Sorry if my back ruined your knife.
Masonry teaches us many things, some are abstract moral principles, with a wide range of applications. By taking our Masonic obligations, particularly the Fellowcraft obligation, we bind ourselves to a code of Masonic conduct. The aim promotes brotherly love through the extinguishing of fiery passions that would otherwise incinerate any chance at a group’s harmony. One of those passions, which tends to burn more than the intended victim, is backbiting.
-Sobriquet: /sew-brick-a - n. a person's nickname. French origin, mid-17th century, originally in the sense, 'tap under the chin.'
- -Nickname: /nick-name - n. a familiar or humorous name given to a person or thing instead of or as well as the real name. v. give a nickname to; call by a nickname: his fraternity brothers nicknamed him "The Bird" because of his skydiving skills. late Middle English origin, a eke-name, here, eke means addition, later misinterpreted by wrong division as a neke name to form a nickname.
-Slander: /slan-dur - n. Law. the action or crime of making a false spoken statement damaging to a person's reputation. v. false and damaging statements about someone.-derivative: slanderer, n. Middle English Origin, traced to Old French - esclander, alteration of escandle, from late-Latin - scandalum (see definition of scandal)
-Scandal: /scan-dall - n. an action or event regarded as morally or legally wrong and causing general public outrage; the outrage or anger caused by such an action or event; rumor or malicious gossip about events or actions; (when signular) a state of affairs regarded as wrong or reprehensible and causing general public outrage or anger. Middle English origin, in the sense of a discredit to religion (by the reprehensible behavior of a religious person), from Old French scandale', from ecclesiastical Latin 'scandalum', cause of offense, from Greek 'skandalon', snare or stumbling block. 1
Backbiting. Slander. To Traduce. Defamation. Disparagement. Calumny. These are all fancy synonyms for backstabbing with one goal in mind: To speak ill of someone or something when the party being vilified is absent and unable to defend themselves. In the Masonic Bible, backbiting is defined as slandering an absent party, “Every form of calumny and slander, especially the speaking of evil of an absent brother, is forbidden by the principles and laws of Freemasonry.” It is interesting to note, though perhaps only through happenstance and ironic indexing by alphabet, that Banishment, or compulsory exile of one who is unworthy, directly follows backbiting. Or perhaps it is no accident at all.
What to do, what to do?
Sentiments regarding backstabbing are found in Masonic and Sacred Texts alike, with the moral imperative to, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” The following excerpt is from the Appendix, section D, of “The Spirit of Masonry”, by William Hutchinson (1774), the section below is titled, “An address after the expulsion of a member,”:
“A man's character is a tender thing, and a wound there sinks deep into the spirit even of a wise and good man; and the more innocent any man is in this respect, the more sensible he is of this uncharitable treatment; because he never treats others so, nor is he conscious to himself that he has deserved it. To ourselves the consequences of this vice are as bad or worse. He that accustoms himself to speak evil of others gives a bad character who, if they be wise, will conclude that he speaks to them of others as he does of others to them. And this practice of evil-speaking may be inconvenient many other ways. For who knows in the chance of things, and the mutability of human affairs, whose kindness he may stand in need of before he dies? So that did a man only consult his own safety and quiet he ought to refrain from evil-speaking. How cheap a kindness it is to speak well, at least not to speak ill, of others. A good word is an easy obligation; but not to speak ill requires only our silence. Some instances of charity are chargeable; but, were a man ever so covetous, he might afford another his good word; at least, he might refrain from speaking ill of him, especially if it be considered how dear many have paid for a slanderous and reproachful word. No quality ordinarily recommends one more to the favour of men than to be free from this vice. Such a man's friendship every one desires; and, next to piety and righteousness, nothing is thought a greater commendation than that he was never, or very rarely, heard to speak ill of any. Let every man lay his hand upon his heart and consider how himself is apt to be affected with this usage. Nothing, sure, is more equal and reasonable than that known rule, what thou wouldst have no man do to thee, that do thou to no man.” (pgs 246-247).
Now, if you have ever met a backbiting Mason, which I hold that if you have not already, you one day by the odds of probability will, what if that individual took you into his confidence? What if he tried to make you his Masonic disciple? What if he tried to incite your loyalty, even though the things he claimed were true were oftentimes unverifiable? You, being a prudent Mason, judge slowly, allowing the evidence to accumulate. You wait until such a time as to have enough material to weigh in the balances. The things that constitute good character, and thus a person that you wish to model yourself after, are weighed against all the defects that Masonry seeks to remove or improve on.
