The Spike: or, Victoria University College Review October 1914
On Lying in General, and Slander in Particular
On Lying in General, and Slander in Particular.
If thou hast heard a word, Let it die with thee.
Have you ever considered the various forms of lying and the different types of liar that exist? Not a very pleasant task, assuredly, but an interesting one nevertheless. Have you ever experienced the joy of tracking down a malicious liar—to see him brazen it out or wriggle and twist in his corner? Interesting again, we assure you; but usually, your liar is a cunning sort of animal, and manages to evade detection.
There are lies—and lies. There is the white lie, the fib, the tarradiddle, the lie polite, the artistic lie, the lie direct, the evasive lie, the mere prevarication, the lie malicious, the cowardly lie, the polite scandal, and at the end of the list, both the climax and the sum of the series (do not mind the figures of speech), the slander.
There are also liars—and liars. We do not propose to deal exhaustively either with all the types of lying or with all the various species of liar. This stupendous task is beyond our powers, and we are afraid that that inquisitive person, the Editor, with his subtle associate, might say in the vernacular, "What's your game?" Moreover, we are convinced that this particular genus would require a library to himself. For Mark Twain assures us, and after studying the beast in his lair, we feel no reason to doubt the truth of the statement, that there are eight hundred and sixty-nine different forms of lying. We presume that no one is master of all these kinds, but has one outstanding type which gives him his distinctive brand. Thus there is the liar who lies for the pure artistic joy of lying (but this type, Oscar Wilde tells us, is almost extinct). There is also the prevaricomaniac. Then there is the liar who lies to avoid some unpleasantness (for page 18 himself) or to escape the consequences of some action of his own—a mean sort of liar this. The list could be extended, but space forbids. We end the digression and turn to the chief of the lot, the fons et origo of so much trouble in the world—we mean the slanderer.
"There are eight hundred and sixty-nine kinds of lying," Twain says, "but only one has been squarely forbidden. "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.' "Unlike the artistic lie, slander seems in no way to be in danger of dying out. On the contrary, along with its younger sisters, gossip and polite scandal, it appears to be growing in strength and stature. Of all the mean, cowardly, contemptible, abominable, and dastardly types of liar, the slanderer is by far the worst. He is the man for whom (so it seems to us) Dante could not find a circle low enough in Hell. He is the man about whom Kipling could have written a companion poem to "Tomlinson." He smugly swears away a fellow-being's good name. After all, he has done only what was right. If what he said was not true (and, of course, we must believe the best), then he is very sorry. Still, you know the old saying, "Where there's smoke there's fire"; and he had it on very good authority. He did not actually know himself, but his authority was unimpeachable.
A wise man, who lived about two hundred years before the Christian era, wrote a book—from which we had the temerity to quote at the head of this presumptuous and self-righteous article. At the risk of being accused of pedantic egotism, we mention in passing that this book crossed and re-crossed the border of the Biblical Canon, but was finally rejected. With one other apocryphon, it was a favourite of St. Jerome's, who wrote, "Let the Church read these volumes for the instruction of the people." One sentence burned itself into our memory when we first read it: "Whether it be to friend or foe, speak not of other men's lives." Unfortunately, for over two thousand years this (pardon the presumption, but if we err, we err in good company) excellent advice has been largely neglected; and there still exists that loathly, paltry thing, with the soul of a bat, the slanderer.page 19
We feel tempted here to quote Sheridan's delightful illustration of the methods in vogue in the "polite'" society of England in the eighteenth century, not because we think we should be holding up a mirror—we don't; but even if we did think so, we believe of the slanderer what Dickens said of one of his characters, "All the Pecksniff family are convinced that no such person ever existed"—but merely for the delectation of any one who has had the patience to read this far. Knowing that our readers understand their Sheridan thoroughly, we restrain the wild desire. As we have no polite society in New Zealand, the system in use here is not quite the same. There is evidently the same directness of method, but it is more cleverly concealed. What is to us the most astounding feature of the whole vile business is the ease with which the slanderer obtains his circle of believers. If we do not believe every tale we hear, or if, having to the best of our small ability somewhat of the love that thinketh no evil, we let such words die with us, then there is some hope for us. But oh! the pity of it! Are we not often willing to credit these stories without giving the one accused any chance to defend himself? A mad world, my masters, and an exceedingly narrow-minded one, too. One can, in such circumstances, understand the fierce curse which appeared in a well-known magazine a year ago, ending in the following outburst:—
"And when the last dread day shall dawn,
And thou shalt cringing" come to fawn
For mercy, all the outraged host
Shall cast thee forth, a whimpering ghost,
From ranks divinely oriflammed,
To writhe among the trebly-damned,
Whoever wrote these lines must have suffered a great deal from the tongue of his secret traducer; they show the fierce and savage resentment of a man unfairly wounded. Of course, the attitude of the author is wrong. All "nice"—minded people will agree on that point. But for our part, such is our nature, we confess to a sympathy with the writer. The maliciousness of such an offence, the pettiness of it, the feeling of being unfairly hurt page 20 without a chance of hitting back—all these create a bitterness which it is hard to subdue.
It seems fairly certain that this blot on human nature has existed since primeval times. One knows, at least, that it is of very ancient origin. You will remember the Psalmist's cry, "I have heard the slander of many; fear was on every side." And yet in all these centuries we have not been able to rid ourselves of it. In our own little country, the soil seems peculiarly adapted to the growth of this weed It is not merely the exposing of and gloating over the peccadilloes or the greater sins of another—that in itself is sufficiently bad—it is the fertile invention of certain mean minds that is the hideous thing. A strong public feeling would be a very wholesome deterrent. If an uncompromising attitude were adopted against the slanderer, his vile trade, if it did not actually vanish, would be so seriously damaged that he would not care to continue; then we might obtain a better understanding of and sympathy with human failings. We wonder——!