Browsing The Northern Cross

Liz Hoefferle: Political season offers lessons about detraction, gossip

During any election cycle, it is not uncommon for us to be deluged with political advertisements, often lacking useful content but instead full of accusations, caricatures and name-calling. It becomes pretty clear that the organizations promoting these advertisements are intentionally trying to harm the reputation of their candidates’ opponents. Such communication often paints an inaccurate, one-sided picture of the person, making it difficult to discern the truth about a candidate.

Showing a lack of respect for a person’s reputation in this manner and in other ways has become fairly accepted in our society. This makes it incumbent upon us to recognize that lies, gossip and rash judgment are all offenses against the dignity of another person.

Reputation and honor
Liz Hoefferle
Liz Hoefferle
Handing on the Faith

How we talk about others and what we believe about others has a great impact on a person’s reputation. Showing respect for a person’s reputation falls under the eighth commandment, which directs us to speak and live in truth. “Everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2479).

Saying something that is untrue, passing along information that does not need to be revealed and being quick to believe a moral fault of someone without sufficient basis are all violations against the commandment of truth and cultivate disrespect for one’s neighbor.

Some actions are obviously graver than others. Intentionally telling lies about a person with the intent to make him look bad is a blatant violation against a person’s dignity. This action harms the reputation of another and paves the way for false judgments to be made against him. The motive for doing this is often one’s own gain, whether it be personal, professional or political. The vices of greed, jealousy and pride are often at the root of such actions.

More subtle than an outright lie is the sin of detraction. In fact, detraction may even involve the communication of something true. However, it is the act of revealing a fault of another without an “objectively valid reason” (CCC 2477). Its effect is that it does harm to a neighbor by damaging the person’s reputation or honor.

Detraction is the sin at the heart of gossip: “Did you hear about so-and-so?” Our tendency to want to look good, justify our own behavior or gain some type of advantage over another is often our motive for unnecessarily revealing another’s fault.

The catechism notes that even mockery or maliciously caricaturing an aspect of someone’s behavior is an offense against truth when it is aimed at disparaging the person (cf. CCC 2481). While it may be licit to joke about our own faults or even, in a sensitive way, make light of a shortcoming of a loved one or close acquaintance, we should realize that harm can be done through such things as sarcasm and misdirected humor.

Not only speaking the truth, but also listening in truth, is important. Rash judgment is assuming something as true without sufficient reason. This could be called “the receiving end” of gossip. It is important what we do with information we receive. We should be careful not to be too quick in painting a picture of a person, recognizing that we may have inaccurate or incomplete information.

Speaking in truth

It has become rather commonplace in our society to accept reputation-harming behaviors. Tabloids make money through sensational headlines at the expense of a person’s privacy and reputation. Political advertisements often paint an inaccurate and one-sided picture of an opposing candidate by using mockery and sarcasm. Social media sites greatly accelerate the speed at which gossip and lies are spread.

There is justifiably a time and place for the actions and even faults of another to be revealed. It is legitimate — and even necessary — to make known a political candidate’s stance on issues, past governing decisions and even personal behavior. It is important to weigh a person’s strengths and weaknesses when evaluating an employee or interviewing a candidate for employment. But it is also important to do this in truth with respect for the person’s dignity.

There may be times when a person needs to share concerns or seek advice from another regarding a spouse, child or co-worker. Revealing the faults of another can be done legitimately for the purpose of growth, improvement or even personal safety. But it should also be done in truth and with sensitivity to the respect and confidentiality owed to the other. It is quite different to confide in a close, trusted friend than to broadcast another’s faults to all of one’s Facebook “friends.”

What are some ways that we can be a good example in showing honor to others? We can resolve not to promote gossip. When we find ourselves wanting to join in gossip, we should take a moment to examine our motives. Am I truly looking out for the good and respecting the reputation of the other? When tempted to gossip, we can call upon the Lord with a prayer from Scripture, “Set a guard, Lord, before my mouth, a gatekeeper at my lips” (Psalm 141:3).

Being a good witness to others involves not only avoiding gossip, but also having the courage to speak up when a person’s reputation is being unfairly harmed. St. Paul exhorts us to use our gift of speech for the good: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).

Liz Hoefferle is director of religious education for the Diocese of Duluth.