Spreading rumors is fun, till you have to eat one sideways.
“Sometimes it’s a bad idea to kick ‘em when they’re down.”
Sam, the One-legged Lion Tamer
“Honi Soit Qui Mal Pense.”
(‘Evil to him who evil thinks.’)
The Motto of The Order of the Garter
After A Period Of Considered Silence....
The Stoic philosophers, in particular, were not much on the idea of reputation. Not that a good reputation is not a fine and useful thing for maneuvering through society, but their point was one’s reputation is simply beyond one’s control.
Reputation is bestowed by others and by fortune and has as much or more to do with the shifting and gusty winds of gossip than it ever has to do with personal accomplishments or failures. So the philosopher Epictetus, in his Discourses and in the Enchirideon, constantly reminds us not to let one’s reputation, good or bad, trouble us in the least – it is what it is and will be what it will be and there is very little we can do about that. It is better to work to be a good person than to labor in vain trying to appear to be a good person.
Ultimately, whether one is trying to be good or not is a matter known only to oneself and to God. The opinions of others matter little as they cannot judge more than the surface of things, effects and the thoughts of others, not one’s own motives or interior virtues.
Gossip as a Moral Crime
Perhaps that is all there is to say of any value on that subject. But on that other topic – gossip or rumor, the murderer of reputations – there is much to say and ponder.
What is gossip? An assassin’s weapon forged from spreading false rumors, passing off half-truths for whole, particles of fact for universes of meaning, spreading words taken out of context, pretending to know more than one does, or flatly spewing lies.
There is more than one way to tell a lie: One can simply say things that one does not believe, and this is obviously lying; but one may also say things one believes or wishes true without full proof and assert them as if one has the proof. Add to this the desire to injure another, to say things one knows will tend to bend the hearts of others against someone and cause them to prejudge him, and one has the stuff of which rumor is made.
Rumor is a weapon of pain and strife and oftentimes hardship for the victim: Because, even if the Stoics are right and my reputation is more of a coat than the flesh it covers, rending it will still cause me difficulties should the weather turn cold and stormy. Just because my reputation is not me, it is mine, and to dishonor it is not worthy of a decent human.
To be sure, rumor mongering is a useful enough tool, hence we humans employ it with great regularity. It is also the mark of weakness, of one afraid to come out into the light and confront one’s opponent in the open, to say openly what one believes and thinks to the person towards whom one has anger and malice.
To think otherwise, to think gossiping is a small thing, easily recovered from, is to be of the same opinion as someone who thinks that simply because my car will one day wear out and is not me, either, anyone who walks past may scrape it, break the windows, steal the tires, and cut the wiring. In doing these things, the trespasser has done me no immediate harm and has not diminished my intrinsic moral worth: I am not less than who I am because my property is assaulted – to boot, my throwing a fit over it will not render me one whit more admirable.
But what of the perpetrator?
What does a person become by maliciously destroying something properly another’s? If he removes another’s belongings without permission, he becomes a thief, and if he ruins that property, he becomes a vandal. In either case, he is something much less than civilized: He is barbaric, even if educated in the highest university or in possession of rank and outward honors. In our society, being barbaric may not be seen as a great moral failing anymore, but that hardly makes it any less a failure to live up to the demands of being a good human.
One who has made himself barbaric is, in fact, less of a man than he should be, “not much of a man,” worthy of no respect whatsoever until he amends his ways and makes good on what he has ruined. He is fit for nothing except avoidance; he cannot be trusted. He is a walking pestilence and a curse on any who associate with him.
A people cannot build a cohesive and livable society – friendships, a family, a community, a city, church, nation, government, economic structure, or a world – that allows such disrespect for others.
What of an individual? Can he build a decent life, one worth living, with the canker of such disrespect and unsociability mixed into the mortar of his character? His life will be a sham; it may collapse under pressure; when he looks in the mirror, should he truly look into his own eyes, he will always know that something about himself is an existential disappointment. Such a person has failed to live up to himself – he is, to the degree of his failings, his own punishment, his own Hell, his own prison. And the finest, most effective prison cell in Hell is the one we refuse to admit we locked behind ourselves.
And a good lock on the door of that cell is rumor mongering. To gossip is to murder… to murder another’s reputation, a thing useful to have when good, but a reeking dead albatross around the neck when ruined.
I think Envy and Wrath are here somewhere....
