Plagiarism: When the Desire “To Know” Turns Toxic

Plagiarism: When the Desire “To Know” Turns Toxic December 8, 2020

The desire “to know” can be so damn strong that we’re willing to do anything to make us look knowledgeable of our Crafts, even plagiarize. “To Know” as a power or virtue is usually associated with the element of Air. An imbalance of Air can make us look like egghead know-it-alls…or halfwit airheads. In either case, you can look like an asshole. The choice is always yours but I recommend aiming for somewhere in the middle of those two virtuous extremes. Be the buttcrack and not the butthole, if you will. 

To Plagiarize, To Will, To Dare, and To Keep Silent?

Recently, I’ve witnessed a few of my creative ideas being paraphrased online in someone else’s creative work. To be clear, this person isn’t quoting my stuff line for line. Instead, they are using concepts from my blog posts and sometimes borrowing a few identical keywords to make similar points of their own. This person may not be aware that what they’re doing is a form of plagiarism, though. Many acts of plagiarism are innocently done, so I’m not going off the rails here accusing that person of malicious intent. The intention behind this post is to discuss plagiarism and what it can look like in our community.

Nota bene: I love that my posts may be inspiring another person’s reflections and I hope my content sparks good conversations. All I ask for is a hyperlink to my work.

Witch, Be Humble.

Plagiarism isn’t just copying something word for word and saying you wrote it. Plagiarism can also involve stealing someone else’s creative idea. How many people have put hours into their creative work only to see it “borrowed” or “inspire” another person without attribution? And then watch that person benefit from your hard work or idea? I know I have and it sucks. 

Consider making it a virtue to respect the work of others. What does it really mean “To Know” your Craft? I think it goes beyond knowing the practices and traditions. I think it also means to know how others have impacted your Craft. For us Gardnerians, it’s important to know the people in our lineage. It’s equally important to know how those individuals created and impacted the tradition. Their hard work gave us our leg up and we should honor that.

Plagiarism is Akin to Appropriation

Plagiarism is taking someone else’s creative work and passing it off as your own. Appropriation is taking something that is not yours, without permission from its owner, and significantly changing it from its original state. Pretty similar, right? Both actions involve theft and both are equally toxic behaviors. 

A stoppered vial of blue liquid labeled as "POISON."
Image via Pixabay.

Spells, recipes, invocations, jewelry, cultural icons, occult theories, ideas, and personal practices can all be plagiarized and appropriated. If you come across a technique that you want to try out, cool — just research the source of it first. Consider the history or provenance of a piece or practice before assuming it as your own. Knowing the history of a practice can help put into its cultural context and only serve to help you better understand it.

Be sure to attribute borrowed ideas to their sources (which could be a culture, religion, author, etc.). Note the sources of your facts or ideas in your BOS, grimoire, journal, blog or whatever. This way, you can never pretend to be ignorant of who really created it and who deserves the credit. I say “pretend” because you can only be ignorant of a fact once. Don’t let the time it’ll take to do some research or make an attribution deter you from doing the ethical thing. 

It’s particularly important for leaders in the pagan community to show a certain level of professionalism with one another. If you find that someone’s work has inspired your own, even just a few sentences, then do the courteous thing and link back to their work. Linking back to someone’s work is especially easy if you both share an online venue. There’s little excuse for not doing it.

Plagiarism in Pagan Books

A person wearing a witch hat sits in the grass reading a book.
Photo by Halanna Halila on Unsplash.

Too often I have read the same, rote ideas over and over again, which is common in beginner Wicca and witchcraft books. My advice is to look for the authors that actively cite the source of their ideas and facts through footnotes, bibliographies, or in-text attributions and citations. A good example of a book and author who cites their work is Transformative Witchcraft by Jason Mankey. There’s footnotes and bibliographies a-go-go in this work and it’s a librarian’s dream. 

It can be difficult to pinpoint plagiarism and appropriation in witchcraft books because of what we sometimes perceive as personal gnosis. I’m not claiming that personal gnosis doesn’t exist but I don’t think we receive it unadulterated. Personal gnosis is influenced by previous experience and accumulated knowledge. Mark Twain once wrote in his autobiography:

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

While it may not be possible to trace the source for everything, especially if you think it’s personal gnosis, it’s worth making a concerted effort for anything you might share with others. Most importantly, don’t take credit for shit you didn’t create yourself.

