…for slander is a most grievous thing: in it the wrongdoers are two, and the person who suffers wrong is one. The slanderer does a wrong in that he speaks against one who is not present, the other in that he is persuaded of the thing before he gets certain knowledge of it, and he who is not present when the words are spoken suffers wrong in the matter thus – both because he has been slandered by the one and because he has been believed to be bad by the other.
One of the earliest childhood rhymes we learn is:
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
But as we know this only part of the truth. Sometimes sticks and stones may hurt much less than the words that we use to hurt others.
Kant observed that lying, telling untruths was wrong not just because we hurt another person, but also because it is an attack on the possibility of truth for all of us. Each lie blinds us, both the lier himself, the person he lies to and everyone then drawn into an understanding that has been viciously twisted.
Slander is even worse because it mixes lying with malice and, as we know, there is no guarantee that a lie will be discovered.
The lies of the powerful write our history and drive the greatest crimes. Joseph Goebbel’s assertion that you simply need to repeat the lie enough for it to be believed is all too credible.
How do we react to the power of the lie and the evil of slander?
It is difficult to judge. St James wisely observes:
But the human tongue can be tamed by no man. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
We know he’s right and the temptation to gossip, blame and deceive ourselves as much as others can be overwhelming. We must begin by learning self-discipline in this regard.
But is there not also a danger that waiting simply for justice to arise, staying quiet, is also rooted less in a sense of justice and more in a lack of courage?
I was in Adelaide for the last two weeks and outside my bedroom window was a great piece of graffiti:
Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will always save me
Words too must be used in the cause of justice, truth and love. Finding the right words is difficult, finding the right time to speak even more so.
As I look back at my own life so far I think I have learned one thing: speak truth to power. It is often those who are most powerful who need to hear the truth, and often those around them will do everything to disguise the truth from them. Five truthful words to a politician may be more effective than five thousand words to a civil servant. And the five thousand words to civil servants may suck the life out of you.
When you find (as I have done) that you are repeatedly banging your head against a wall – just stop – then find another way.
Christ instructed us:
Be as innocent as doves, but as wise as serpents
Sometimes the silence of listening, waiting and understanding must be matched by an ability to say the right thing, at the right time to the right person.