On Slander

On Slander

In his law God has prescribed a state of harmony which ought to prevail in human society; slander breaks this harmony and thereby upsets human society itself, supplanting mutual respect and love with suspicion, hatred, and strife. Where it has occurred, amends are to be made, fault acknowledged and repented, and the proper harmony restored as quickly as possible, with the aid of external assistance or punishment by church or civil authorities if necessary (Matt. 18:16-17).

In its widest sense, slander refers to any speech that harms the reputation of another person. A distinction must be made between how the word is used in law and how it appears in considerations of ethics. In law defamation is the broad category of communications that do reputational harm, with slander and libel being its respective forms that are classified according to the means of defamation. Slander means statements that harm another’s reputation through the transitory medium of audible speech. Libel occurs through a lasting medium such as literature, visual art, or a recorded broadcast.[1]

In ethics slander often has the same meaning as defamation does in law: i.e., it is the generic term for the broad category of reputation-injuring communications. It is also used in narrower senses as well, the strictest of which is to refer to false claims that are willfully intended to harm another’s good name. Several distinctions are in order. Law takes cognizance of the medium in which defamation occurs because courts are obligated to determine not only if defamation has taken place, but also what damages are needed to remedy the offense. It recognizes that certain forms of defamation are likely to produce greater harm because of their longer duration and wider distribution, and thus makes the distinction between libel and slander, as well as between those offenses that are severe enough to merit civil damages and those that are not. It does this because its aim is to provide temporal order and justice in the public affairs of this life, not to morally renovate citizens as private individuals.

God’s law, however, is intended to provide its subjects with a manner of living that is pleasing to him and in accord with Man’s proper moral nature and relations. Aiming to set men in the most intimate relationship with God and to make them like him for all eternity, it has much higher demands and aims than merely human law. Where human law may punish slander lightly, if at all, even where it deems it has occurred, God’s law regards any speech that wrongly disparages another as a grievous offense. “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matt. 5:22).

Scripture therefore does not distinguish between transient and lasting forms of defamation, and for that reason we may discuss all of it as slander, distinguishing rather between its wider and narrower meanings than between its technical forms. Where human courts are prone to error and severely limited in what they can know and do, God’s perfect knowledge and justice mean that he will punish all sins of slander without partiality and will render them what they are due (Ecc. 12:14; Matt. 12:36; Rom. 2:16). His law does not refuse to admit any claim for lack of evidence, nor make a distinction between claims that are actionable and those that are not.

A word must also be stated about intentions and practical effects. In law speech may be considered defamatory if its actual effect is to defame someone else’s character, even where that was not the publisher’s intention. A distinction is made between what is defamatory per quod and what is defamatory per se. In the former case a statement is defamatory only when considered in light of facts that are external to the statement itself. An example is ‘A just birthed a son’ where it is public knowledge that A is unmarried. If something is defamatory per se it is explicitly, unambiguously harmful, as in the statement ‘A is a forger,’ since the felonious and dishonest activity of forging is always reprehensible.[2]

(It might seem that in the realm of moral behavior, God, knowing the thoughts of our hearts (1 Sam. 16:7; Jer. 17:10), would not be censorious of defamatory speech that was not intended to harm its victim. Yet Christ says, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matt. 12:36), and so in such matters we must take great care that we do not inadvertently slander someone.)

Continuing along ethical lines, slander is committed in the third person: a person is insulted or berated to his face, but he is slandered to other people. It may be direct or indirect, aimed either at its victim (‘Nadine is a liar’) or at her through a condemnation of her behavior (‘Nadine lied at yesterday’s gathering’). It may be precise (‘statement X was false’) or general (‘Nadine lies all the time’), and either explicit or implied.

Key to understanding the nature of slander is a consideration of its relation to the truth and to the circumstances in which it occurs. In its purest form slander involves making false claims about someone that the slanderer knows are false and that are specially calculated to destroy that person’s reputation. It is the malicious, intentional propagation of known falsehoods, or what is otherwise known as calumny. When slander is done surreptitiously it is known as backbiting (comp. Ps. 101:5; Prov. 25:23); when it involves revealing someone’s secrets or is part of a persistent campaign of defamation it is known as talebearing (Heb. rakil; comp. Lev. 19:16; Prov. 11:13; 20:19 in KJV). Yet slander also occurs where there is no good proof of a disparaging claim’s truth or falsity, when a slanderer ought to have known a claim was false and refused to attempt verification, or where true statements are presented in a false light, especially by being divorced from other, clarifying truths. In sum, slander occurs when someone either carelessly or intentionally makes misleading claims about another that expose that person to a lowered reputation.

