Friday, May 09, 2008

What is truth? Said jesting Pilate

This semester, not for the first time, I've had a student I've charged with plagiarism who remains in my class for weeks or months while the charge makes its way through the university's courts of appeal.

Some students respond by slinking into back-row seats and avoiding eye-contact at all costs, while others (pathological liars, sometimes, or just really fucking ballsy) show up every day determined to perform their diligence and sincerity. One of them wrote me a review in which she accused me of being a power-mad egomaniac who goes around charging students with plagiarism with absolutely no proof--and then showed up in class the next day and spoke all period long, smiling shyly and winningly at me from beneath her bangs.

As awkward and occasionally enraging as such a situation can be, it can also be perversely fun: there's my plagiarist in the front row, hand continually raised, and there I am being smiley and affirmative, both of us engaged in a performance whose falsity only we know. It's a kind of brinksmanship.

But although our motives are different--I'm mostly just trying to keep the class running smoothly, and I'm as happy to have smart comments from a plagiarist as from anyone else--I wonder whether our temperaments are so different: aren't we both showing off and taking pleasure in our own power (of self-control, if nothing else)? And aren't we both displaying a spectacular capacity for deception?

I know, I know: the motives matter. But when I wonder whether my plagiarists haven't, somehow, convinced themselves of their own virtue, and cluck my tongue over the bizarre mental malfunction that permits this--I have to acknowledge that I, too, have a powerful ability to make myself believe what I want to believe. I don't lie often and I don't lie about big things, but when I do rearrange the facts a bit, whether to save someone's feelings or to excuse and explain a minor misdeed, I almost never feel that I am lying; I guess I have to believe that what I'm saying is in some sense true, or I couldn't say it.

White lies aren't something I'm prepared to worry about, but I wonder whether it's a slippery slope. Just a few days ago I was skimming my archives and came upon a favorite post from last fall, one that begins with a brief autobiographical anecdote. I smiled as I read it, reliving the event--and then stopped. Oh, right: that detail I just "remembered"? It's fictitious. The real story wasn't much different--I needed to cut down on explanatory backstory, so I switched a few facts around--but in rereading that post I vividly recalled the event in a way it had never actually happened.

Rearranging details to paint a more understandable, agreeable or simply useful version of reality--well, that's what writers do, and I'm a frequent invoker of "the larger truth" of a situation. But I also believe in the importance of knowing the facts. And I guess I'm wondering whether my ability simultaneously to know certain things to be true, and yet convince myself they aren't, makes me so different from my front-row, gold-star plagiarists.


Flavia said...

It has just occurred to me that this is one of those posts that might cause Persons I Know to think I am secretly writing about them (which is to say, telling nice white lies about something that has happened between us--a something that in point of fact I probably don't remember). If so, please refer to the comments to the first post linked to above: I don't do that passive-aggressive shit. And more importantly, I'd never lie to you!

Doctor Cleveland said...

Hey, Flavia, I see what you're worried about, and I certainly understand why you're worried. It's the human condition, though. You turn out not to be a dispassionate Cartesian machine. I suspect People You Know prefer it that way.

It's always a struggle between our own subjective memories and skewed perspectives on one hand, and the demands of justice and physics on the other. You can be more honest with yourself or less.

There isn't a moral choice between being self-deluding and not being self-deluding; nobody frees themselves of self-delusion completely. But there is a choice between trying to make your perspective fit observable reality and trying to make reality fit your self-delusions. The difference between you and your brazen plagiarist (although I'll stipulate many, many others), is that you value the objective truth and she is enraged and offended by it. There's a lot of that going around.

Notice that in your smiling samurai staredown with the upstart crow, you don't define success by getting her to acknowledge anything, while she's all about imposing the weird denial kabuki on you. For her, the denial kabuki itself constitutes success ... as long as you have to act, even superficially, as if she were not a plagiarist, she can live in that little moment and feel like she's controlling her reality. Whereas you feel confident in the leverage of the ultimate, objective facts ... you've got proof, her appeal will fail, and no amount of sugary tones will change that. The difference isn't just motive (although you also have that). It's that you *value* reality.

Jack said...

Okay, I know this is super old but you posted it right in the middle of finals, which perhaps is the reason most of us have remained silent?

It's also possible that the topic is just too hard. I've been thinking about the fact that truth really is about 95% context (pushed I would say it's all context but I can't handle a world where I accept truth as a complete fiction so for the sake of self-preservation I'm keeping the 5%). And that's an uncomfortable thing to think about. In terms of this situation, though, that acknowledgement doesn't make it any less infuriating. The context was that someone gave you a certain authority to draw a line between truth and lies and then undermined you when you made that call. If we are to live in a world in which we believe in things like self and integrity and trust and, yes, truth (and I think that most of us do--again if only for safety reasons) then this dean needs a smack-down.

Also, Dr. C, I just have to ask: Flavia-chan wa saurai desu ka? Doshite?