I remember the first time I saw Botticelli’s painting Calumny of Apelles in the Uffizi gallery. I’d been to countless museums at this point, seen hundreds of renaissance paintings and was wondering through room after room eyes skimming past, each painting blurring into the next. Until my eyes touched on this, and something about it had touched me in return, making me move closer.
I knew them well. They all lived inside me.
We’ve all been there haven’t we. That little remark in the office kitchen to your co-worker friend “Don’t like Sandra’s new haircut, do you?” Shake of the head, an unimpressed face in return “No I don’t, it’s horrid.”
Why say it? It’s not true. It’s only true in your opinion. Or maybe it isn’t really true in your opinion either. Maybe you secretly do like Sandra’s haircut and wished you’d gotten it yourself. Yes, perhaps you’re annoyed, bitter, envious, because if you get the same haircut everyone will think you’re copying her. Even though you’ve actually been thinking about it for a while.
Oh, but it gives such sweet pleasure doesn’t it, that corroboratory response: It’s horrid.
Yes, yes it is horrid. And she’s horrid. And everyone will think she’s horrid. And I’m nice and not horrid. And so the fantasies grow about Sandra’s social downfall.
I’ve noticed a trend in conversations of this nature now that I’m older. At school, we were much more ruthless and shameless in our calumny. Open bitching, all in a group, the girl in question not allowed to join in but permitted to sit close enough to over hear.
Now, though, we are more aware of ourselves and how we appear. You can’t be seen to openly criticise somebody. That’s not nice. And everyone must think you’re nice. So a disclaimer sentence is introduced.
“I mean, I love Janet with all my heart… (there’s the disclaimer)… but my! She does not suit those leggings. Bless her!”
It’s all a joke, a harmless little joke. All part of the ‘well we’re friends so I can say that’ attitude. But the calumny grows just the same.
“Yes, I noticed her wearing those the other day. Are they new? Has she seen it in a magazine or something?”
“I think she’s trying to look like Victoria Beckham.”
The tone lowers now, less jokey, less friendly. And now the next person joins in:
“I mean, Janet’s a stunning girl but… I mean come on, not many people can pull off an outfit Victoria Beckham can wear … least of all her.”
The joking tone has disappeared completely. Now everyone’s made a comment, all accomplices, all incriminated. No one can tell Janet now about this conversation. If it comes out, the others will tell her what you said. And why did you say it? No, she doesn’t look knockout in those leggings but do you really even care? Aren’t you, just like everyone else at the table, more concerned with your own looks than hers?
But to join in, to be accepted. To see them look at you, gleefully eating up your words, oh that feels so nice. And it’s not like Janet’s ever going to find out anyway. It’s harmless. You’re not hurting anyone. You try to convince yourself of this.
I caught myself getting sucked into a similar situation the other day as a discussion started about a certain girl and her current love life situation. At first I was quiet and didn’t respond, letting the others have their say, but after a while I found myself helping them justify their slanderous statements, offering new evidence to a case I didn’t care about, regarding a person I didn’t have any reason to hurt. In fact, she’d always been quite friendly towards me.
I managed to remove myself from the conversation and the temptation to sin so indulgently. I’ve banned myself from binging on sugar so I have to get my guilty pleasure from somewhere, right?
But just like a binge, the moment the words were out of my mouth I felt guilt and shame. Why did I lower myself to such an act? Why did I want to be accepted by these nasty people?
I think it all comes down to habit. I’m so used to doing everything I can to please people, I don’t even stop to consider if they’re people I should be pleasing. It’s not an excuse. I know better, and I want to be better. I am going to be better.
So no more calumny for me. It’s just as poisonous as my precious sugar. And as for those girls and their long lunches: I think I’ll make myself a healthy lunch at home next time, thank you very much.
Perhaps Janet could come.