Calumny and Detraction

If you would like to read about St Teresa of Avila, whose feast this is, may I suggest you read this post, or any of the many I have tapped out in previous years? This morning I’d like to spend a few minutes thinking about something Teresa herself experienced and that I think is becoming more and more of a problem for us today, especially as the internet gives virtually all of us a platform from which to air our views, whether informed or not.

Most of us would say that we value free speech. To some, that means anything goes. I have the right to say what I like, how I like; and it doesn’t matter whether you find what I say or how I say it objectionable. My right to free speech trumps all. Fortunately, the civil law tends to impose certain limitations on our right to free speech. In this country, for example, we may not make racist statements. If we do, we can be charged with a hate crime. Social convention (‘being P.C.’) also imposes certain limitations. My asserting that abortion is wrong, or that assisted dying is, in fact, suicide/murder, would not be acceptable to many of my fellow countrymen; and there are contexts in which I might think twice before making such a statement. That would be an inner constraint on my freedom of speech rather than an external one such as law, but it would still be a constraint. There is, however, a much more important constraint that is often ignored: is what we say or write true? We may think it true; we may have reasonable grounds for believing it to be true; but can we prove its truth? This is especially important when we talk or write about other people and impute to them views or actions that they may not hold or have performed.

Everyone has the right to their good name. If we make accusations against anyone that we cannot personally substantiate, the law may say that we have been guilty of slander or libel; but because most of us do not get involved in slander or libel cases most of the time, we may have forgotten how easily we can slip into the sins of calumny (the making of false and defamatory statements about someone in order to damage their reputation; slander/libel)  or detraction (the sin of revealing another person’s faults to a third person without a valid reason). The recent UK debate about membership of the EU threw up many statements that were questionable. There were accusations and counter-accusations a-plenty, often unsubstantiated; but they did damage the reputation of some of those who were subjected to them. The presidential election in the U.S.A. is likewise attracting a great deal of supposition assserted as fact about both candidates. On the one hand, we want the truth, so that we can make an informed judgement; on the other, we must take care that we do not simply echo popular prejudices or accept at face value statements that ought to be more thoroughly examined. Repeating a false or questionable statement is not a morally neutral act — but we forget in the enthusiasm of the moment, don’t we?

One of the down sides of the internet is that we can all express ourselves on various platforms without necessarily thinking about the consequences of what we are doing. If we are blocked  by someone on Facebook or Twitter, it is easy to dismiss it as the reaction of some indignant or humourless person. It does not often make us question whether our conduct might not be all that it should. We can give offence by what we say; we can hurt others; we can distort the truth. Our tendency is to shrug and move on, possibly giving some sort of apology but more probably just conveniently forgetting that what we have consigned to cyberspace is beyond our control, destined to a long life in pixels. The damage done to truth is even more serious, for that lasts for ever. Reason to think perhaps?

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