A clergyman in the provinces has founded a league for the suppression of scandal. The members take a pledge neither to talk scandal nor to listen to it for the next twelve months. I do not propose to become a member, and I will tell you why.
In the first place, I like my friends, and I should lose them all if I protest against their talking scandal. I have not a single friend who does not occasionally talk scandal, and we talk scandal about our common friend as well as about our common enemies. Probably my friends talk scandal about me when I am not there. I do not object if someone does not repeat it to me. Scandal at its best is the truth that we tell behind a man’s back because it would be unkind to tell it to his face. It is truth in its humanist form. I have many friends who would be deeply pained if I told them everything I think and know about them. I have many friends who would pain me deeply if they told me everything they think and know about me. Hence, when we are together, we leave many things unsaid at the back of our minds. This silent criticism does not mean that we are not sincerely devoted to each other. We are like people none the less because we think things about them that we should never think of telling them we think. There are friendships of such perfect intimacy that there is no need of concealment on either side, but they are rare. As a general rule, when you see two friends together, you see two hypocrites each of them a little less critical of the other in speech than in thought. And this is as it should be. The ‘candid friend’ is the least tolerable sort of friend. Let him be as candid as he likes behind our backs, but let him not humiliate us by telling unpleasant truth about ourselves that we, know as well as he does but do not talk about. On the other hand, the strain of not telling the truth about a man to his face would become unbearable if we could not tell it to somebody. Hence, we tell it to a third person, discreetly chosen as a person who will understand. Boswell talked scandal about Johnson in a book such as even e would have shrunk from repeating to Johnson’s face. We do not regard this as a blot on their friendship. On the contrary, Boswell is universally praised for refusing to listen to Hanna More’s appeal to observe the mild hypocrisies of friendship in his biography.
Not all forms of scandal, of course, are equally commendable. Even the most ardent champions of scandal could find little to say in favor of that kind of scandal mongering which consists in giving away secrets that have been confided to us by a friend. This is mere treachery. The ethics of scandal permit us to talk only such scandal as will do no one an injury. Hence, we have right neither to betray our friends’ secrets, nor to tear their reputations to pieces in the presence of strangers. It is as important, to my mind, to be not quite candid about friends is legitimate only among friends. Scandal about acquaintances. One of the rules of the game is, indeed, that the better you know a man, the more restricted is your right to talk scandal about him. As for people you do not know at all, you may tell whatever stories you like about them, but not too publicly, because of the law of libel.
Not that it is, on the whole, worthwhile telling scandalous stories about people you do not know. I never could get much pleasure from listening to the truth about the private life of a Cabinet Minister from a man who, like myself, knows him only from his photograph in the newspaper. In the first place, I never believe stories told to me about people I do not believe that most of the eminent men of our time are monsters, whose vices would sully the pages of Suetonius. Why, I heard enough scandalous stories about eminent men during my first two years in London from one person to wreck the reputation of England throughout Europe. He was a little Scotsman who led a good life himself and was honestly convinced that everybody else led an evil one. Perhaps, he expected his friends from this suspicion for all his worst stories were about people he had never met. If you mentioned a great writer to him he would say. I’ll tell you a thing I heard about him the other day,’ and he would proceed, with is face screwed up with horror, to accuse a man of unblemished life of the most scarlet sins of Heliogabalus. If the name of a famous actress cropped up in the conversation, he would open one eye wider than the other and say: ‘You know what her vise is?’ On my saying ‘No’ he would name the vice, adding off-handedly; ‘I thought everybody knew that!’ If a woman of ill-fame was brought into the courts and to the general surprise was acquitted, he would lean over the table, his hair bristling with excitement, and would give the name of the bishop who for a very good reason of his own-[with solemn wink]-exerted his influence on her behalf behind the scenes. If you asked him, ‘how do you know the Bishop is that sort?’ he would sigh as if he had met Doubting Thomas and say: ‘My dear man, it has been common talk this ten years. This first time I heard the Bishop was that sort was in the bar of the Midland Hotel in Glasgow in the year eighteen hundred and ninety-four. I will not swear to the Midland, but it was some hotel or other.’ If he gave the name of the place at which he had heard the story and the date, he gave them in such a manner as showed that he regarded them as the most convincing evidence possible that the story was true. I do not think he had much sense of evidence. If he could produce no other evidence in support of a calumny, he would in answer to a challenge exclaim impatiently: ‘why, it’s common talk! In this way he undermined the reputations of young and old, male and female, lay and cleric, noble and commoner. There is no profession that he did not libel. He was honorably impartial in his denigrations. Since meeting him, I must have heard a hundred thousand stories as scandalous, and I doubt if one in ten thousand of them was true. I have now come to the point of disbelieving almost all scandalous stories upon instinct. If I am given details of a famous woman’s love affairs, I immediately conclude that she leads a life of saintly chastity. If I hear that an eminent surgeon is hopeless drunkard, I am convinced that he is a teetotaler. If I am told that a great general is a notorious coward, I see him in my mind’s eye as a lion of courage. Nor is this attitude so, unreasonable as it seems. The one thing we may be certain of in regard to stories often eminent is that most of them are lies. Lies are told about the great. This drags the great down to the common level, and is perverted expressions of the passion for equality. And, for this reason, we tell lies about the great who are dead as well as about the great who are still alive. They are, it is amusing to reflect, usually told about the dead in the name of truth. In our revolt against the Victorian habit of telling respectable lies about the dead, we apparently believe that truth consists in telling disreputable lies about them. I am not sure that Victorian practice was not the more truthful of the two. Then, at least, great men played their parts with the gravity of the heroes the Greek tragedies. The Greek tragedians, no doubt, lied about human nature but probably the Greek comic writers lied about it even less truthfully. Comedy is scandal in its most artistic form.
It may be said that tragedy is also founded on scandals- scandal about Oedipus, Lear, Hamlet, and their families. And unquestionably the tragic writers reveal facts about the home life of their heroes such as Victorian biographers would have done their best to slur over. Even my Scottish friend would have done their best to slur over. Even my Scottish friend would not have wished, I think, to what Aeschylus tells us of the family history of Agamemnon. Still, he would have given a different twist to the story. He would have made all the figures in the tragedy seem mere monsters of depravity and have deprived them of any lingering shred of nobility. He would have soused them in muddy waters.
Possibly it was an all-embracing jealousy that was the cause of his extraordinary love of believing the worst about everybody. I am sure it is people of jealous disposition who are most given to malicious gossip-foxes without tails who like to believe that every other fox suffers from something still worse than taillessness.
Well, we must have our consolations. I have been jealous myself, and in the acutest moments of my suffering, a story to the discredit of a better man has at times made the world seem temporarily a fairer place.