Idea Appropriation

One of the big problems I have with the Internet is that I read a huge volume of material every day, and along the way, I absorb all kinds of things. Then, later, I write, and those things I absorbed ooze out. Sometimes I’m aware of it and I track down a citation to make it clear that an idea or turn of phrase did not, alas, originate with me, much though I wish it did. More often, though, I’m unaware, and I unwittingly lift things from pieces that I have read, and I feel intensely guilty about this both when I realize it and when I don’t, because I constantly fret and think “this probably isn’t original, I wonder if I got it from somewhere else, but where?

There’s really no way to avoid it, short of not reading anything on the Internet ever, but I would get rather boring if I did that, because part of what makes writing fun and interesting for me is engaging with things other people have written and discussed. Thus, I walk a strange line; I want to read to explore new ideas, but I don’t want to inadvertently steal those ideas. I want to have a conversation which involves crediting the people who contributed to the conversation with thoughts and ideas, and to build upon ideas put forth  by others while crediting them clearly for inspiring me.

And, of course, sometimes multiple people come to the same idea at once, or write about the same thing at the same time, and as a result, it looks like we are all stealing from each other when we aren’t. I can’t tell you how many times I publish something, and two weeks later, I find a post which someone wrote on the same day about the same thing, obviously without any awareness of my post. It’s a bit creepy, honestly, but also kind of neat, how these ideas rise to the surface of the collective consciousness like that.

In turn, I get really frustrated when I see people appropriating my ideas, because I can’t tell if it’s innocent or intentional. Did someone mean to use that distinctive phrase or idea without credit? Did I appropriate it from someone else who is now seething both at me and at the person I am seething at? Did someone not remember where ou read something, or is someone just totally not aware that ou is parroting something someone else wrote because it was absorbed and spit back up later?

One thing which I will note about idea appropriation is that it seems to follow recognizable and established patterns, and that these patterns usually take the form of appropriation of ideas from people living in marginalized bodies. The words of nonwhite women are used by white women without credit, the words of people with disabilities are used by able folks, trans* ideas are taken up by cis people like cis people invented them, LGBQT experience is appropriated without a hat tip, and of course intersectionality raises things to a whole new level; look at the white LGBQT civil rights movement which ignores the work of people of colour who fought, hard, in the early days of gay civil rights, for example.

This would seem to suggest that something can be done about idea appropriation. If care can be taken to give due credit to white, able, cis people, it should mean that the same care can and should be taken to credit people living in marginalized bodies. Especially when one is writing about these people from the perspective of someone on the outside; if you are going to write, for example, about disability issues, you should make sure that you are citing and crediting actual people with disabilities in your piece.

There is a legitimate debate to be had about whether or not outsiders should be writing about marginalized experiences at all, and they definitely should not be telling us how to live our experiences or how to process them; cis people telling me how to do trans* activism, for example, do not impress me, just as I don’t tell people of colour/nonwhite folks how to live their lives. But if you are going to write about us, you should make damn sure that you don’t silence us in the process, especially when you are claiming to be an ally.

Allies who use the words of others without attribution or even a glancing reference to the fact that they are building on the ideas of others are not really very good allies. The occasional slipup is understandable and perhaps unavoidable; when you are saturated in information, inevitably, you are going to forget where some of that information came from. But a pattern, a repetitious trend, is a sign of a problem.

This is why I have a separate bookmarks folder of neat things I have read, so that when I write things, I can check that folder to see if I’m riffing on something someone else has written. I don’t bookmark every neat thing, and I don’t always remember to give credit/can’t always find the person to credit, but I try to be aware of this issue. It’s my responsibility not just as a writer, but also as a human being, and as a social justice activist; I want to celebrate the sources of my ideas and I want to give them more exposure (when they want it), and I’m not even going to try and pretend that I’m 100% original and insightful, because I’m not. No one is. Engagement, by its very nature, exposes us to new and interesting ideas which we use and build upon; I like seeing where other people take my ideas (sometimes), but I can’t know that someone’s exploring something of mine unless I am credited.

Some of my best online friendships have actually arisen from cases where I’ve explored something someone else has written and backlinked and shot them an email saying “hey, I saw this post on your site and I was filled with ideas and here’s mine, what do you think?” (And, for the record, I love getting those emails even if I can’t always respond to them.)

We all improve by crediting each other.