Your good name
Published November 16, 2023
By Lib Campbell
Mrs. Russell, social climbing wife of a Railroad robber baron, is scolding her son. Larry is having an affair with a rich Newport widow for whom he is redesigning a house. The said widow is twice Larry’s age. Mrs. Russell thinks this affair will tarnish the household, slowing her rise to the top of New York aristocracy.
“Larry,” she says, “Do not carry this relationship further, not at the expense of your good name.” The value of the good name reaches beyond The Gilded Age in which the Russells live.
I hear my own mother’s voice in my head. “Libby, watch what you say; watch what you do. Your reputation is the most valuable thing you have.” A good name had value in the gilded age, in my youth of the 50s and 60s, and today.
We don’t know how the incivility started; maybe when Cain killed Abel. People feel they can say or do most anything to another person and it’s their First Amendment, free speech right. The sad thing is that the very ones who kill others softly with their words (thank you, Roberta Flack), don’t lose much of anything, even their good names.
Erwin Cheminsky writes about the “consequences of your expression.” Ugly rhetoric and bad behavior are as frequently rewarded as they are punished. One needs to look no further than Donald Trump to know this truth. His words are alarming, dangerous, and cruel. Yet his “brand,” the Trump name, is gold. Still, despite all attempts to hold him accountable, he delights in casting the strongman image. He must have small hands after all!
It's the little people who suffer the consequences and lose their reputations in their work with the strongman. Good names become the butt of jokes, laughing stocks in the public square. The loss of a good name is a terrible price to pay for bad choices and equally bad actions. Many a good name has been ruined as we think we can get away with something, when all we get is caught.
Addressing the consequences of our expressions has led to a new cottage industry. The television ad says, “get a free reputation report.” Then it lists the company name, Reputation Defender. Like a bad credit report, a bad reputation report follows us into every job application, every college application, becoming a ball and chain around our ankle. But fear not, relief from the reputational damage is on the way… and it will only cost you a small fortune.
While few thrive in the garbage they spew, many skulk into the ether sphere, never to be heard from again. Sadly, in this age of cellphone video recorders, you can’t get away with much. Just ask the January 6th defendants.
Our words and the online pictures of our misdeeds provide a record that before technology were relegated to journals or letters, or the pulling of ears by an angry father, mother or spouse.
The expense of losing a good name is a cost to all of us. As America reels in chaos and division, we see world opinion shifting on their feelings of America as the hope of the world. We see the stock market rattle and bump in the face of a potential government shutdown. Moody’s threatens credit downgrades. Our economic engine runs on the good name of an America that pays its bills, treats its people with dignity and respect, and spreads good will across the globe.
It is increasingly evident we are having an affair with autocracy. I don’t know any autocrats who give a hoot about a good name. Their world is driven in crushing the dreams of a people who want to live freely, safely, and hopefully.
We are on a very short timetable for retaining our good name. We have a year to reckon with the ugliness that fills our discourse. We must redesign our house with lots of room for the goodness to flourish and thrive. To live in the risk and expense of losing a good name is dangerous, for us and for the world.
Mrs. Russell, scold us to remember who we are.
Lib Campbell is a retired Methodist pastor, retreat leader, columnist and host of the blogsite www.avirtualchurch.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org