The word sully is usually used in connection with the words “one’s reputation.” It refers to the intentional act of defaming someone, of saying or doing something that stains their reputation and destroys their integrity in the public’s eyes. It is a word that comes to us in English from the French word souiller which means to soil or stain. While soiling or staining a piece of clothing is usually unintentional, when used in its current English mode, the person sullying another’s reputation is doing it on purpose.
The practice is common in public life, where one of the methods of defeating an opponent in a political election is a way of diminishing the possibilities of their being elected. In many cases it is far easier and far more effective than challenging one’s standards or a candidate’s position on a topic. With the advent of 20th century media, especially television, it became a common theme for political campaigns. So-called “dirty tricks” expose scandalous events (whether true or not) in the life of an opponent and play it out over and over again in front of the TV viewers.
While there has always been some degree of negative campaigning in American politics, it has grown far worse in recent years. And now, with easy access to social media technology, a whole industry has arisen which delights in the creation of rumor and innuendo which flashes to hundreds of thousands of people immediately, and may ultimately reach the eyes of millions over a period of time. Even if there are disclaimers and rebuttals …even withdrawals of challenges…it is too late, and for some voters the stories intended to scully the opposing candidate’s reputation have been firmly planted in their memories and will affect them on election day.
Similarly, a whole industry has arisen which involves the checking of truth in advertising. The “Pants on Fire” attribution to a statement made in public is anathema and can backfire on the attempt to scully a candidate’s reputation…if enough time exists to refute it. Many times the inflammatory information is leaked the night before an election, making it nearly impossible to overcome its damage.
The ridiculous level to which this methodology has been taken is seen in the whole “birther” movement of the far right in the two recent Presidential elections. The story of curiosity about the birthplace of Barrack Obama morphed into actual accusations that he was born in Kenya instead of Hawaii. Even when he produced documentation to prove his birthplace in Honolulu, the rumors persisted, with some prominent Americans promoting them. The attempt was to scully the truthfulness of President Obama and prove that there was an intentional coverup of the truth that he was not born in America…making him ineligible to serve as President. It didn’t work. He won.
In a previous election campaign the focus was on current Secretary of State John Kerry, then a Senator from Massachusetts. A decorated Vietnam veteran, he was cast as a liar whose war record was embarrassingly ineffective. Because he had become a voice for opposition to the continuation of the War and a protester in public rallies, he was shown by the right wing to be someone who could not be trusted, and who could not be elected. He wasn’t, and many feel that his defeat was, in part, a result of the attempt to scully his reputation.
The procedure is not limited to the Republicans, however. Similar activities have been undertaken by Democrats. The story about presidential candidate Mitt Romney having driven his family to Canada on a vacation with his dog locked in a cage on top of their car circulated throughout the media. The Democrats kept it going, sullying his reputation as a loving family man with commendable values. The story never went away and turned a number of people against the otherwise clean cut former Governor of Massachusetts. Similarly, his company had engaged in purchasing smaller companies and then putting them out of business in a manner of profiting from the closings. Thousands of people were unemployed as a result, and the Democrats seized upon this in an election which was primarily focused on unemployment. Their attempt was to sully Romney’s reputation as an honorable business man who was going to turn the unemployment situation around. He lost.
The sullying of a reputation is not restricted to political campaigns, however. It happens all the time in organizations, communities, churches, schools, and even families. It is a weapon, and can be a very effective one.
Photo Credit: The Do