Desire and Defamation

“Inquisition of Joan of Arc”, Fred Roe, 1893

Desire and Defamation

Defamation tends to obliterate the erotic appeal of the person being defamed.  That’s one reason it’s so infuriatingly irreparable.  It makes the victim seem undesirable

We are social animals.  We live by each other’s smiles and frowns.

That is why I am always fascinated by cases where individuals prove able to resist social pressure to confess to thought crimes they had not committed.  Such a power of resistance seems to me remarkable – akin to artistic genius!  It’s a kind of moral or spiritual genius for which – as for any exceptional deed – it’s impossible to give the formula.

One thinks of Joan of Arc, parrying the questions asked by her interrogators.  Asked if she knew she was in a state of grace (a dangerously-loaded question), she gave this right-up-to-the-mark answer: 

If I am not, may God put me there;

if I am, may He keep me there.

How did those lines come to her?  Was she reading a divine teleprompter?  Do ordinary people get access to a teleprompter like that too – with the difference that they don’t stop long enough to read it?

Demagogues — who can sway others to suspend their individual judgments in favor of wild charges translating into mob violence – are great enemies of a free people.   They are the enemies of conscience.

Lately, I’ve been making a deliberate effort to remember instances where I believe I was effectively defamed.  This in connection with the possibility that my neuropathy had its genesis in ”repressed rage” at the defamers.  

My mother, who knew the peregrinations of the heart better than most of the grownups I’ve met since, once said to me that I was a person who would attract strong feelings — positive and negative. 

Although “attractor of strong feelings” is the last thing I want to be, let me give you one example of the sort of reaction my mother was talking about.  In the early years of what would be a long academic career, I was fired for voting for the losing candidate in a departmental election.  

Okay.  That can happen in the life of a working girl.  But how about hearing indirectly from a student (who told the story to a friendly senior colleague) that two of the senior profs who had done the firing were overheard in the corridors of the Graduate Center talking about “Abigail” and cackling like the witch in the Disney movie after she’s given Snow White the apple that will put her to sleep for a hundred years!  I mean peals of laughter!

How ‘bout them apples?

I could go on.  Since, these days, I’m trying extra hard to, as they say, “get in touch with my feelings,” I’ve got a list of instances to go through for the new purpose of curing my neuropathy at the end of it.  Maybe.  

Defamation, the rabbis held, is akin to social murder.  So getting in touch with how that would feel deep down — for the victim – would be feeling “You did it first, so right back at you!”  When traumatic injuries show up somatically, you go back to the moment of the injury and live out your repressed rage in imagination.  Here!  Pow!  Bam!  I kill you right back!  That’s the recommended psychological exercise (or one of them).  You visualize the exquisitely horrible ways your bygone tormentor could have been made to pay for the torment he or she or they inflicted on you.  Finally, you get tired of the whole imaginary scene of vengeance and you can pronounce yourself cured.  If you really are cured, your physical symptom should vanish as well.  

But all that leaves unsolved one of the great riddles of social life: what to do about defamation in larger arenas?  If you’re the one spreading damaging lies, no theoretical problem: just quit that.  But if you’re the victim of wide-scale defamation?  What then?

My friend Phyllis Chesler is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies, as well as an author and unusually effective advocate for women’s rights. Her latest online column brings attention to a recent book by Italian journalist Fiamma Nirenstein, Jewish Lives Matter: Human Rights and Anti-Semitism.  Chesler calls the book a “cri de coeur, an updated version of Zola’s ‘J’Accuse.’”  

(In 1898, the writer Emile Zola published a letter accusing anti-semites in the military of framing artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus, fabricating evidence of treason for which that innocent man was convicted and sent to Devil’s Island.)

According to Fiamma Nirenstein, what’s happening now on a global scale is that well-intentioned people have been persuaded of “the lie that Israel is an apartheid country.”  “This is not merely a criticism; it is a death sentence [for the country].  And somehow, it is being used as a weapon by the very institutions created to serve the cause of ‘never again’ – the UN and the European Union.  For more than seven decades, these institutions have been perpetuating the dangerous lie that Israel has no right to exist. … How can it be that in the 15 years of its existence, the UN Human Rights Council has condemned a democracy like Israel 95 times and Iran 10 times?”

I’ve gone through the book at skimming speed (it can be downloaded from Phyllis’s column) — enough to see that every widely-believed lie is taken up and refuted by this careful and experienced journalist.  That these distortions had to be refuted at all is extremely frightening.  Here we’re not talking about social murder.  Rather, what’s being widely justified is a right-to-murder: first, the democratic Jewish state itself, also, the Jewish citizens whose only polity it defends, and — by not-very-far-flung-extension – Jews wherever they may be found.

The usual treatments for repressed rage, like throwing pillows at the imagined injurer, don’t seem to apply to global Jew-hatred.  Who am I going to ”get back at” in imagination?  All my politically fashionable friends?  All the beautiful people?  Or perhaps throw imaginary pillows at the thuggish or fanatical types who will do the actual killing?

It’s not a “conflict of civilizations.“  It’s a battle to save every kind of civilized life itself – every life in which 

the good,

the true, 

and the beautiful

 can still be found.

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” ( 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 . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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