"Blindman's Bluff" Francisco Goya, 1789

“Blindman’s Bluff” Francisco Goya, 1789


One of Abigail’s Adages – though I have yet to post it – is this:

Slander is always believed.

Even more so if it’s in print.

Jurgen Habermas wrote a book called (forgive me, it’s his title, not mine) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. I call it “the coffee book,” for short. Habermas tells how 18th century clubs and coffee houses became hubs for the collection and dissemination of a new thing, to be called — tah dah —

Public Opinion!

It was in the coffee houses that gazettes — originally commercial and administrative newsletters — expanded to include opinion columns that became the producers of fashionable views.

The flourishing of opinion journalism is typically seen as a happy development in the evolvement of the human spirit. To me it seems a mixed blessing.

For example: Marie Antoinette was no plaster saint, but the obscenely promiscuous debauchee — that Antoinette was strictly the creation of cartoonists in pornographic public pamphlets. It made her a woman not worth saving from the guillotine.

Take another case: Soren Kierkegaard. A deep and sensitive philosopher, he had the temerity to challenge The Corsair, a Danish satirical weekly, to satirize him. This it did, so thoroughly in words and sketches that, to this day (I was told by a philosopher who’d lived in Denmark), Danish mothers will not give the name Soren to any child of theirs. In the battle for Public Opinion, count another man down.

I.F. Stone, a journalist of the left to whose Weekly I subscribed, taught himself classical Greek and wrote a book, The Trial of Socrates, that cut Socrates down to a very small size. It got some mildly respectful reviews, so I bought it and read it in one sitting. The next day I said to my class,

“It’s true Socrates has been dead 2400 years. But so far as I’m concerned, Socrates is a friend of mine. He’s helped me a lot. Whether he’s living or dead is not relevant. This book is character assassination.” So I went through it point by point till my Attic friend stood fully rehabilitated.

What is a reputation? Why is it so gossamer-thin, so easily shredded? Sometimes it’s larger than the merits justify. Sometimes it’s smaller. Is it a matter of luck? Is there any predictable justice to it?

There was a time in my life when I quarreled with someone close enough to me for others to regard her as a trustworthy reporter. She was certainly not that, but her damaging fictions were credited by many people who knew nothing bad of me from any word or deed they had seen directly.

The only place on the planet where my character assassin had no credibility was the little town in Downeast Maine where my parents had summered, and I’d kept up the house and the friendships after they were gone. Why was my defamer not believed there? In a small town, people see you in the round, front and back. You are not just a façade who puts on city clothes and is met in restaurants.

It may be that our readiness to believe slander is a leftover from the village life of our ancestors. In a little place, where the hearers have a chance to verify stories for themselves, reports are more reliable when they circulate. In such places, it’s generally useful to tell the truth and believe others when they tell you something. Maybe the inherited habit of credulity then carries over to larger venues where it’s not possible to know at first hand whether an evil report is true or false.

There are seeming counter-examples, though. In a milieu where the free citizens were likely to know one another, Socrates succumbed to evil reports (was found guilty of corrupt teaching by 500 jurymen of Athens, though he was not guilty). In a Judea where — as in modern Israel — many people of influence knew each other, Jesus succumbed to evil reports (was found guilty of fomenting sedition though he was not guilty). But Athens had suffered defeat in war. Judea was under Roman occupation. Recriminations flew. Nerves were strained.

That said, there is also such a thing as free-floating malice, believed because of the moral smallness of the listener.

A story is told of Aristides the Just. He was asked by a blind man for help casting a vote to ostracise (banish) a certain fellow Athenian. To his surprise, the name he was asked to scratch on the ostracon (the pottery shard used as a ballot) was “Aristides.”

“What have you got against Aristides?” he asked the man he had helped.

“I am sick and tired of hearing him called The Just.”

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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3 Responses to “Gossip”

  1. Pingback: “Thankfulness” | "Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column"

  2. gailpedrick@comcast.net says:

    Loved it!, Especially the thoughts on small town…born and raised in Lambertville Your last example was well chosen. any thoughts on todays happening in the world? Gail

    • Abigail says:

      Thanks so much for chiming in, Gail. About current happenings, I guess there’s more to ideology than there is to gossip, but they share some features. I look at Goya’s painting. We see the adhesive pull of peer pressure, the dance of social relations — everyone stepping to the same rhythm … and circling around a guy who’s self-blinded!

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