14 September 2007

The Ultimate Hostile Takeover

A good formal definition of plagiarism is "the practice of ... incorporating material from someone else's written or creative work, in whole or in part, into one's own without adequate acknowledgement."

A while back, I experienced this directly as a participant in an informal book discussion group. This was [ostensibly] a writers' support group, yet I found myself repeatedly fending off bullies there. In the most egregious variation on this theme, one particularly impervious duo pointedly ignored or disparaged every contribution I made to group discussions, while presenting many of those very same concepts and ideas in their own comments, without attribution, sometimes verbatim, apparently in order to create the impression that they, not I, had originated them.

Both people emphatically praised and credited other discussion group members whose ideas they quoted; the contrast between this behavior and that directed towards me was remarkable, to anyone paying attention. Thus to all appearances, these individuals sought to stifle my voice within the group, while appropriating that same voice - my words, my ideas, even aspects of my 'style' - to pass off as their own.

[I have also experienced this in workplace settings - both as a bystander and as the target. Women may experience this behavior from male colleagues and superiors as a subtle form of discrimination: ignore her, but steal her ideas... ]

This behavior gives a bully a triple payoff.
First, the bully obliterates the target by disenfranchising him [or her] to keep him [or her] excluded and unheard, and at the same time appropriates the target's talents and accomplishments to pass off as the bully's own productions.

Second, while preventing the target from receiving recognition and reinforcement, the bully diverts what is rightfully the target's 'payoff' into the bully's own hands. Much sadistic pleasure can be gleaned from this behavior, for those so inclined.

The final payoff, of course, is that the bully does no actual work to produce the talents and accomplishments he or she dishonestly appropriates. It is an act of pure parasitism: the ultimate hostile takeover.
Both of the people whose actions I am describing here seemed highly focused on establishing themselves as 'gurus' over this particular group, and apparently regarded my presence and contributions as a threat to this. For someone whose goal is dominance of a group - "power over" it, in Patricia Evans' terminology - people who think well [aka 'critical thinkers'] are not easily deceived and cannot be easily controlled; they must therefore be intimidated, marginalized, and, if possible, driven away.

This happens in churches, clubs, neighborhoods, and workplaces. It happens everywhere. It happens all the time.
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The hostility that underlies this type of plagiarism - and its many cousins - seems rarely to be acknowledged by onlookers, no matter how blatant it becomes. But this particular experience was relatively minor, as such things go.

I know of a case that was far more extreme, extending far beyond the theft of someone's idea, catchphrases, or pet metaphors, to the point where the actual life of the target was plagiarized and appropriated, in the most extreme form of 'hostile takeover' possible short of outright murder and impersonation.
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A woman I know [whom I will call Sandy] had an entire career plagiarized out from under her by someone who was, to all appearances, a bully with erotomanic stalker 'traits'. With her permission, I will tell her story. I've altered a few details to protect her privacy.

Sandy, who was single, started working for a new employer about 20 years ago. Although she loved the work, she was soon very uncomfortable with the woman in the office next to hers. This woman, who was also single, made no overt passes at Sandy, but insinuated herself into every conversation Sandy had, work-related or otherwise, that involved a male colleague or superior, and made barbed, hostile, often highly inappropriate remarks to the man [usually semi-jocular threats of violence].

She struck obvious 'vamping' poses in Sandy's office doorway; gushed fulsomely and effusively over things Sandy did, said, wore, or read; referred to her as 'sweetie', 'honey' and 'my dear'. She followed Sandy to on-site meetings and presentations, sat next to her, and disrupted the events with loud, inappropriate comments [usually audible, hostile put-downs of the speaker, if male]. Claiming 'seniority', she tried to force their employer to send her to all of the offsite meetings that Sandy attended.

Because no direct overtures were ever made, Sandy, who is a very devoted PFLAG and utterly opposed to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, could only hint that she had other romantic preferences, talk about her dates, etc. - all of which simply compounded her discomfort.

Since the underlying issue was never directly revealed to Sandy, she never felt able to directly address it. Erotomania was hardly a common topic of conversation at the time; stalking of any kind was only beginning to be addressed legally with any seriousness. Dr. Doreen Orion's personal account of her own horrific experiences, "I Know You Really Love Me", had not yet been published and wouldn't be for years. Sandy could not describe what was happening to her in any way that she felt a third party, particularly her own management, could understand.

