Deborah Hill Cone
Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Self-plagiarism hides poverty of ideas

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Ex Act leader seems to want poverty to just disappear.
The queues outside the Auckland City Mission are very real.  Photo / Jason Oxenham
The queues outside the Auckland City Mission are very real. Photo / Jason Oxenham

I saw Jamie Whyte at Les Mills this week. I pulled that involuntary lopsided stroke face you do sometimes when you see someone who's in a spot of bother.

"Is self-plagiarism even a thing?" I ask myself, lifting a weight, gasping.

In case you missed it, the former Act leader contributed an opinion piece to the New Zealand Herald last week questioning the way we measure poverty. But it turned out it was very similar to a piece he wrote for the Times of London in 2005.

The Herald said it would have not published the piece had it known.

Was the editor right? When I sweatily read up on what actually counts as self-plagiarism, I started to regret I didn't deploy my cold primate stare, or scary-$1000-an-hour-QC face, on Dr Whyte at the gym, instead of an empathy grimace.

Berkeley law professor Pamela Samuelson, author of a scholarly analysis of self-plagiarism, would almost certainly condemn Dr Whyte's warmed-over copy.

Professor Samuelson says publishing multiple versions of the same article as though each is a distinct contribution to the field can be both unlawful and unethical.

It is unlawful if one is breaching copyright, although it's not clear whether Dr Whyte signed over rights to the earlier piece. But what is badass in ethical terms is if you are sneakily pulling one over the reader.

The self-plagiarist, like any plagiarist, tries to take undeserved credit for the work as new and original when they know the material was derived from a previous source, know the reader is unlikely to know this and hope to benefit from the reader's ignorance. By this measure, Dr Whyte has committed not just the sin of laziness, but as an academic he has contributed to "undermining confidence in the integrity of the edifice of knowledge that lies at the heart of academic and research enterprises", as Professor Samuelson would put it.

Sorry Doc, I know those are pompous words, but fair dos, given you boast about having written a PhD thesis engraved with the self-aggrandising one-word title "Truth", you should have known better.

But now having read both articles, I'm not entirely surprised Dr Whyte seems to have a meagre grip on the less comfortable details of reality. To recap: Dr Whyte claims there is no poverty in New Zealand because the measure we use to judge poverty is relative: you are deemed to live in poverty if your household's income is less than 50 per cent of the national median.

This is a disingenuous argument. We are all wealthy compared to homeless people in the slums of Sao Paulo and all paupers compared to mansion dwellers in the Hamptons. Poverty is relative to the lives of others in our community.

Nonetheless, I have some compassion for Dr Whyte.

I doubt he would realise it but it seems Dr Whyte is engaged in what is known as magical thinking. In psychological terms, this involves believing your thoughts alone can make something happen. In Dr Whyte's case, that you can "magic" poverty and suffering away with esoteric arguments.

I, too, wish that we could find a way to make the reality of deprivation less painful. It is confronting to bear witness to other people's suffering. (I still can't stop thinking about the man at the Kaikohe Warehouse putting two bags of pineapple lumps on layby.) How tempting to tell them they are only imagining being poor.

Empathy exacts a toll on us. Not everyone can bear it. I'm not sure that Dr Whyte can. I cannot condemn him for that. Sometimes empathy is too painful: we simply can't take on other people's pain.

Recently, the New York Times published a think-piece by psychologist Joseph Burgo questioning whether in our connected world we are expected to have too much empathy. Dr Burgo says empathy for others is a very good thing, except when it becomes so heavy a burden that we end up feeling no empathy at all.

Jamie Whyte. Photo / NZME.
Jamie Whyte. Photo / NZME.


In this case, you cling to any intellectual argument that shows there is no suffering. You feel too vulnerable to stop for a moment and think about the reality of life for "Jimmy", the little boy who is shamed because, although he has a pair of trainers (see, not poor!), the other kids laugh at them because the shoes are cheap and his parents can't afford to send him on school camp.

Maybe we should try to find some empathy for Dr Whyte. Maybe he finds a child's shame unbearable because he was once "Jimmy"?

Rather than feel our own childhood wounds, it is so much easier to argue there is no suffering at all.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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