Slander is so effective because we often want to believe the worst about others. Why is this so? People want to feel good about themselves by judging themselves right or righteous. “For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Rom. 10:1) Rather than looking to Christ to make us righteous, we pursue self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is the basis of all human-made religion, and indeed, much of human activity that drives us into conflict.
The Definition And Use Of Slander
Slander is powerful, effective, and deadly. Slander, to be slander, must meet two simple criteria: it must be false, and it must damage the reputation of the person slandered. Miriam Webster defines it thus: “The utterance of false charges or misrepresentations which defame and damage another’s reputation.” One minor note: slander is spoken, and is generally distinguished from libel, which is the written form of slander.
Why is slander so often used? Simply because it is amazingly effective. In politics, slander often takes the form of a science, called negative campaigning, or more popularly, mudslinging. Rick Farmer, Ph.D., an assistant professor of political science at the University of Akron who has studied the impact of negative campaigning ads, says, “They’re very effective . . . people have a cynical view of politics and tend to believe the negative very quickly.” Research has shown that people remember longer and are more deeply swayed by negative statements.
Slander is as old as humanity, literally. Satan’s temptation of Adam and Eve included a slander against God. “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’” (Gen. 3:4–5).
Satan slanders God by subtly suggesting that God’s motive in forbidding them to eat the fruit was actually self-protection, not protection of them. Satan impugns God’s motive for giving his good command. Satan’s accusation was a lie. God’s motive was not self-protection, but rather love for his creation, humanity, to protect them from sin and death.
Satan’s lie also harmed their view of God. This first lie meets both the criteria for slander. And it worked. Adam and Eve stopped trusting God and trusted Satan instead, following his leadership to sin, death, and destruction. We see the result of the first slander all around us! Slander’s impact is unchanged today: sin, death, and destruction follow slander, naturally.
Slander is also as current as the cancel culture. At the very heart of the modern, social-media-enabled cancel culture is good old-fashioned slander. Why reason with an opponent when one can just obliterate him on a blog? Why bother to engage with another human being when one can entirely dehumanize them with lies on Twitter? Cancel culture has perfected and legitimized slander as the art form of the day. Invited by the attack of one person, soon a virtual mob assembles to finish off the hapless victim, much like a pack of wolves descending on its prey.
Why Slander Is So Effective
Why is slander so powerful? At least two things make slander so effective: the power God has given to the spoken word, and our sin nature which welcomes slander.
God has given great power to the spoken word. He spoke and all creation came into being. “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (Heb. 11:3).
Jesus demonstrated the power of the word when he calmed the sea. “And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm” (Mark 4:39). He demonstrated the power of the word when he raised Lazarus from death. “‘Lazarus, come out.’ The man who had died came out” (John 11:43–44). Jesus was the Word incarnate. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
Created in God’s image, God has given astonishing power to our words. God has given us the power to speak and define reality by naming things. “And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (Gen. 2:19). God has given us the power to speak and with our words to bless or to curse. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (Rom. 12:14). While we often discount the power of our words, God has given the spoken word great power.
Second, slander is so effective because we often want to believe the worst about others. Why is this so? People want to feel good about themselves by judging themselves right or righteous. “For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Rom. 10:1) Rather than looking to Christ to make us righteous, we pursue self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is the basis of all human-made religion, and indeed, much of human activity that drives us into conflict.
Apart from faith in Christ, there are two ways we seek to judge ourselves righteous. We may pursue it positively, so to speak, by achieving, or appearing to achieve, through boasting. Or we may try to feel right about ourselves by tearing others down, through negative comparisons or outright slander.
Although we are not supposed to find our worth in this world by tearing others down, our fallen human nature, even the remains of it in believers, is eager to do so. “There have been men in the world that have sought to make themselves out of the ruins of other men. This did Judas, and some of the Pharisees” (John Bunyan, Seasonable Counsel or Advice to Sufferers, 23).
It is easy and efficient to build ourselves up by tearing others down. It is even easier to allow others to do it for us. Hence our proclivity to believe slander.
The slanderer does our work for us. All we must do in order to feel better about our rightness in the world is to simply accept the slanderer’s critical evaluation of their target. This has the added benefit of making us appear to be a caring and concerned listener, supporting the “victim” who has been “wronged” by the person being slandered. It is a win for the slanderer and a win for the person accepting the slander. And a loss only for the target of the slander. This is why we relish slander: it enhances our sense of self-righteousness.
Because of our desire to feel self-righteous and the power of the spoken word, slander works with deadly effectiveness. Consider the case of Naboth and Jezebel. In 1 Kings Chapter 21 King Ahab tries to buy the vineyard of Naboth. Naboth refuses to sell it because the land is his family’s inheritance.
King Ahab goes home sulking. His Queen, Jezebel, hearing his dilemma, proposes a simple solution. She wrote letters, in her husband’s name and with his seal, to the elders and leaders of the city where Naboth lived, Jezreel. “And she wrote in the letters, ‘Proclaim a fast, and set Naboth at the head of the people. And set two worthless men opposite him, and let them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out and stone him to death’” (1 Kings 21:9–10). She tells a lie designed to destroy the reputation of Naboth, a slander.
The plan worked perfectly. For the simple effort of a little slander, Jezebel and Ahab destroy the reputation and life of Naboth and steal his inheritance. Jezebel and Ahab win without breaking a sweat. We see the power of slander at work!
Dr. Thomas D. Hawkes is a Minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and serves a Director of Church Planting for the ARP Florida Presbytery, and as Lead Pastor of Christ ARP Mission in Fernandina Beach, Fla.