There are two complications in cases of apparent or alleged slander. One is that humans, being sinners, do commonly engage in misbehavior that merits denunciation. There are false teachers, swindlers, thieves, etc., about, and others have not merely the right but also often the duty to condemn them and their behavior openly in the hope of bringing them to repentance and of warning others against them. It is wrong to bear false witness – but the corollary is that we are obliged to bear true witness (Zech. 8:16; Eph. 4:25); and if someone truly has a bad character that can only be done by acknowledging that bad character where the circumstances require it. The evil of slander is not that it portrays someone in a bad light as such, but that it does so unjustly. There are a great many people who deserve to be exposed (Jer. 29:8-9, 15; 1 Thess. 5:21; 1 Jn. 4:1; 2 Jn. 7-11; Rev. 2:2) and their reputations lowered so that their would-be victims might be spared their depredations.

The second complication in cases of possible slander is that of ambiguity. The same term sometimes means vastly different things to different people and in different circumstances. Consider the term redneck as applied to rural Southerners. There are circumstances in which this would be a real slander worthy of the name. If lawyer A from Donalds, South Carolina (population: approximately 320) applies at a prestigious New York firm and his current employer describes him to the recruiter as a ‘redneck’ – well, that will be the end of that, and poor A will be consigned to continuing his practice in South Carolina. But if one were to go to the local farmhands and day laborers and describe that same man as a redneck they would demur, probably on the grounds that his education and the nature of his employment make such a thing simply unthinkable. Indeed, some of them might be offended at the suggestion that he is worthy of such a term of high praise. In short, the same term will have a different meaning depending on the speaker, audience, and circumstances, and will range from making one an untouchable to being an enviable compliment.

These complications mean that it can be difficult to distinguish slander from just censure. Consider an example. Suppose that A says that B is a liar. There are a few possibilities in such a case:

  1. It may be that A knows B is not a liar and is maliciously trying to destroy his reputation because of rivalry.
  2. It may be that A has no idea whether or not B is a liar and that in his determination to do him harm he is latching on to an effective disparagement without regard for its veracity.
  3. It may be that B was a liar, but that he has repented and made amends, and that A has not mentioned these mitigating factors because he wants to portray him as badly as possible.
  4. It may be that B is a liar, but that this has no relevance to the matter at hand, and that A mentions it simply because he hates B and wants to avail himself of any opportunity to harm him.
  5. It may be that A truly believes B is a liar, but that he has been deceived.
  6. It may be that B is a liar and that A is bearing true testimony to his character that is beneficial to his audience and relevant to the matter at hand.

Scenarios 1 through 4 would be examples of culpable slander, with 5 representing a case of inadvertent slander and 6 being a case of justified denunciation.

In Scripture slander is regarded as a serious offense. The ninth commandment forbids bearing false witness against a neighbor (Ex. 20:16), and Lev. 19:16 forbids slander and connects it with behavior that threatens the neighbor’s very life. Ps. 101:5 says that whoever secretly slanders his neighbor will be destroyed, and slandering the saints is one of the essential activities of the evil one, who is called the devil on that account.[3] Christ states that wrongly disparaging anyone is liable to civil punishment and eternal condemnation (Matt. 5:22). Slander was one of the depravities to which pagans were given up by God (Rom. 1:30), and in some cases slander is even regarded as blasphemy and as a mark of the evils of the last days of difficulty (2 Tim. 3:2) and of false teachers (2 Pet. 2:10-11) – which is unsurprising when we consider that James says that those who speak evil of others thereby speak evil of God’s law and stand in judgment of it (Jas. 4:11-12). One of the prophetic denunciations of Israel was that she was a society in which people would “by a word make a man out to be an offender” (Isa. 29:21) and thereby unjustly destroy the reputations of the righteous. The Pharisees were notable for slandering Jesus (Matt. 9:34; 12:24), as did other Jews (Lk. 7:34; Jn. 8:48-52); it was by the false accusation of blasphemy that the Jewish leaders found a pretext for having Jesus crucified (Matt. 26:59-66).

In his law God has prescribed a state of harmony which ought to prevail in human society; slander breaks this harmony and thereby upsets human society itself, supplanting mutual respect and love with suspicion, hatred, and strife. Where it has occurred, amends are to be made, fault acknowledged and repented, and the proper harmony restored as quickly as possible, with the aid of external assistance or punishment by church or civil authorities if necessary (Matt. 18:16-17). Recognizing the damage it can cause, Scripture enjoins us to “put away . . . all slander” (1 Pet. 2:1; comp. Eph. 4:31; Col. 3:8), thus indicating both a better way of conduct and the sad fact that this evil remains a temptation for the redeemed (2 Cor. 12:20). Let us pray that we are all given grace to keep ourselves above such wrongdoing, for in the heightened mood of the present time it is easy to lapse into it, and only God’s grace will suffice to keep us from stumbling so.

Tom Hervey is a member, Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church, Simpsonville, SC. The statements made in this article are the personal opinions of the author alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of his church or its leadership or other members.

[1] Comp. the South Carolina Court of Appeal’s opinion in Kim Parrish, Appellant, v. Earl Allison, Respondent

[2] Most of the information in this paragraph is reproduced from the South Carolina Supreme Court’s judgment in Holtzscheiter v. Thomson Newspapers, Inc.

[3] The Greek διάβολος, from which our devil is derived, means “a calumniator, false accuser, slanderer” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon).

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