I am sure that many readers remember, perhaps with some affection, the old, red-jacketed, Penny Catechism. I once knew most of it by heart – having been required to learn a few questions every day – and to be prepared to answer them in class. (If you want to look at a copy, it can be found on the Internet.) Such theological understanding that I may have has been built on that secure foundation.
Question 221, under the heading of the eighth commandment, reads:
“Calumny and detraction are forbidden by the eighth commandment, and tale bearing, and any words which injure our neighbour’s character.”
Calumny, I understood, refers to false information, detraction to true information.
Oh dear! I wonder how many times I have broken that commandment. I like to think that it was only inattention rather than malice. But the damage is just the same.
Many years ago, early in our marriage – and poor by comparison with the church mice – we set up a youth club in the parish. An immediate task was to raise funds – which we did by begging items from parishioners and selling them for the best price we could get. And then we heard that a lady in the parish was circulating the rumour that we were skimming some of the proceeds into our own pockets. You can imagine how damaging that would be within a gossipy parish community. We called in the pp, and informed the lady that we would take action if the allegation was not withdrawn. So it was all sorted out, and the lady still smiles at us as if butter wouldn’t melt – but we wonder to this day, after half a century, whether there is the occasional ancient parishioner who mutters, “Those Bedoyeres – there’s no smoke without a fire.” It continues to hurt.
Of the two, I think detraction is the worst. At least with calumny it may be possible to demonstrate the falsehood, but the victim is stuck with detraction. I am not of course thinking of responsible whistleblowing, but that little unpleasant truth, which we can spread about with the best will in the world. After all, we have to tell the truth – and people ought to know.
So do we take pleasure in noticing first the bad side of people? Perhaps a test might be a story in the newspaper. Are we inclined to take the paper’s verdict with a righteous tut-tut, or do we first consider whether we have the whole story? There are some, nameless, newspapers (which I do not read very often) which lead me to think that the editor’s knowledge of the eighth commandment is sparse.
But the commonest situation I suspect is “harmless” gossip when we discuss people we know. Do we instinctively talk about their good points first, and then deal charitably with their bad points – if these even need to come into the conversation? Some sociologists argue that gossip is an instrument developed by evolution through which we regulate society and preserve its standards. They even suggest that the high development of the human brain has come about through women gossiping, while their menfolk are out in the bush – merely grunting to each other as they hunt prey.
All I know is that I would prefer others to talk first about any good points I may have, and only reluctantly – if at all – to refer to my shortcomings. And of this I am sure: on the Day of Judgment I would prefer the Almighty to look at my good points first, and to forget, as far as possible, all the others. And if I want God to do that, my best strategy may be to follow it myself.
It may be a common saying but I have only ever seen it in print the once. This was on one side of a four sided biscuit tin that my newly wed sister had on display with this saying to the front so her husband would read it every day:
It read : “Be to her virtues very kind and to her faults a little blind.” This was nigh on sixty years ago that I first read it and it has stuck in my memory ( and in my own marriage,) ever since.
Not a bad yardstick to live married life by, and of course could just as easily read: ‘Be too HIS virtues very kind, and to HIS faults a little blind !
“detraction are forbidden by the eighth commandment”
I don’t think that detraction means ‘true things’, as far as the dictionary has it, it basically means insults. In any case, there is nothing in the eighth that explicitly implies that you should keep shut about something that might hurt people.
““Those Bedoyeres – there’s no smoke without a fire.” It continues to hurt.”
Honestly, truthfully, they’ve probably forgotten. The people who are most hurt by a thing are generally the ones who remember it.
@Claret – that certainly is the oil of any relationship, and I agree both sides need the warning. I’ve met a few too many girls who think the relationship is all about them instead of being a partnership.
Zara, the word ‘detraction’ means literally ‘to pull down’ (detrahere in Latin). While my reference was to the penny Catechism, the word is used in the sense I gave it in the modern Catechism. See question 2477. If your dictionary describes it merely as ‘insults’ I think you need a better dictionary.
While you are looking at this, you may like to study how the Catechism takes each Commandment and then guides us about the different ways we may offend against that Commandment.
If you are tempted to treat detraction lightly, read Shakespeare on the subject:
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing; ‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands; But he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him, And makes me poor indeed.
This subject has suddenly become topical in the matter of Cliff Richards – where the allegation of improper behaviour appears to have been given deliberately wide publicity by the police getting hand in glove with the BBC.
I am aware of the excuse that publicity may encourage other ‘victims’, if there are any such, to come forward. The shadow of Jimmy Savile looms, I think.
We must assume that Richards, who has not been charged, is innocent. yet the damage is done. If he is not charged, or, if charged, is found not guilty, suspicion will follow him. And you can be sure that the media will not miss opportunities to remind us of the accusation.
So what are the right and wrongs of this? I take the view that allegations should not be publicised because the whole tenor of British law leans to towards treating the unconvicted as innocent. We accept that this principle means that in some cases, the guilty may not be caught. But that is better than to risk ruining the reputation In this case ruining a whole life) of an innocent person..
