Defamation is becoming a necessary of life; insomuch, that a dish of tea in the morning or evening cannot be digested without this stimulant. Even those who do not believe these abominations, still read them with complaisance [Webster’s 7th Collegiate: “a disposition to please or oblige”] to their auditors [ibid, “one that hears or listens’], and instead of the abhorrence & indignation which should fill a virtuous mind, betray a secret pleasure in the possibility that some may believe them, tho they do not themselves. It seems to escape them, that it is not he who prints, but he who pays for printing a slander, who is it’s real author.
To John Norvell, June 14, 1807
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Does this sound like 2014 to you?
Jefferson was on a rant about slander in the newspapers. In an earlier post from this letter, he summarized four categories for newspaper content, “Truths, Probabilities, Possibilities, and Lies.” He said the first category would be the smallest, the last the largest.
The language in this excerpt is a bit confusing. Here’s a summary:
1. Reading another’s trashed reputation had become such a stimulant that people could not begin or end their day without it.
2. Even those who didn’t believe the lies read them anyway, to please those who did read them.
3. Instead of having a “virtuous mind,” horrified by lies, they “betray a secret pleasure” that others may actually believe the slander, even though they don’t.
4. Who is to blame, then, for slander? Not the one who offers the slander but the one who pays for it. (By reading it. Or watching it. Or listening to it.)