Plagiarizing the Poor

Photo: Vincent De La Torre

Photo: Vincent De La Torre

A few years ago, I shared a not-yet-completed manuscript with my class of doctoral students in an effort to receive feedback on some concepts I was developing surrounding the theme of indecent ethics. When I eventually presented those theories at a conference, I discovered that one of those students was passing off my work as their own, without proper attribution. As could be imagined, I was enraged. Some time passed before I began to realize that there is nothing new under the sun. I was forced to deal with my own arrogance that somehow my ideas were constructed in ex nihilo, as if from some vacuum. No concept that I can imagine, regardless as to how unique it may appear to be, can be solely attributed to me. I have often heard many colleagues state that they stand on the shoulders of those scholars who came before. But if I am honest with myself, the shoulders upon whom I stand are mainly those of the oppressed and the activists placing their bodies in the same space for the cause of justice.

One of the foundational principles of those who align themselves with liberative thinking is that our concepts are simply a reflection of what the marginalized and their allies are doing and saying. For some, this tenet is but rhetoric; but for me, I truly believe this with all my being. And if I really do, then I should not have been annoyed with my former student, for all of the ethical concepts that I, and other liberative thinkers, are constructing have already been developed by those on the margins of society. And if they have not arisen from the grassroots, then they really cannot be liberative because of their disconnect with the oppressed. The job of the scholar is to translate this grassroots praxis for a more general audience in an accessible matter (oblique writing does not equal brilliance) so as to raise the consciousness of society. We fail as academics (including those of us who are liberationists) because we treat the production of knowledge as private property.

Many of us in the academy have been highly influenced by the capitalist concept that commodifies even our thoughts, presenting recycled perspectives and ideas as if they have never before existed. And yet, for the true liberative thinker, there must be a move away from developing thoughts in the seclusion of our ivy towers toward recording the creative conversations already taking place on the streets located away from “good” neighborhoods by those who lack abbreviations after their names, and at times, lack even formal schooling. Could it be that a true liberative thinker is a plagiarist of what the disenfranchised are doing and saying? Not exactly. While it is crucial for scholars to maintain academic integrity and attribute thoughts and concepts to those who helped develop the conversation, I fear that all too often we are attributing the wrong people. We are quick to quote another scholar with academic credentials, and if we are honest, we just quote our academic friends while totally ignoring those scholars of whom we are jealous or simply don’t like. But in our rush to fill a footnote, we often ignore the true source that launched our creative thinking, those from the margins of society.

So here is the true ethical dilemma for the scholar. At what point are we simply appropriating the stories of the oppressed and of the activists standing in solidarity with them for our own purposes, i.e. getting an article or book published, getting tenure or promotion, developing a reputation among our peers as an expert in the field? As Stacey Floyd-Thomas reminds us: If you are going the appropriate, you have to reciprocate. In a postscript to womanist allies she writes, “The intentional and concomitant effort of others to participate in solidarity with and on behalf of Black women who have made available, shared, and translated their wisdom, strategies, and methods for the universal task of liberating the oppressed and speaking truth to power.”[1]

What do I owe those on the margins when I tell their stories or use their concepts? A simple attribution or footnote is not enough. How do I use the benefits I received by appropriating their labor to then move our liberating task closer toward justice? If I don’t reciprocate, then I become a plagiarist of the worse form (not that there exists any plagiarist of the right form!). To be a liberative thinker means that I too must accompany the oppressed in their struggle. I too must at times put down my pen and notepad and place my body in the same space that they occupy. For only then can I do this thing we call scholarship with integrity. Just to be clear, every concept, thought, strategy, or idea I’ve ever developed should be attributed to the disenfranchised and the many who stand with them fighting for justice. Being grateful to them is not enough: I must learn to be ¡Presente!

When I am present, I quickly discover that they are having a very different conversation than those who simply rely on cable news programs for their information. For example, anyone can write or talk about the current immigration dilemma. Anyone can have an opinion. But how do we move beyond the sound bites that seem to dominate the conversation and instead move to the difficult task of exploring the historical, economic, and social structures that conspire to create a crises where millions of brown bodies suffer injury, incarceration, death, or if they are lucky to succeed, a lifetime of living in the shadows? Many articles, books, and news accounts focus on the plight of the undocumented, but few try to understand why they come. Many writings exist that present us with the object of our discourse, rather than show how we can stand in solidarity with the undocumented and their allies, accompanying them in their struggle.

