Blind Faith

Main Entry: blind faith
Part of Speech: n
Definition: belief without true understanding, perception, or discrimination

There is no greater blind faith than that of originality. To counter the ‘Myth of Originality’, many say “it’s not what you do, but how you do it” (or something similar). On its surface, that sounds plausible. However, several cognitive biases are at work here, including (among others): Cryptomnesia, Recency Illusion, Illusion of Choice, Illusion of Control, Illusory Superiority, Trait Ascription Bias, Confirmation Bias, Self-Serving Bias, and Subjective Validation. Basically, people want to believe they are special and unique, that their thoughts have some great meaning, so their brains do everything in their mental power to create that ideal for them. But, none of it is “real”.

“We see the world, not as it is, but as we are — or, as we are conditioned to see it. When we open our mouths to describe what we see, we in effect describe ourselves, our perceptions, our paradigms.”
― Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

(“We see the world, not as it is, but as we are” has been attributed to the Talmud and Anais Nin, neither of which have been confirmed. I am using this quote by Mr. Convey because the extension of the original quote gives it more depth.)

Will people argue that I am using some of those same biases listed above? Of course they will, none of us want to believe that we’re all just the same old lump of flesh and to do. It’s Reactance. I’m challenging people’s sense of self, the most insulting thing I can do; it would be idiotic to believe they wouldn’t fight back (the fight against change is the strongest drive human beings have). Creative types, though, seem to have a much better understanding of this than anyone else I have met. For them, the Myth of Originality has long been the accepted (but often unspoken) norm. Consider the following and do some research:

“Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal”
Combinatorial Creativity
45 Master Characters
20 Master Plots
Steal Like an Artist

Steve Jobs, of course, knew this when he famously proclaimed that “creativity is just connecting things” — and Kirby Ferguson reminds us that Jobs didn’t technically invent any of the things that made him into a cultural icon, he merely perfected them to a point of genius. Still, this fear of unoriginality — and, at its extreme, plagiarism — plagues the creative ego like no other malady. No one has countered this paradox more eloquently and succinctly than Salvador Dalí: “Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”
– Maria Popova, Mark Twain on Plagiarism and Originality: “All Ideas Are Second-Hand”; the article that helped to inspire this post.

Speaking of Mark Twain, he summed things up brilliantly in this letter to Hellen Keller about the time she was accused of plagiarism (full letter can be seen here):

Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that “plagiarism” farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul–let us go farther and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances in plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second hand, consciously or unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them any where except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing.

When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten thousand men–but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his. But not enough to signify. It is merely a Waterloo. It is Wellington’s battle, in some degree, and we call it his but there were others that contributed. It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone, or any other important thing–and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite–that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.

Then why don’t we unwittingly reproduce the phrasing of a story, as well as the story itself? It can hardly happen–to the extent of fifty words–except in the case of a child; its memory tablet is not lumbered with impressions, and the natural language can have graving room there and preserve the language a year or two, but a grown person’s memory tablet is a palimpsest, with hardly a bare space upon which to engrave a phrase. It must be a very rare thing that a whole page gets so sharply printed on a man’s mind, by a single reading, that it will stay long enough to turn up some time or other to be mistaken by him for his own.

No doubt we are constantly littering our literature with disconnected sentences borrowed from books at some unremembered time and how imagined to be our own, but that is about the most we can do. In 1866 I read Dr. Holmes’s poems, in the Sandwich Islands. A year and a half later I stole his dedication, without knowing it, and used it to dedicate my “Innocents Abroad” with. Ten years afterward I was talking with Dr. Holmes about it. He was not an ignorant ass–no, not he; he was not a collection of decayed human turnips, like your “Plagiarism Court,” and so when I said, “I know now where I stole it, but who did you steal it from,” he said, “I don’t remember; I only know I stole it from somebody, because I have never originated anything altogether myself, nor met anyone who had!”

To think of those solemn donkeys breaking a little child’s heart with their ignorant rubbish about plagiarism! I couldn’t sleep for blaspheming about it last night. Why, their whole histories, their whole lives, all their learning, all their thoughts, all their opinions were one solid rock of plagiarism, and they didn’t know it and never suspected it. A gang of dull and hoary pirates piously setting themselves the task of disciplining and purifying a kitten that they think they’ve caught filching a chop! Oh, dam–

But you finish it, dear, I am running short of vocabulary today.

So, how do I as a creative type come to terms with all of this? Do I think we should all just throw in the towel? Of course not. Yes, I am the “creator” of the “final product”, but just because my name is on the cover doesn’t mean everything inside is 100% originally mine. I believe in combinatorial creativity and wholeheartedly thank everyone who has inspired me thus far (consciously or unconsciously). Here’s to many future mash-ups! <3


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