Gossip as a Form of Murder
Many of us believe we have done well by some moral code – the Ten Commandments, for example – when we avoid committing, say, adultery… but then turn and spread a rumor someone else is an adulterer. Have we seen this with our own eyes? Are we guessing or repeating someone else’s guesses? And even if we know beyond a shadow of a doubt something has happened, what business is it of ours to ruin that person’s reputation, to cast the first stone? If we care enough, maybe we talk with the person himself and discover the whole story; but what use is it to expose him to the world’s ridicule? What use – other than to make ourselves appear superior and to hide our own discretions and lapses behind the veil of another’s?
“Thou shalt not murder,” is also one of the Ten. And taking someone’s reputation is most assuredly murder… and murder is arguably worse, morally, than adultery.
“But I didn’t stab them,” comes the protest. “I did not shoot them!”
No, but if you had, your ethical trespass would have been obvious. Instead, you have poisoned another’s very life from a safe vantage point – you are a coward. You have made another’s reputation dead in the eyes of many who will now ill-judge every action that person makes. You may have, by design or accident, arranged it so that your victim finds doors to employment or aid shut which he needed opened. Worse, you may have cut him off – forever – from friendships and the good will of some others.
In the age of the Internet, everyone thinks they know more about other’s business than they, in reality, do. If your words travel by phone and electronic lines, or involve pulling things down offline out of context, a person’s reputation can be undone very easily and reduced to the status of a corpse in short order.
In moral terms, if you have participated in such, you are not merely a vandal, and a thief, and a murderer, and a coward – you have made yourself unjust and dishonorable. You have made your soul vicious… whether or not anyone can see it, including yourself. Excrement remains excrement, even if a whole community decides to treat it like gold coins.
The Part Where I Make My Own Complaint
I write all sorts of things.
I make art, all kinds.
I have taught philosophy for a living, and I have worked in the field of public mental health.
I do not fit well into any categories and my life has been led on the crooked paths more than the straight – I have lived according to my own best lights by asking my own questions and seeking answers wherever I thought it best to look for them. Often, in my 43 year sojourn as one of the species homo viator, I walked up many dead-end roads. I have pursued goals unworthy of my time… but, often, I would not have known this except for pursuing the unworthy goal. I have gained a small – small, yet valuable – fragment of practical wisdom, human wisdom, from my weird travels.
One of the things I did in those 43 years was to work for four-and-a-half years as a freelance political columnist during the height of the Bush administration’s unmentionable abuses of power; and I am proud to say I did not flinch or falter in the storm of opposition I received from an angry, radical right-wing community during those days for speaking my mind and conscience. That was not one of my “wrong turns” on the road. It was a lonely time and it was a painful time, but it is a time I can look back on and say to myself, “You did good work. You stood on your own two feet and stood tall.” I can be confident that I did the right thing and was the person I should have been – something I cannot always do.
But that period of my life has had lingering effects and, I imagine, these will never end as long as people go online and look up what I said. Especially when people with their own personal axes to grind look for material to use as the chopping block for my reputation… all the better when they disagree with me vehemently or their own worth is tied up in defending what I found indefensible.
If You Write, You've Got to be Prepared to Fight.
Fine "Pornograpers" All
If one searches through one of the archives of my works at www.degeneratepress.com/almanack , one will locate the following paragraph in a bio page written, sloppily, about 8 years ago:
“He has exhibited his oil paintings and drawings publicly on a sporadic basis; he worked as a tattooist from 2000-2001; and his serious and pornographic writings have appeared in various places on the net, including Zoetrope All-Story and Library of the Erotic. His many essays on philosophical, political, and pop cultural matters have appeared in several newspapers and on the net, including Degenerate Press' Blasphemy Page. All this and he actually works for a living, to boot.”
Pay attention to those words “pornographic writings.”
Evidently, out of all my artistic, literary, and philosophical accomplishments, at this point in time, only those two words have come to matter within a circle of people in the city to which I have recently moved… because someone here, angry with me for a variety of reasons, some of which have to do with my political writings and some of which having to do with purely personal motives, decided to scour the Internet looking for things with which to ruin my name, such as it is.
Those two words have been inflammatory enough to begin to cause me and some in my company real trouble and discomfort. Add that to the fact that, if one Googles my name, buried deep within the results are about 4 or 5 Gonzo porn sites. So you will understand the irony that is building: Gonzo porn is just a stream of sex scenes, no plot. It requires no writer (that I know of, not being in the porn industry).