This month I began writing a new book on immigration, tentatively titled: The Immigration Crises: An Ethics of Place. All too often, we do ethical analyses from the comfort of our cushy armchairs. From the safety of our religion departments we gaze at the misfortunes of the undocumented and paternalistically describe their dilemma, denying them subjectivity by making them the object of our discourse. It becomes easier to talk about them as opposed to listening and learning from their stories, their testimonies. This book, which I just began to write, is made possible because of the many undocumented immigrants who took a risk to chat with me about their experience. The actions these immigrants take so that their families can have life are inspiring. But so are the actions of their allies who chose to occupy the same space as the dispossessed to accompany them in their struggle for justice.

I recognize that even liberative-minded scholars have fallen into the trap of claiming the importance of social location without being present, as if the exercise of thinking can lead to understanding, even if one’s body is physically miles away, teaching in some classroom. A danger exists for us academics who present ourselves as experts, but fail to occupy the same space, the same location in where the object of our gaze resides. An ethics of place[2] recognizes that the physical location in which the oppressed reside is crucial in understanding which ethics, which praxis, needs to be engaged. Not to be presente questions the ability to truly understand the dilemma under investigation. Physically engaging in consciousness-raising praxis leads to understanding the causes of oppression, from which a spiritual response flows that can lead to better informed theories or doctrines. In the doing of liberative acts (ethics), theory (theology) is formed as a reflection of praxis.

This book will be an example of employing an ethics of place, recognizing that as an organic intellectual, I reflect on the praxis of those who are actually crossing deserts as a response to the injustices forced upon them and those who are documented who place their bodies on the line so as to be in solidarity with the dispossessed. My job as a scholar of ethics is to reflect upon the praxis in which those seeking justice, either as or for immigrants, engage. I dishonor them when I try to fit their actions into some predetermined theory that neatly orders my worldview. Instead, I should seek to give voice and a language to what already is occurring – even when the voice given is as messy and contradictory as the actions they are taking. What I, and my fellow liberative scholars do in the classroom is not praxis. After all, we get paid to do this in relative safety. This is not to dismiss or degrade what we do, for it is important work, helping to highlight issues that are usually lost in the static of the everyday; but we should never delude ourselves into thinking that somehow we are engaged by simply reflecting on what “those poor immigrants must go through.”

An ethics of place insists that the scholar be present, to also occupy the space of the undocumented and their allies. Absence denies the scholar of any gravitas. Only when I am in the moment, seeing what they see, can I better understand in what actions to accompany them. How can I write about the immigration dilemma if I do not walk the migrant trails, or sit in court while they are being processed, or worship with them at the church where they are seeking sanctuary? If I refuse to be presente, I simply will be another clueless ignoramus who somehow believes that my academic credentials are all what is needed to know and understand. An ethics of place is what makes me an ethicist, what provides seriousness to my voice, not because I am somehow smarter, but because I chose to learn from the undocumented and their documented allies.

This book that I began this month will attempt to place the reader in the place of those struggling for immigration justice. This manuscript will be possible not because I took time to write it, but because so many took time to stand in solidarity with the disenfranchised undocumented immigrant. Although it will be my express purpose to help the reader better grasp the complexity of the immigration dilemma by inviting them to join us in the place where oppression systematically and unnoticeably occurs, my ultimate goal is to invite the reader to leave their comfortable space and join the undocumented and their allies in the continues struggle for justice. In other words, to be ¡Presente!

 Miguel A. De La Torre


[1] Stacey Flyod-Thomas, Deeper Shades of Purple: Womanism in Religion and Society (New York: New York University Press, 2006) 250.

[2] I am aware that scholars such as Mick Smith have used the term “an ethics of place” as a means by which to re-engage the moral and ethical concerns of radical ecological theories; that J.K. Gibson Graham uses the term “an ethics of the local” in a Marxist analysis grounded in the necessary failure of the global order; and that John Inge uses the term “a theology of place” to stress taking seriously the importance of place which contributes to the creation of the identity of community, and vice versa with both endangered by the effects of globalization responsible for the erosion of people’s rootedness. I am using the phrase “an ethics of place” somewhat differently then how others have used the term. For me, an ethics of place means that praxis must be developed in the place of oppression, in the midst of the effects of institutionalized disenfranchisement in the hopes of creating an ethical response. When I use the term, ethics of place, I mean that ethical analysis, to be contextual, must also pay close attention to the physical local of the on doing the analyzing.

One thought on “Plagiarizing the Poor

  1. I am struck by the ethics of place that you describe being an apt description of Incarnation; God needed and desired to really know and experience what humans experience, and so “put on flesh” to join us and lead us on a new journey. Those who claim Christ’s name are here in every particular locale to do the same. Thank you for the work you do and share! Your words will help very much in future sermons. All properly attributed, of course!


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