But all throughout this process, what if this person, who may be your friend, maybe your neighbor, your elder, even your masonic mentor, in his confidential exchanges with you, slanders and spins stories to showcase just how wrong some offending party is by attacking that person’s character, reputation, or actions? And at their next encounter, only pleasantries are exchanged between this Mason and the other party. What if this is not an isolated incident, but a pattern? What if one of the victims of the slander lost his bid for a grand body official position because of it? What if the misinformation colors the outcome of an election or vote on a motion? What does that say about your allegiances and who you are willfully shaping yourself after? What is this person saying behind YOUR back?
There is no place of respect or worthiness for backbiters with stiff necks and hard hearts. Regardless of how many Masonic bodies one has led, what invite only organizations he belongs to, or what honors, even grand honors, he has received for his efforts, slander overshadows all these things and dulls the luster these honors should carry. If the individual with these titles and honors fails to heed the lessons of the EA, FC, MM and Holy Royal Arch, he has succeeded in failing to be a better man than he was yesterday by steadfast adherence to the fundamentals of Masonry today and everyday. In that regard, he not only has failed himself, but the fraternity as well. In a seldom read, but often illuminating text, “Freemasonry in All Ages, being a sketch of its History, Philosophy, and Ethical Teaching,” by Rev. M.F. Carey (1896), the good reverend states:
“As the Fraternity of Freemasons is incomparably the most ancient of all the Fraternities now in the world, so there is now none existing which teaches such sublime morality. In this it is truly the handmaid of religion. Intemperance, immorality, disloyalty to citizenship, irreverence towards sacred things, impiety, and profanity are wholly opposed to the spirit and teaching of Freemasonry. And that contemptible, cowardly, and unmanly habit of backbiting and vilifying the character of the absent, is, in the strongest manner, condemned by the express teaching of the Fraternity, Slander in every shape is condemned as devilish, and is most repugnant to the whole spirit of Freemasonry.” (pg 396)
Backbiting is, unfortunately, what a vile person does and should commensurately be despised for its utterly reprehensible nature. Such conduct is unbecoming of a Mason. Anyone encountering a brother Mason who engages in such behavior has many choices, among them:
To ignore the offense - tacitly approves of the behavior by not rebuking it.
Public shaming - effective, if that person’s hearing, vision, and mind are keen enough to absorb the information without angrily retaliating in self defense.
A private tete a tete - may prove a promising solution, as it avoids public confrontation and humiliation, while providing the brother an opportunity to take the warning whispered in his ear to heart, alter his behavior or face further efforts to correct his moral irregularities.
Sometimes lenient measures have no effect, and like any horse led to water, if the individual is not thirsty, the drought in his soul will persist. In severe cases, the slanderer may simply be banished either by public humiliation and ostracizing, or formally through filing unmasonic charges that lead to expulsion from the fraternity. These extreme cases are addition by subtraction, especially when the backbiter is too stubborn to change his misbehavior and has wrought more disunity and discord in the fraternity through slander than promoting harmony by agreement, compromise, and meeting on the level.
If the fundamental tenets of our profession as speculative Masons are ignored, un-watered and untended, the weeds and disorder that arise in our figurative garden will leave the gardener hungry and malnourished, morally weak, wanting, and subject to the ill effects such defects produce. Keeping a tongue of good report is a cornerstone of Masonic education and is something that should mark well our conduct among men and Masons alike in the garden of life.
By diplomatically and gracefully standing up for what is right and protecting the tenets of the Fraternity first, the potential for disorder to arise diminishes. After all, the removal of a tumor only increases the chances of survival. In order to thrive, we must ensure that the body politic which we all know and love is not put into jeopardy by ill-nature behavior in the first place. By speaking ill of another, spiteful and sometimes envious behavior is produced. And as Proverbs 17:22 tells us, “A merry heart doeth good like medicine, but a broken spirit (sad or dejected) drieth up the bones.” By having a merry heart, a good and pleasant disposition and keeping a tongue of good report, we can stop this cancer from ever developing. Backbiting is one of many irregularities we can and fervently should seek to correct. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
Warmest Fraternal Regards,
Senior Deacon 2017-2018
Summit Lodge #213
If you have any comments or questions on the above, feel free to contact me via email. Any feedback is appreciated.
1 All definitions in this section can be found in the New Oxford American Dictionary, Third Edition (2010), Oxford University Press