Not the same

A per­son with a good rep­u­ta­tion may not be of good char­ac­ter.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ENVIRONMENT - BHAG SINGH

A per­son with a good rep­u­ta­tion may not be of good char­ac­ter.

THE words “char­ac­ter” and “rep­u­ta­tion” may ap­pear to be the same, at first glance. Many of us may not stop to an­a­lyse whether there is any dif­fer­ence. Nor had I un­til some­one asked me to re­flect on it.

The two words are some­what in­ter­re­lated and some­times over­lap­ping. Thus when one says of an­other that he has a good char­ac­ter, it is meant to con­vey that the per­son re­ferred to is well thought of by oth­ers. That would be the same as say­ing that the per­son has a good rep­u­ta­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to The Ox­ford Ad­vanced Learner’s Dic­tio­nary, “char­ac­ter” refers in a neu­tral sense to “all the qual­i­ties and fea­tures that makes a per­son dif­fer­ent from oth­ers”. On the other hand, “rep­u­ta­tion” refers to the “opin­ion that peo­ple have of an­other, par­tic­u­larly whether such per­sons can be trusted or re­lied upon”.

Though the two words may some­times over­lap in their use, on other oc­ca­sions, they may have dif­fer­ent mean­ings and con­no­ta­tions. A per­son may not so­cially in­ter­act ex­ten­sively or at all. Yet he may be of, and have, a good char­ac­ter. But it may be the case that these at­tributes to his char­ac­ter may not be known to oth­ers.

This is be­cause char­ac­ter by it­self is merely an at­tribute of the per­son. For char­ac­ter to be­come rep­u­ta­tion, the char­ac­ter must be­come known to oth­ers be­yond his im­me­di­ate cir­cle.

Though one may gen­er­ally ac­cept rep­u­ta­tion to re­flect the char­ac­ter, this need not nec­es­sar­ily al­ways be so. It is pos­si­ble for a per­son who does not have a good char­ac­ter to have a good rep­u­ta­tion. This may be be­cause the bad char­ac­ter part of the per­son may be con­cealed and only be­hav­iour which is praise­wor­thy and laud­able is dis­closed and cir­cu­lated and even ac­tively pro­moted.

This can be the re­sult of sit­u­a­tions where a per­son with good char­ac­ter may be a recluse or does not care to make known his pos­i­tive and com­mend­able at­tributes. On the other hand, the per­son with a bad char­ac­ter could have cre­ated a good rep­u­ta­tion for him­self by con­ceal­ing neg­a­tive as­pects while dis­clos­ing pos­i­tive as­pects about him­self.

A man’s rep­u­ta­tion is the es­teem in which a man is held by oth­ers. Deroga­tory words, phrases or mes­sages ad­versely im­pact a man’s rep­u­ta­tion. The dam­age to the rep­u­ta­tion is, of course, per­ceived in the con­text of the per­cep­tion of a so­ci­ety at a par­tic­u­lar time.

Whether the mat­ter com­plained against is defam­a­tory or not has to be de­cided upon in the con­text of the moral or so­cial stan­dards of so­ci­ety. Tra­di­tion­ally, the test ap­plied has been whether the words in ques­tion would ex­pose the per­son in­volved to ha­tred, ridicule or con­tempt or to be shunned or avoided.

On other oc­ca­sions, it would be whether the words would tend to lower the com­plainant in the es­ti­ma­tion of right-think­ing mem­bers of so­ci­ety.

Who are right-think­ing of mem­bers so­ci­ety is not easy to de­ter­mine. This is be­cause of chang­ing con­di­tions and per­cep­tions in so­ci­ety. The case of Yous­soupoff v Metro-Gold­wynMayer Pic­tures Ltd was de­cided more than 70 years ago with the judge adopt­ing the “shunned and avoided” test.

He went on to say that “one may, I think, take ju­di­cial no­tice of the fact that a lady of whom it has been said that she has been rav­ished al­beit against her will would have suf­fered in so­cial rep­u­ta­tion and in op­por­tu­ni­ties of re­ceiv­ing re­spect­ful con­sid­er­a­tion from the world.”

In re­cent times, the wis­dom of such a view is ques­tioned on the ba­sis that right-think­ing mem­bers of so­ci­ety would view such per­sons with com­pas­sion and sym­pa­thy rather than odium and con­tempt. The same can be said of those who are di­ag­nosed with HIV through no fault on their part.

But what about a per­son who is lit­tle known or un­known out­side his cir­cle? Can such a per­son sue for defama­tion?

The an­swer, of course, is that he can do so. This is be­cause the law pre­sumes that in the ab­sence of all else, rep­u­ta­tion is pre­sumed to ex­ist in re­la­tion to ev­ery in­di­vid­ual.

Lord Ni­cholls in Reynolds v Times News­pa­per Ltd & Ors said that “rep­u­ta­tion is an in­te­gral and im­por­tant part of the dig­nity of the in­di­vid­ual. It also forms the ba­sis of many de­ci­sions in a demo­cratic so­ci­ety which are fun­da­men­tal to its well-be­ing; whom to em­ploy or work for, whom to pro­mote, whom to do busi­ness with or to vote for.”

Thus a per­son with a good char­ac­ter but no rep­u­ta­tion as such would still be en­ti­tled to pro­tec­tion of the law. It may be ar­gued that be­cause he is not much known, the law should al­low for re­duced dam­age. But on the other hand, an un­war­ranted at­tack on a very pri­vate per­son would also be a ba­sis to counter such an ar­gu­ment.

At the end of the day, a dis­cus­sion of the sub­ject pro­vides for ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the fact that char­ac­ter is more dif­fi­cult to as­sail than rep­u­ta­tion. While rep­u­ta­tion could be af­fected by many ex­ter­nal fac­tors, char­ac­ter is a more ba­sic and less as­sail­able fea­ture of a per­son.

In a speech to the judge while on trial for trea­son more than 200 years ago, Robert Em­met said: “You, my lord, are a judge. I am the sup­posed cul­prit. I am a man, you are a man also. By a revo­lu­tion of power, we might change places, though we could never change char­ac­ter.”

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