Taking these two isolated facts: I once upon a time dabbled in “pornographic writings” and if you Google my name you find some porn sites, someone here added 2 and 2 in an amazing story of some sort and got 22. I am now Richard Van Ingram, writer and director of porn films. I can hardly write those words without laughing. Loudly. I look at the balance in my bank account and giggle. I look out the apartment window at my used Toyota and smile. I think of the Fisher Price-level video camera I bought four years ago I cannot use and roll my eyes. I think of the fact I don’t have enough money to hire artist’s models to draw and paint at the moment, much less to pay for performing sex tricks on camera and shake my head.
I think of all the porn on the net that does not have my name or any of my nomes de plume on it… including the stuff which comes up if you Google my name, stuff from which I receive no compensation, sites that stole my website’s name or my name to build search engine traffic without my permission. The happy work of strangers. I hope they are enjoying their ill-gotten income. Glad to be of service.
I think of all the lack of evidence to tie any of this together, except malice and innuendo. And I think of the people around me who have been troubled by this rumor, many of whom I do not directly know, who now place me within their own private mental mythologies somewhere near the company of Satan. I think of how I considered teaching English in the public schools here, went to certification classes, took an exam… and how I’d never pass a school system’s Internet search on my name, now. All because I am a writer and I stood up for my beliefs in public for four-and-a-half years and because some well-placed idiot is spreading something about me that simply is not true, or wholly true.
No problem about work – I’m going to return to tattooing and art and writing, and the tattoo and art communities appreciate their outlaws and low-lifes.
But the people here whose judgment has been poisoned by this rumor… the people who didn’t get to make up their own minds about me based on my own actions – that cannot be fixed short of the coward who spread the word going from person to person and recanting their tale. And cowards generally, from my experience, haven’t got the backbone to own up in the daylight to the acts they performed in secret. I haven’t the faith in humanity to hope for any better in this case.
Myself, I love the Stoics. I am not diminished one whit by this rumor, but my life has suffered some alteration. And the person who saw fit to spread the rumor has diminished his or her worth by some measure. I will live and work on my life, but they will merely survive, a shadow of who they might be. Living is better. That’s my bet here.
Look -- Evil.
As for my former life occasionally writing “pornography,” let me set that straight, as none of it is online, as far as I know, anymore, and hasn’t been for about 10 years. I have nothing to hide or be overly ashamed of. I wrote some short stories and poems for the now defunct Library of the Erotic. I aimed at three things: 1) Fair literary quality; 2) Some humor and wit; 3) Money.
I was impoverished at the time and, I fear, for writers, more erotica has been penned because of poverty than anything else (even Faulkner wrote a potboiler novel when times got tough). For myself, it was an amusing pastime, trying to marry a Raymond Chandler-esque, noir style, or a William S. Burroughs cut-up style to erotic writing and poetry. My things had far more story, character development, and plot than sex – they were studded with sexual imagery here and there, but it grew from the interaction of the characters. Not like watching a porn movie. My pieces were actually something closer to romance novels with some spice and comedy than straight hard-core porn. I even dared to suggest love and emotional connections between the characters.
Fault me all you wish: Cattallus and Propertius in ancient times did little differently and are now held to be great literary figures; Boccaccio’s Decameron has its racy stuff; the Marquis de Sade is held as a master of satire, if read the right way, not too literally nor taken too seriously; Lord Byron’s Don Juan is fine writing and has its spicy parts; and all of the Beat writers broke the barriers between high and low literature – and are thought great writers for it. Well, there is also the Song of Solomon, if you prefer your Biblical exemplars and can’t excuse me on the grounds of the secular ones.
I was never as good as any of these, literary-wise, but I am a minor, minor figure in the same company as far as titillating output is concerned. Nothing better or worse. Small time by comparison, really. But if one is to think ill of me for it, why not attack the big boys first, especially the Biblical writer, and save me for dessert? I have hardly been influential.
And I never made a dime from my labors. It was all made on speculation the stuff would sell, and the site never turned a profit. So, after a few months, my “pornography” career ended – all a decade ago, or so.
Perhaps I should have committed bigger sins to match my present infamy? Someone is disappointed I didn’t, I am sure, to give them more impressive tales to tell, but there it is.
Judge for yourself, if you’ve bothered to read this far. And think twice about what you say concerning others… especially if they know how to write and speak in their own defense and have shown in the past they have no fear of doing so.
Richard Van Ingram
22 July 2009
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