Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Backbiting - Revisited

Someone, whose name is "Anonymous" (they must be a big fan because they keep posting great comments), just posted a marvelous question on an article I wrote a while ago about backbiting. You can find the article by clicking here.

The comment was as follows: If someone, because of selfish motives, secretly harms another and the harmed one tells others about the bad things the former has done to him, is this considered backbiting, or defending oneself, or seeking justice or else? What are the differences between these things?

What an awesome and thought-provoking question.

And like I have said many times in the past, if you ask me any question, I can give you an honest and truthful answer.

I don't know.

See? Honest and truthful.

What do you think, dear Reader? If someone hurts you, seemingly with intention, and then you tell someone else about it, is that backbiting? (I prefer making this sort of question personal.)

I've thought about this a lot throughout the night, puzzling and praying for understanding, and I still have a long way to go.

Looking at the question, the poser of said question puts forth a few answers, so let's look at them one at a time.

Is it backbiting? Let's get back to this, shall we?

Is it defending oneself? I suspect that it would not be defending oneself, for that is present tense, and the the question is in the past tense. If someone assaulted me last week, and I lashed out at them today, the defense of "defending myself" would not stand up in court. It may be a form a protecting oneself, but I don't think that would necessarily have to include attacking someones character, true or not.

Let's look at a true scenario here. One day, Mirza Yahya, Baha'u'llah's unfaithful brother, put some poison in His teacup. Baha'u'llah was struck gravely ill by this. He well knew who did it, and probably even knew when He drank of the cup. In fact, I am certain that He did. But He always allowed His enemies to do what they wanted with Him, and so He drank. Ok. that aside for a moment, let's look at what happened afterwards. He was severely ill, and the doctor was called. Once He was better (I'll skip the full story here), He told the friends that He was ill. To some He even said that He was poisoned. But, and here's the important thing, He didn't tell people that it was Mirza Yahya who did it. It was only later, after the other friends spread this around and it became well-known, that He referred to it in His Writings. He confirmed a truth, but as far as I can tell, He never spread that truth around Himself.

Later, when this same faithless brother tried to convince Salmani, Baha'u'llah's barber, to murder the Blessed Beauty, Baha'u'llah told Salmani not to tell anyone. With His sin-covering eye, He encouraged others to do the same.

So, would spreading the truth of this situation be defending oneself? I don't think so. The Central Figures of our Faith reported the effects of these attacks, but didn't cast the blame upon an individual until it was already well-known in the community through efforts other than Their own.

On to the next one: Could it be seeking justice? As framed in the questions, I don't think so. It seems like telling others about what I suffered would be seeking vengeance, not justice.

If I were seeking justice in a case like this, then I would go to the proper authorities that are designed to administer justice, such as the police, or a local Spiritual Assembly. To go to individuals would be, in my opinion, looking to get others to look unfavorably upon the individual in question, and that be wanting vengeance.

Going to the proper authorities, however, would be appropriate. They would be able to look at the case with an unbiased perspective and mete out the appropriate punishment. (Idealistic of me, isn't it? But if we don't strive for our ideals, what are we striving for?)

In the drastic case of, say, a sex offender, the police arrest the individual, at least in Canada they do, and then after they have served the appropriate punishment the case is examined again. If the person is deemed to be likely to re-offend, and considered a danger to the public, or some section thereof, then further measures are taken. They are generally put on a sexual offenders list and monitored. When they move into an area where others may be at risk, a warning is put out. To contrast this with the first question, the police are not looking to defend others, but rather to protect those that may not be able to protect themselves, such as children. A real life example is visible near my son's school. All the stores near his school have a photo of a known sex offender living in the area who is deemed a high risk for re-offending. Is this fair, to plaster his picture everywhere? I'm not sure. I am not an authority on this, but it does get everyone in the area to ensure that this person is not tempted by hanging around the schoolyard. This is protection, not defense.

So could telling others be something other than backbiting? Well, it's not defense, nor is it seeking justice, if told to people other than those in a position of authority. In some cases it could be a form of protection, but again, I think that's the case only if it is done by those in that appropriate position of authority.

Is there anything that I'm missing? Maybe. But if not, then I would have to conclude for myself that I would consider it backbiting.

And I have to say, at the very beginning, I would not have said that. it was only by going through this series of questions posed by the reader that I came to this conclusion for myself.

I would love to read what others think about this, for I think it opens up a great conversation that is truly important to have.

Thanks,. Anonymous, for a great question.


  1. Backbiting is the act of spreading lies and malicious rumours to result in "character assassination", but I never thought telling the truth to someone would be considered backbiting also. Say for example I'm friends with someone who was "used and abused" by another and they told me about it because they had no one to turn to, and if another close friend was getting closely acquainted with the user and abuser, wouldn't it be my duty to tell them that this person has a history of mistreating people? I think we all need to live a little more assertively, I'm quite over a lot of the Kumbaya aspect that many Baha'is adopt.

