I do feel some modicum of sympathy for the miscreants who get embroiled in these huge online scandals

Photo of Justine Sacco, source.

Recently, I read this story about a USC cornerback, Josh Shaw, who lied about how he injured his ankles. He claimed that he injured them while saving his nephew from drowning. And that story was so deliciously heroic that it became national news. But the real story was something sordid involving the police behind called to his girlfriend’s apartment.

I felt considerable sympathy for Shaw, because I’ve been known to fudge the truth on occasion. I think most people have. In most fields, at most times, it’s almost accepted that you’ll tell lies about these things–make up illnesses and dying grandmas, etc.–in order to cover up sordid truths. I know that I’ve told some pretty big ones, especially when I was Shaw’s age. I mean, he’s just a college student. It makes complete sense that he wouldn’t want to let his coaches know about this police encounter.

This guy’s problem was that he didn’t realize that he’d stumbled into a new arena. Didn’t realize that he’d become a national figure and that he could no longer tell fibs like that.

I think about this sometimes with relation to myself. I’m not famous, but it’s not inconceivable that I could do something which became national news. For instance, my novel, Enter Title Here, centers around plagiarism. If that novel turned out, in turn, to be plagiarized, then the irony would be so delicious that I have no doubt it’d hit national news. In fact, when we were submitting the novel to editors, I had a moment of paralyzing doubt. I thought, “Oh my god, because of that potential for irony, some joker is probably going to analyze this book for plagiarism. What if they find something? I’ll be a laughing stock. My career will be ruined!”

I’m 99.9% sure that I didn’t plagiarize anything on ETH, but what about other things I’ve written? What if someone goes back through all my published articles and all my college essays and looks for plagiarism? What then? Am I 100% confident that they won’t find something?

I don’t know. I mean, the truth is, I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words that are now on the internet. And with most of those words, I was confident that no one was really gonna read them. So is it possible that when I was nineteen, I cut corners on something? That I didn’t cite something properly? It’s certainly possible, because I used to exist in a context–called being a college student–where people did sometimes engage in academic dishonesty. And I also wrote a lot of those articles when I was drunk. I don’t think there’s any plagiarism with my byline on it, but I can’t be sure.

And I know that if something did come out and did blow up, then the internet would boil over with people calling me an idiot and a fool. And the people who did the name-calling would probably be the same people–many of them are my friends–who seem to jump onto every internet controversy. They’d be the same ones who went after Justine Sacco–who was not in any way a public figure–for a racist tweet.

This is not an argument re: the essential underlying morality. The tweet was tone-deaf and insensitive. Josh Shaw’s lie was bad. Plagiarism is wrong. But whenever these controversies boil up, I often feel like, if I made one or two bad choices, I could easily be at the center of one of them myself. Which is why it’s hard for me to join in the general glee about them (although I do try).