In the UK’s justice system, known as the English system of law, of which Australia, Canada and other nation-states share with the UK, you are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. The burden of proof in criminal cases is one of ‘beyond reasonable risk’, and is a higher standard than in civil cases such as defamation or in tortuous liability, where a lower standard applies, which is described as ‘on the balance of probabilities’.
Sir Cliff Richard, like any other citizen is given the presumption of innocence in our legal system. If this matter was to proceed to a court of law, and this is still a very large ‘if’, he is innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt, in any criminal matter. Assuming that Cliff Richard is completely exonerated by the police, I would expect and demand that he will consult the finest defamation lawyer in Britain, in order to redress any clear examples of where his reputation has been sullied by any media outlet.
Following from this matter, there must be a re-examination of police and media protocols, so that innocent members of the public are not subjected to suspicion and consequent damage to their reputation. Trial by media is to be completely eschewed by any intelligent society.
Sorry, I meant ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ above.
I was informed recently that there are three types of gossip; malicious gossip which is designed to do harm; gossip which is just enjoyable but wrong; and gossip on a need to know basis.
The third type needs careful consideration. A few years ago an SVP treasurer stole SVP funds. On advice from our then parish priest, we decided to keep it to ourselves. As Christians we followed the catechism and did not indulge in detraction. At a later date we learned that the same person had become treasurer of the local Catholic club. We kept silent because we wanted to give him a second chance. Lately we heard that he took the Catholic club for thousands. Now we feel guilty because we didn’t inform the club of his past.
Paedophile priests got away with it for so long because people were being charitable towards them. The general opinion was that the shame of being found out would stop them. Now we know better.
From now on I intend to tell people on a need to know basis.
Geordie gives us a real example of how far reaching a refusal to speak out can be but I would suggest that giving evidence of a known fact is different to gossip, although there are probably other moral dilemmas to face arising from the same facts.
As with most things in the moral maze it is not always clear what the correct course of action is as there will always be consequences.
The Catechism is secure in that it doesn’t have to argue its case. It would be good if every moral issue was right or wrong. Real life can be a different matter.
The communication of information about ourselves and others is a complete minefield in the age of Google, Facebook and the internet. Not only is there the difficulty of knowing what is true, and what is false, there is also the issue of privacy. Who has the right to know? In some areas, client and patient confidentiality is sacrosanct, to an extent that frequently overrides common sense and the well being of individuals, and in other situations, the most intimate details of people’s private lives, true, exaggerated or completely invented, can be broadcast to the world in seconds. Pandora’s Box is a footnote in comparison. The tittle tattle of gossip has become global, and even more dangerous.
That makes the sense to me. Gossip has been seen as a way in which a society controls “shameful” behaviour. I have been thinking about a piece which explores how the dearth of agreed morality has led to an equivalently anarchic gossip
“That makes the sense to me. Gossip has been seen as a way in which a society controls “shameful” behaviour.”
I can think of other benefits also. Relating someone’s shortcomings, or unreasonable behaviour, can be a very good way of letting off steam, and diffusing difficult situations. I suppose, as so often, it depends on how one goes about it, perhaps with some attempt at understanding, and without real, intentional malice? Or is that just an excuse, a feeble attempt at rationalisation?
Perhaps you can test this by imagining the comments were being made about you, How would you see it then?
I have to admit that this is a situation I do not have to imagine!
In fairness, I suppose I should add that in the context of family and good friends, and with the provisos given, no malice, and some real understanding, it can be acceptable, and sometimes quite helpful. Other than that it probably would not be very welcome.
As senior Clinic Tutor at the university teaching clinic I tend to be loved and hated in equal measure. One camp would canonise me while still alive and the other camp would happily boil me while still alive. Fortunately their gossiping tends to cancel itself out but it does give me insight into how I’m doing, which way the wind is blowing and who I am in the eyes of others. I would say that being a party to ones own gossip profile is very helpful and is close as a person ever gets to seeing themselves through the eyes of those they interact with. The same is true for church gossip and rumours in the community which filter back as to how I am seen as an osteopath in my own town….That we are unlikely to enjoy much of the feedback we receive also goes without saying – this is England after all.
Interesting, this. Here is a scheme I used to considerable benefit. I had the job of assessing my ‘reports’ once a year. But I decided that they should also be assessing me. So I devised a questionnaire which probed the key skills I would have expected of myself. Each characteristic was to be scored from 1 to 5. The answers were to be anonymous, and returned to another executive whom everybody trusted. He prepared a summary. We than had a meeting of all ‘reports’, and I discussed the summary with them – asking supplementary questions etc.
On the whole I would get better ratings than I expected. But there would always be one or two areas (often a surprise to me) which needed real improvement. So I worked on those.
My inspiration came from me chatting to all and sundry in the ‘smoking room’. I was quickly made aware of the faults of various senior executives – faults of which they were unaware because they provided no safe opportunity for them to be expressed.
Doesn’t it depend on the intention? If the intention is deliberately and maliciously to destroy another’s reputation by revealing ‘the truth’ then it’s detraction, pure and simple, even if you tell yourself that it’s in the public good.