    1. That's a great point you make. Thanks.

      One thing, though. Backbiting is not a lie. It is malicious talk about someone who is not present. But it is the truth. Calumny is when it is a lie.

      With that in mind, I have had to ask myself the very question you pose. Is it my duty to warn a friend when I know something bad about someone they are getting involved with? I don't know. I used to think so, but now I talk more about getting to know the character of a person before getting involved with them. Not after.

      And I'm sure I will face this question again, and again, (and again), in my life. How will I choose at that moment? I don't know. I only hope that it will be more closely aligned with the teachings of Baha'u'llah, whatever that may be.

      And yes, I fully agree that we need to develop our virtue of assertiveness more in many cases. The whole "Kumbaya" attitude is kind of funny, isn't it?

  2. As you know, the Baha'i Standard on absolutely everything is much higher than we can possibly understand and in many times achieve or agree with . . . so this is my litmus test:

    "Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art thyself a sinner. Shouldst thou transgress this command, accursed wouldst thou be, and to this I bear witness." (Baha'u'llah, The Arabic Hidden Words 27)

    What this says to me is that when someone harms us, not only are we not to speak of it, we're not even to take it into our breath!

  3. This is one of the hardest things to even attempt to argue, alas, I feel I must. Not because I want to feel legitimized in my own actions (because frankly I don't care), but because this is a problem we need to address in our global community.

    It was in a culture of silence within the Catholic church that lead to the abuse of thousands of children globally, the truth of which has been trickling through for the past decades. It is in a culture of silence where countries with Islamic governments suppress the freedom of their people. It is in a culture of silence that lead to the United States becoming a surveillance state.

    In a post-9-11 world, I think it's fair to say that people are pro-whistleblowers. When you see something bad, when you see something wrong, tell someone. I could sit here and bemoan that fact that Baha'u'llah and `Abdu'l-Baha were from a different place and a different time, but the fact of the matter is that the world has changed so immeasurably since their writings. I speak for myself and my fellow Baha'i friends whom I maintain contact with, "backbiting", i.e. speaking the non-calumnious truth about people who are absent from that conversation, is virtually vital in human interactions. If I get ripped off when dealing with someone, you think I'm not going to let my friends know about it?

    Eschew fellowship with the ungodly and all that, and make sure your friends and family don't have to learn the hard way either. Maybe I'm wrong, but I sure as hell feel right about it.

    1. Thank you for this. You bring up many interesting and important points.

      To start, we should not maintain a culture of silence. This is detrimental in many more ways than I can express. We should, and need to, report things to the appropriate authorities. In the case of the Catholic Church, it was these same authorities that were hiding the fact and allowing it all to continue. Unfortunately, people were loathe to report any of these abuses to the authorities outside the church, but in the Baha'i Faith, we are encouraged to do so.

      In terms of government suppression of freedoms, we are often told by Baha'is that we should not be involved in politics. This is not true. We are to be very involved in politics, just not partisan politics. So when we see a movement going in a certain unhealthy direction, we should do all we can to help move it in a healthier direction.

      Now, in terms of getting ripped off by someone in a business transaction, we should definitely tell people about it. However, the manner in which we talk about it makes the difference between backbiting and information giving.

      If I purchase a thingy, and feel ripped off, then I will tell people. I will say, "I could have gotten this at a much better price elsewhere", or something similar. I may even say, "I won't do business with this person again". But this is very different than saying "He's a crook. He ripped me off." The former states a fact, while the latter casts aspersion on their character.

      If someone comes for dinner, and I prepare a mushroom stew, there is a chance they may get sick. Some people are highly sensitive to wild mushrooms. If they then tell their friends that they got sick eating my dinner, I would agree with them. If they were to tell others that I tried to poison them, I would have rightfully an issue with this.

      In our community, we are not to maintain a culture of silence, but instead be very aware of the words we use.

    2. Oh! One more thing. That was not an authoritative statement that I was writing. This is all just my own personal opinion. What I feel is backbiting may not be the same as what you would consider unacceptable. We should be very careful not to judge others by our own personal standard. So if you feel justified in telling others what you feel, please know that I support you. I have changed in my understanding of the Faith over the years, and fully expect to change even more in the years to come.

  4. One tool that the Bahai's have is their institutions. When a Bahai come across a certain community situation that might need addressing, that person can refer it to one of the institutions. Let the institution deal with it.

    If the concern is only the perspective of one person; i.e., just general complaining; it probably shouldn't be addressed. If, on the other hand, three or four or more people are making similar comments, then maybe the institution needs to get involved.

    In this way, the individual has provided his perspective to those are probably holding onto the "big picture." This is not silence.

    By leaving the perspective to the institutions, the community is not overrun with a perspective that could be incorrect, a source of rumors, or divisive.

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