Within a year, Sandy's 'office neighbor' had bought a car of the same make as Sandy's, as close to the same color as possible; was purchasing identical clothing and dressing like Sandy; and had even switched physicians so that she was seeing some of the same doctors. At this point, Sandy took the opportunity to move to a different office, feeling quite reasonably that she was being stalked and subjected to barely-covert sexual harassment.

The woman became infuriated when Sandy moved, went to their superiors, and demanded that Sandy "be ordered" to return to her original office or that Sandy's office furniture, computer, and professional reference books be reallocated to her "for compensation". When Sandy was told about this by her puzzled [and frightened] bosses, she was asked only if a direct and unwelcome pass had ever been made; she answered honestly that it had not, that no non-collegial relationship of any kind had ever existed, that her preference was for male romantic companions, and that she hoped that any such issue would die away eventually as a result of her relocating.

She had no such luck. Shortly after the office relocation, Sandy required emergency cancer surgery and chemotherapy. While she was gone, her former neighbor broke into her office, broke into her computer, and subsequently claimed to be the real author of all the work Sandy had done. Amazingly, by the time Sandy returned, this woman had appropriated the promotion that Sandy was promised at hire - and had been told she was qualified for, just one week before her surgery.
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The term 'existential revenge', used by Martha Stout in connection with workplace sociopaths' deliberate sabotage of their colleagues' careers, comes readily to mind here. In Sandy's case what occurred was so drastic and bizarre that it is more accurate to call it 'psychic cannibalism'. This woman clearly had an extreme wish to possess Sandy, and failing that, was determined to devour her, professionally at least. She sought to destroy Sandy's career and appropriate it for herself, and Sandy's feckless superiors were only too willing to oblige - after all, it was easier for them to destroy the career of a convalescing cancer survivor than to stand up to an obviously unstable bully.

Sandy's 'harasser' remains in her position to this day. Sandy, fortunately, found a healthier workplace, where she met and married a decent man who had enough life experience and common sense to believe her when she told him about this ghastly situation. She tells the story of her former life [with a shudder] when the subject of occupational plagiarism comes up in professional discussions, as a strong warning that not all plagiarism involves the written word, that employees cannot expect bosses to control even the most obvious and egregious bullies, and that such bullies, when coddled and enabled, may do - and get away with - almost anything short of murder.
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What do people gain by behaving in such ways?

My two bullies gained very little in real terms. Neither of them worked, and they were both enmeshed in the writer's group to the point of spending most of their waking lives in activities related to it - phone calls and e-mails to other members, lunches and coffee with other members, etc. This investment of one's time and treasure is a steep price to pay to maintain a small captive audience, and when I realized this, their behavior almost immediately ceased to be an issue, emotionally at least.

Sandy's Nemesis, on the other hand, gained a great deal, outwardly at least. She was able to con [or bully] their mutual supervisors into awarding her the promotion that Sandy worked for and earned. Although she was not able to maneuver Sandy into a parasitic personal relationship, she intruded into Sandy's life as much as possible, and co-opted many of Sandy's 'unique characteristics'. The purchase of an identical car and identical clothes, and the appropriation of the same medical professionals that Sandy consulted, parallels the theft of ideas, catchphrases, and 'style' that I experienced - but on a much larger, much more pathologically disturbing scale. And, in fact, Sandy's entire body of work was essentially stolen by her harasser, when the woman infiltrated her computer and claimed credit for all of the work that Sandy had prepared.

But Sandy had the existential 'last laugh'. While her 'usurper' clumsily copied some of the outward aspects of her life and took over her career path, she does not have Sandy, and never will. She also does not have the professional or personal respect that Sandy has, in her new working life.

Sandy, in the meantime, has someone sane and balanced in her life, whom she dearly loves, and who loves her dearly in return. She considers herself a double cancer survivor - "one physical cancer, one occupational cancer, two radical surgeries, two great reconstructions" is the way she puts it. She has far more satisfying work now, which she would never have considered but for this 'catastrophe', and she has no illusions whatsoever about the extent to which people will go to steal from one another in supposedly civilized places.

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