a hint of shame or remorse while the country pilloried him for plagiarism, but also of the colleagues who did not lift a finger to publicly censure him, and I can’t help but wonder—am I looking at what the future will be not only for Philippine politics, but for the Filipino youth as well?
Walking the path of the straight and narrow—or as the President puts, “ang daang matuwid”—is fine and good, but I think it’s time we all consider that true integrity is not just a matter of being transparent with the people’s taxes and the country’s resources. Integrity, in the final analysis, means being honest with one’s self, and being open about what one’s true capabilities are. Because the minute we steal another’s thoughts—or condone the theft of them—we diminish ourselves and our true capabilities, and ensure that whether in great things or in little ones, we can never be trusted to do the right thing, or be worthy of anyone’s respect. That is a thought we would do well to remember when we choose the candidates for whom we shall cast our votes on May 13th, for the future of our country will depend on our choices.
Let us choose well.
(The article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines. The author is a Senior Partner of The Tax Offices of Romero, Aguilar & Associates and member of the MAP National Issues Committee and the MAP Tax Committee. Feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. For previous articles, visit map.org.ph.)