Rule 27. Do not speak evil of the absent, for it is unjust.This rule originates from George Washington’s Rule of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, a book he wrote at the age of fourteen. Much of the book is derived from a French book of maxims for polished manners, guides for being a gentleman and a lady at all times and in all company.
Civility in Life
This rule highlights one of the most basic tenants of the American founding: Civility is needed for good government. Contrary to the norms of the day, the American Government didn’t pass laws to regulate behavior, each man being held by a set of social and moral mores. As we can see from our history, as we have grown more liberal (I mean that in the loose sense) with our morals, we have needed to make more laws to control the populace.
Civility, or rather, politeness should be our behavior towards anyone, regardless of class, profession or character. Sometimes it involves forcing ourselves to overlook our low opinion of another to treat them with the respect that they may not deserve, but your reputation requires.
This does not mean that you should trust someone of doubtful reputation. Far from it. Though appearing polite to them in public, keep your honor safe from them. As Andrew Jackson exhorted his nephews, “[H]ave apparent confidence in all, real confidence in none, until from actual experience it is found that the individual is worthy of it.”
Choosing Our Words
A man who will speak ill of another when they are out of earshot does not allow the man to make a defense. It eventually boils down to mere gossip, the cancer of social interaction and just conversation. Whether what you would say about the absentee is true or not does not matter. What matters is the reflection of what you have said upon your own character. There is little wisdom in being known or seen as a gossip.If you genuinely believe that someone has done something so appalling that it must be acknowledged, go to them in private to discuss the matter. Speak with them rather than an audience. It demonstrates a respect for the individual and a desire not to humiliate them, but to help and encourage them.
Humiliating a man or woman in public is likely to gain you an enemy for life. Privately helping another could bring an ally for the future. Most importantly, it demonstrates the strength of your character.
At this rules origin, affairs of honor were strict. Men knew that words said too hotly could lead to the challenge to duel. Though courage was rarely wanting in such matters, no man wished to be foolish with his life. It was always best to choose your words carefully, and be willing to give another the benefit of the doubt.
Your character is to be protected. Gossiping about another behind their back only injures it. You would be the victim in violating this rule, losing respect not only in the eyes of others, but in your own. Treat others as you would wish to be treated, and speak of others as you would wish to be spoken of.