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DEFAMATION differs from contumely in that the one supposes the absence,
the other, the presence, of the person vilified; and again, in that the
former asperses the reputation of the victim while the latter attacks
the honor due or paid to said reputation. A good name is, after the
grace of God, mans most precious possession; wealth is mere trash
compared with it. You may find people who think otherwise, but the
universal sentiment of mankind stigmatizes such baseness and buries it
under the weight of its opprobrium. Nor is it impossible that honor be
paid where a good character no longer exists; but this is accidental.
In the nature of things, reputation is the basis of all honor; if you
destroy character, you destroy at the same time its fruit, which is
honor. Thus will be seen the double malice of defamation.

To defame therefore is to lessen or to annul the estimation in which a
person is held by his fellow-men. This crime may be perpetrated in two
different manners: by making known his secret faults, and this is
simple detraction; and by ascribing to him faults of which he is
innocent, and this is calumny or slander. Thus it appears that a man's
character may suffer from truth as well as from falsehood. Truth is an
adorable thing, but it has its time and place; the fact of its being
truth does not prevent it from being harmful. On the other hand, a lie,
which is evil in itself, becomes abominable when used to malign a

There is one mitigating and two aggravating forms of defamation. Gossip
is small talk, idle and sufficiently discolored to make its subject
appear in an unfavorable light. It takes a morbid pleasure in speaking
of the known and public faults of another. It picks at little things,
and furnishes a steady occupation for people who have more time to mind
other people's business than their own. It bespeaks small-ness in
intellectual make-up and general pusillanimity. That is about all the
harm there is in it, and that is enough.

Libel supposes a wide diffusion of defamatory matter, written or
spoken. Its malice is great because of its power for evil and harm.
Tale-bearing or backbiting is what the name implies. Its object is
principally to spread discord, to cause enmity, to break up
friendships; it may have an ulterior purpose, and these are the means
it employs. No limit can be set to its capacity for evil, its malice is
especially infernal.

It is not necessary that what we do or say of a defamatory nature
result, as a matter of fact, in bringing one's name into disfavor or
disrepute; it is sufficient that it be of such a nature and have such a
tendency. If by accident the venomous shaft spend itself before
attaining the intended mark, no credit is due therefore to him who shot
it; his guilt remains what it was when he sped it on its way. Nor is
there justification in the plea that no harm was meant, that the deed
was done in a moment of anger, jealousy, etc., that it was the result
of loquacity, indulged in for the simple pleasure of talking. These are
excuses that excuse not.

There are those who, speaking in disparagement of the neighbor, speak
to the point, directly and plainly; others, no less guilty, do it in a
covert manner, have recourse to subterfuge and insinuation. They
exaggerate faults and make them appear more odious, they put an evil
interpretation on the deed or intention; they keep back facts that
would improve the situation; they remain silent when silence is
condemnatory; they praise with a malignant praise. A mean, sarcastic
smile or a significant reticence often does the work better than many
words and phrases. And all this, as we have said, independently of the
truth or falsehood of the impression conveyed.

Listeners share the guilt of the defamers on the principle that the
receiver is as bad as the thief. This supposes of course that you
listen, not merely hear; that you enjoy this sort of a thing and are
willing and ready to receive the impression derogatory to the
neighbor's esteem and good name. Of course, if mere curiosity makes us
listen and our pleasure and amusement are less at the expense of the
neighbor's good name than excited by the style of the narrator or the
singularity of the facts alleged, the fault is less; but fault there
nevertheless is, since such an attitude serves to encourage the
traducer and helps him drive his points home. Many sin who could and
should prevent excesses of this kind, but refrain from doing so; their
sin is greater if, by reason of their position, they are under greater
obligations of correction.

Although reputation is a priceless boon to all men, there are cases
wherein it has an especial value on account of the peculiar
circumstances of a man's position. It not infrequently happens that the
whole success of a man's life depends on his good name. Men in public
life, in the professions, religious and others similarly placed,
suffer from defamation far more than those in the ordinary walks of
life; and naturally those who injure them are guilty of more grievous
wrong. And it goes without saying that a man can stand an immoral
aspersion better than a woman. In all cases the malice is measured by
the injury done or intended.



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