Saturday, September 08, 2012

In praise of copycats

VICENTE “Tito” Sotto III is better than any hotshot academic delivering a standing-room-only lecture on intellectual property rights.

Teachers usually expound on theory. The Senate Majority Leader is accused of committing plagiarism, not once or twice but thrice, as of last count.

In early August, after he made his second “turno en contra” speech against the Reproductive Health Bill, Sotto was accused of copying word-for-word portions of an online post written by American blogger, Sarah Pope.

Last Wednesday, in his last “turno en contra” speech, Sotto again faced allegations that he translated into Filipino and copied without credit lines spoken by the late U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

Two days later, ABS.CBN reported online that a U.S. blogger and contributor of “Ms.” magazine, Janice Formichella, accused Sotto of plagiarizing an article she posted on Feb. 5, 2010. In the speech delivered on Aug. 15, 2002, Sotto used a mixture of Filipino and English, with the English lines cribbed word-for-word from the article posted by Formichella.

What sense can be made from all these? So that we don’t add “nation of cheats” to our claims for notoriety, let’s heed the lessons the senator has been demonstrating, with intent or not:

First, hire speech writers that know research and writing. Being a very busy person (or assumed to be one), Sotto relies on others to write his speeches. Aside from knowing grammar and content, writers should apply grade school basics from writing themes: “say it in your own words” or if not, precede quotes with “according to”.

Second, write your speech. It’s not a rule to write a long or erudite one. Though if you have nothing to say, keep it short and polite. Or don’t say anything at all. If English is not your thing, say it in your local tongue. Why do we gauge intelligence by a person’s command of English? Shouldn’t sincerity and conviction be more important than form? One speaks from the heart and with full possession of one’s faculties. To speak is not to repeat someone else’s words. That is performing.

Third, prepare before you face an audience. If someone ghost-wrote, read your speech beforehand. People who can’t spare the time to write a speech are most in need of a speech. Not knowing when to end is as much a crime against public patience as not understanding what you’re saying.

Fourth, read carefully. Quoting sources means preserving their essence and keeping the context. Both Pope and Formichella blogged for informed choice; Sotto cribbed their words to fit his anti-RH arguments. According to a ABS-CBN report, it was the awkward translation, “maliliit nga galaw,” of Kennedy’s lines from his “Day of Affirmation” speech for post-colonial South Africa (“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope…”) that alerted social media user Michel Eldiy to Google the phrase and discover the plagiarism.

Fifth, read. Sotto said he did not know Kennedy wrote the passage that a friend texted him. Liking the lines, he asked his staff to translate and include these in his last speech. If the senator can persevere in reading kilometric lines of SMS, he should try e-books or the printed ones. Beautiful writing awes one to give credit where it is due.

Sixth, apologize. What infuriates us about Sotto is not that he stings back his accusers, whines about being cyberbullied, or dismisses his critics as “komiko”. It is that he refuses to admit his mistake. If he had said, “I am sorry,” the first time and if there had been no other accusation, we could have focused on the RH Bill. Had a life outside of Google. Smelled the flowers.

Seven, learn. To make this issue truly matter, we should make our votes reflect the lessons. Short memories aside, we have no one to blame if we put another Tito Sotto in any position of responsibility, even or especially in the barangay.

( 0917-3226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebus September 9, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

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