Grey – The definition of slander

This isn’t specifically a queer issue, but it pertains to many “moral” political debates. Like if trans* exclusion is acceptable and the behaviours of people who advocate for and against either side in moral debate. The terms slander and libel are thrown around and people on both sides accuse others of it, but there seems to be some confusion on its definition.

I shouldn’t need to link to dictionary definitions of these terms, we fortunately are all internet denizens, but I will, hoping that we will stop accusing people of slander and libel when its not. To be even clearer; libel or slander must be fictitious, non-slander/libel might harm the person’s image but unless its 100% false or cannot be proven to be true, by definition it’s not slander.

This post was prompted by a post I saw on facebook, that collected numerous comments from an individual who was spurting hate, mostly against lesbian women. Someone in the comments accused the person who collected these comments of slander. Yes these comments could of been fabricated but the attitude of the accuser, was simply that by posting anything defamatory they were committing libel.

Why? What are people who are accusing others of slander or libel attempting? Well and this falls clearly into the realm of opinion. I think they are accusing the person of outing. Outing is a term we hear a fair bit in queer communities, it is often the act of someone who is privy to a piece of information, like sexual orientation and who then without the consent of the person who that information pertains, makes that information public.

But there are exceptions, I can out myself or I can hunt down information on someone like a birth certificate that reveals a person had a different name or gender on their birth certificate. That birth certificate wasn’t handed to me by the person I plan on outing, it is for all intents and purposes in the public domain already. And the information I find doesn’t have to be about gender or orientation. I could out an employer for refusing to employ me due to my race or a politician having an affair. Wikileaks are masters at outing.

And no-one likes it when someone they support is outed, particularly when its negative, but its generally pretty petty to accuse someone of revealing true information that makes us upset so we have to rationalise our support and the behaviour. When often what we really are complaining about when we accuse “outers” of slander is our own cognitive dissonance. An description for this case, being our belief or support for an individual being in conflict with behaviours that society or often even us ourselves, finds immoral.

So to apply that to a real situation, lets look at the lewinsky scandal (for younger/non-U.S. political types, this is the thing that got Clinton to say, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”) we can then break Clinton supporters in 3 groups based on the 3 responses Dr. Doe described to cognitive dissonance.

1. I will renounce support for Clinton or his actions, what he did was immoral.

2. I stand with Clinton he would not have had an affair and this is libel or some scam by Lewinsky.

3. Infidelity isn’t the end of the world, Clinton just did what we all want to do.

Number 2, is where we accuse others of slander even when it has be proven to be true, even with confession or hard evidence that they were racist, sexist, homophobic, liberal, conservative, gay or trans*. To follow Dr. Doe’s cognitive dissonance model further… the basis is: the action is in conflict with the belief. The action is support for a person/opinion and the belief is that person/opinion is wrong or right or the victim of libel. The self deception can run so deep that even in the case of  Lewinsky, where there was hard evidence and a confession, people can still believe that it was all a lie.

What do we take from this as advocates, activists and people with opinions? Statements that we all make are often deeper and more complex than face value, a simple accusation of libel can often be a glimpse into a much more complicated thought process. Also to be aware of what we are saying, when we accuse someone of libel, do we really mean that, or is that information conflicting with our understanding of a group or belief. Often mindfulness can help make us aware of our assumptions and biases.

So the next time you start saying/writing/thinking or you see someone saying/writing “that is libel” take a moment to think about why.



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