Plagiarism is a Symptom of Insecurity

A hooded, masked figure looks longingly out a window.
“What if I never find out who’s a good witch?” Image via Pixabay.

Insecurity in our knowledge can drive us to plagiarize. It may be easier to pretend that we know something rather than to admit our ignorance, so we pass off another’s work as our own to appear knowledgeable. We desire to be liked, to be noticed, and to be regarded as an authority on a subject. Insecurity in paganism can look like a person claiming to be a High Priest/ess/x without the requisite experience or knowledge. These people build up false personas to appear as something they’re not for social capital. Their biggest fear is being caught in their lie. It’s not impostor syndrome if you’re legitimately an impostor, though. 

You can both appropriate and plagiarize ideas, practices, works of art, music, writing, or cultural symbols and expressions. As a side note, plagiarizing an idea doesn’t mean that you’re copying someone’s thoughts. You can’t prove plagiarism of an idea unless it’s been recorded in some fashion (written, photographed, recorded, etc.). 

In most cases, plagiarism isn’t done maliciously. Many of us do not know the details of copyright law, which can be incredibly boring, but they’re easily searchable. Rules concerning copyright have been around since 1710, though, so there’s a long history of protecting the integrity of creative work. Here’s a link to Copyright Law in the United States, if you’re curious.

Appropriation doesn’t necessarily say anything about the character of the person doing it. However, ignorance can morph into asshattery if a person continues their bad behavior after being corrected. We can only be ignorant to something once and then it’s just willful. Just like in magic, it’s all about the intent of the user.

Plagiarism and Social Media

Social media is a hotbed for plagiarism. Most people share memes without thinking about the source and very few of us actually put attributions on shared content. Meme culture has created a certain level of comfort with plagiarism, and it’s only gotten worse over time. This desire to “go viral” and share content we enjoy because it’s funny, informative, or otherwise entertaining is difficult to control. Social media makes plagiarism worse because it’s designed for quickly sharing content with large audiences. 

Clicking the “share” button on a social media post creates a tag or description that attributes the content and pictures to the person who created it. If, instead, a person decides to download the pictures and copy and paste the text into a post of their own (without attribution to the source) then that post is plagiarizing the original author. In this case, choosing to go the extra mile to create a new post with that content and pass it off as your own is super shitty, and illegal, because it’s plagiarism.  

Earlier this year someone plagiarized a well-known pagan author’s work on Facebook. The person who stole the work wanted the same following and acclaim of the author without doing any of their own work. They claimed they didn’t know that what they were doing was plagiarism. As a result, they wouldn’t remove the stolen content from their pages and refused to take responsibility for their behavior. The person was eventually reported to Facebook and the content was removed but without legal recourse. The sad reality is this kind of thing happens every day but most of us aren’t aware of it.

Tips & Resources

Avoiding plagiarism isn’t as difficult or daunting as you might think. Below are some tips and resources to aid you in avoiding it. 

  1. Use Google Images to research the provenance of a picture. You can click the little camera icon to the right of the search box and then choose between pasting the URL of the picture into that box or uploading a picture you’ve downloaded. Google will try its best to return results of all instances of that picture on the Internet.
  2. Use Grammarly to scan your written documents for plagiarism before you hit the “publish” button! Ignorance is no excuse.
  3. Educate yourself on plagiarism by visiting Plagiarism.org. There are plenty of other, easy to find websites out there on the subject. Certainly broaden your search beyond this one site, but it’s a great start. 
  4. Report plagiarism when you see it. Correcting bad behavior is a communal effort.
  5. Ask a Librarian! Not sure if you’re attributing a source correctly? Having trouble tracking down a source? Hit me up (or any other librarian).

Patheos Pagan Articles on Appropriation

“Cultural Appropriation Vs Appreciation: A Primer for Pagans, Polytheists, and Occultists” by River Enodian on The Tea Addicted Witch.

“When Is Your Paganism Cultural Appropriation” by Katie Gerrard on Manic Pagan Dream Grrl.

“Wicca & Cultural Appropriation” by Jason Mankey on Raise the Horns.

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