I have had the pleasure of discussing Josef Pieper’s wonderful book on The Four Cardinal Virtues with my students this semester. Sometimes I wonder whether the best education I could give my students would be simply to take the list of books in Fr. Schall’s Another Sort of Learning and start working our way through them. What heaven!
Every page of Pieper’s book brings new insights, but I was struck by this one the other day. Justice is one of those topics much in the news these days, whether it is “political justice,” “economic justice,” or “social justice.” Early on in his discussion of “justice,” Pieper makes this challenging observation: “We may venture to assert that expressions like ‘calumny,’ ‘malign aspersion,’ ‘backbiting,’ ‘slander,’ and ‘talebearing’ are now in their proper meanings scarcely intelligible to most people.”
Indeed, none of my students had ever heard the term “talebearing,” which admittedly is not much used in American English. Fortunately, Pieper defines it: “talebearing” is “privately spreading evil reports about another, and to that other’s friends, no less.” Classically, this was considered an especially grievous violation of justice, “since no man can live without friends.” The writer Pieper quotes to this effect is not some socially-conscious Brit writing during the age of Jane Austen or John Henry Newman; it was made by one rather socially-unconcerned Italian friar named Thomas Aquinas.
In Latin, the term Thomas and his contemporaries would have used for this vicious disposition to tear people down was derisio, from which we get the English term “derision.” It is the act that violated justice “by bringing shame to another through mockery.” How, asks Pieper, would we designate the special form of justice that “consists in sparing another man shame?” We no longer have a word for that virtue, perhaps because it has largely disappeared from society.
What would late-night comics do if they decided not to mock people and spare them public shame? Since they don’t really do comedy, the best of which is based on the humor in everyday life and requires real skill, and since they are all competing nightly to see who can get in the best “dig,” one that will make the cut of major “YouTube” or Netflix clips, the best they and their writers can do is watch the daily news and come up with mocking jibes at people who have had the gall to show up in the news.
It’s like high school all over again. Most kids tried to lay low so as not to get noticed, except for a few “cool kids” and wise guys who cracked jokes. But the moment someone “uncool” got noticed for either (a) being “stupid” enough to try to do something good, or (b) having been “clumsy” enough to drop a tray in the cafeteria then, dear God, the gloves were off. The vitriol was endless. Doing and creating are hard; tearing down others is easy. Every high school has dozens of jerks who know how.
I remember years ago seeing an interview with Al Franken, before he was the former senator from Minnesota. In it, he spoke of a comedy bit he had done years earlier on “Saturday Night Live” in which he mocked the head of NBC, Fred Silverman. NBC wasn’t doing well in the ratings, but since Silverman took a limousine to and from work each day, Franken dubbed it a “limo for a lam-o.” Silverman was watching the show with his kids that night and was furious.
When I saw Franken interviewed, he was a bit sheepish because he hadn’t thought the bit would be seen by the guy’s kids. I’m not sure how he thought this wasn’t going to get back to them; it was, after all, a major network television show back when that meant something. But something neither Franken nor Silverman seem to have considered was how many other people “Saturday Night Live” had savaged to the glee of their teen audiences with comments that were certain to get back to their children? If Silverman found the treatment derisive and unacceptable, why didn’t he change the nature of the show? Perhaps Franken now understands a bit more about the pain of derision given how many of his senate colleagues abandoned him when he was publicly shamed.
I am not claiming there is never room for public shame. People who do morally wrong acts should feel guilt. They should be ashamed. Whether public shaming is the way to bring about this inner transformation in them is not clear. Unless it is a generally shared cultural sense about certain acts, such as those Harvey Weinstein or Bill Clinton engaged in, probably not. “Shame” should suggest the moral limits in a culture. To weaponize it against an individual is to use a bazooka when a gentle scalpel is needed.
In the same chapter on justice, Josef Pieper adds another interesting comment. Suggesting that it might be possible for a just person to be mistaken about some particular issue and propose an objectively “unjust” solution to a problem, Pieper asks this question: “Should not all this be of some significance for the realm of political discourse, which is of course concerned with what is just and unjust? Does it not imply for example, that it may be quite possible and logical to reject a certain political objective as ‘objectively unjust’ – and even to combat it with intensity – without at the same time bringing the moral integrity of one’s opponent into the discussion?”
I wonder. Current evidence suggests not. Our opponents aren’t just mistaken, they are either fools or scoundrels or both. And the key skill we look for in political discourse is derision. This is what sells, both in television news commentary and in the magazines on supermarket checkout lanes. Are just institutions built on unjust words? Will constant recrimination bring reconciliation? Do we really think we can re-build a nation of virtue by giving ourselves over repeatedly to a linguistic vice?
*Image: The Calumny of Apelles by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1495 [Uffizi Gallery, Florence] Based on a lost work by the Greek painter Apelles, the painting shows, left to right: Truth, Repentance, Perfidy, the victim knocked down, Calumny pulls him by the hair, Fraud (dressing Calumny’s coif), Rancor (in black) reports to the seated King Midas, with Ignorance to his right and Suspicion on his left.