25 December 2011

Celebrating co-optation in the 21st Century

Do human beings posses an innate sense of sharing, to the point where we might take something from someone under the assumption it should be shared with us? 

Several billion people around the world celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 — the day the church (aside from Julian calendar followers) decided to mark the day that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem. It's also near the time of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and celebrated by pre-Christians for centuries.

Nobody wants to argue that celebration is bad. New religions and ideas often co-opt traditionally special days to bring attention to the new idea. A suspicious action today, but during early Christendom, it was likely seen as either normal or acceptable. Those who saw their special days being transformed to celebrate a foreign belief may have been confused or surprised, but it's doubtful they were angry.

Other acts to convert certainly brought anger and even war, but celebration co-optation was probably the least of their worries. I could be wrong, as I am not a historian. I urge anyone who knows otherwise to illuminate me.

However, there is good reason to believe this was the overarching sentiment of the times. Before the Enlightenment period swept the western world in the late 18th Century, originality was seen as an affront to the established wisdom of the day. Mimicry and imitation were the preferred methods of expression, so it was likely a natural extension of this concept for new religions and beliefs to borrow from the common pot of holidays.

Then individualism took root, and originality was seen as a noble end. This sparked the invention of intellectual property, and the notion of plagiarism soon emerged. What was once considered an homage or genuine creative effort to copy, was now seen as an affront to the idea of originality — a theft.

Does the resurgence of plagiarism, with copy-pasting the easiest method of co-optation ever invented, symbolize that we are in fact reverting to the pre-Enlightenment period, when originality was shunned? Or is there something more complex at play? Or, perhaps, more sinister? As plagiarizing author Helene Hegemann once told the New York Times, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”

What does this mean for journalism, the one profession that checks all others?

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