Charles Freeman was not the first and certainly won’t be the last to fall victim to calumny. His description of the tactics used against him sound remarkably familiar this side of the Pond. They “… include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth.”
Michael Orsi, writing in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, has a perceptive and timely article on Calumny in the blogosphere.
He begins by warning that “Calumnious blogging is a serious offense against God’s law. Those who engage in it are jeopardizing their immortal souls and the souls of others.”
“Calumny is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary (1992) as a “false statement maliciously made to injure another’s reputation.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) places calumny as a serious sin under the Eighth Commandment, “Thou shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” The Catechism states, “He becomes guilty of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them” (2447). The Catechism notes that calumny offends “against the virtues of justice and charity” (2479).
Calumny and its close relative detraction (derogatory comments that reveal the hidden faults or sins of another without reason) have been part of life since the dawn of time. But opportunities for breaking the Eighth Commandment have proliferated with the advent of the Internet, especially since the rise of the phenomenon known as “blogging.”’
In his very helpful article Orsi identifies some tell-tale warning signs to use in discerning and avoiding the sin of calumny:
“There is a certain self-defeating aspect of calumnious blogging. The titillation of malicious gossip and the thrill of tearing down other human beings do have their limits. Insinuations and outrageous charges often provoke counterclaims that are just as wild. Mutual misquoting, distortion, hearsay and condemnation can spiral to heights of ridiculousness that strain credulity and eventually make readers lose interest. Even the element of anonymity can have counterproductive effects, highlighting the Kafkaesque unreality of the “kangaroo court” assembled in cyberspace. Readers can begin to suspect cowardice at work, or even to speculate about the psychological health of a blogger who will only comment from behind the mask of a fictitious name.
Still, the practice persists, and with the ubiquitous presence of the Internet, it touches the lives of believers in every parish today. Indeed, it presents us with a situation of serious moral conflict that pastors should address, because it violates the dignity of persons and undermines truth. And in the end, truth is the only basis on which a good society can be built. Thus, I offer the following recommendations about points that should be made regarding blogging:
- Pastors should speak on the Eighth Commandment and its corollary injunctions against calumny and detraction.
- People should be warned that what they read on blogs is not necessarily true.
- Any anonymous blog or unsigned response has the weight of an unsigned letter and so should be quickly dismissed.
- A blog that is particularly vicious toward persons can be indicative of psychological illness, or simply an evil person, and is therefore suspect.
- Any blog that is unedifying and demeaning to another person should not be read. It is the equivalent of pornography.
- Responding to these calumnious blogs, even for defense of the individual or for clarification, only encourages the offender and prolongs the life of the calumny.
- Those who suffer calumny on anonymous blogs are, for the most part, better off enduring it. Seeking to correct misrepresentations usually has the effect of keeping controversy alive and adding to its interest value.
- While reading such blogs is damaging to its target (since it causes unwarranted negative speculation about another’s character), it also hurts the reader since it causes scandal, sowing pessimism and despondency.
- Calumnious blogging is a serious offense against God’s law. Those who engage in it are jeopardizing their immortal souls and the souls of others.
- For anyone to make a judgment concerning a person’s character based on what is read on a negative blog is to be a formal cooperator in the evil perpetrated by the blogger.