Tuesday, July 11, 2017

CALUMNY | What Are Its Antonyms?

The Junior House, Ampleforth College, York,
England, c. 1954. I am Second-Hand Rose—
 second row, second from the left.
July 11, 2017—J. K. Rowling earlier this month took President Trump to task for his CNN tweet with the wrestling video.

She quoted George Washington: "To persevere in one's duty, and keep silent, is the best answer to calumny."

That has spurred new interest in the obsolescing word calumny.

It brought back to me one of the very fine talks that Fr. Peter Utley (Richard Utley in his pre-monastic life) gave to his Junior House flock at Ampleforth College, which I attended in 1953-1955.

Fr. Peter devoted an entire talk to the subject of detraction and calumny. The somewhat obsolete word calumny (the preferred word for a civil complaint about slander today would be "defamation") is the subject of many a Catholic homily, because it describes the eighth commandment, "Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness against Thy Neighbor." A sample of Biblical references to calumny may be found here.

Fr. Peter was an impressive monk, who played cricket for the RAF and exemplified the British Public School model of Muscular Christianity. What I found memorable about his talk on calumny was that it was so analytical about the word. Calumny is actually two offenses wrapped into one.

Fr. Peter did not just contrast calumny with speaking well of people, which is what you will find if you look up "calumny antonym" on the internet. He did not present calumny as a choice between speaking well of people vs. telling lies about them.

No, he presented two dualities:
  • Speaking well of people vs. speaking ill of them. 
  • Telling the truth vs. telling lies.
Calumny is two sins, he said. Detraction is saying negative things about someone for no reason. Calumny goes beyond that to add lying. Fr. Peter said that Christianity brought a higher standard than the eighth commandment. It was not enough to avoid lying about one's neighbor. We should also not engage in spreading negative truths about people.

One defense against libel (bearing false witness in writing) and slander (bearing false witness orally) is that the negative information is true. Fr. Peter would say that true negative statements are still wrong if they are made out of revenge, or envy or just maliciousness. Detractors seek lower someone else's reputation for no reason.

Fr. Peter made exceptions for people whose job it is to make comparisons, such as teachers grading their pupils. That includes all of us in the marketplace as we seek a service provider. The relative quality of the goods or services being provided is of importance and we can share our experience blamelessly because we are trying to help someone make a purchase. In the marketplace, comparing one's own product favorably to that of the competition is part of conducting business. But in one's personal life, we are expected to show restraint.

That's what I remember. It was a good lesson, for our understanding of our language and of our lives.

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