Everyone is familiar with the expression, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” This means, of course, that rumors are very often true. And they are most often true, it is generally supposed, when the rumor is “persistent,” “recurrent,” and will not be “laid to rest.”
There is a good deal of peasant shrewdness in this expression, for the epistemic value of a rumor is not nil. In charting his course through life, every prudent man must consider and take into account those propositions that might be true. He would be a fool were he not more circumspect in the company of a man who was “dogged by rumors,” a man of uncertain or “shady” character.
Now a man of shady character is not a man of manifestly bad character. Prisons are not filled with men of shady character; they are filled with men whose bad character has been revealed in the strong light of a legal trial. A man of shady character is a man who might be bad. He is a man about whose character one is not absolutely certain, because at least some of that character is partly hidden in the semi-darkness of “shade.”
Indeed, one is wary in the presence of a man of shady character because “it is said” that some very alarming things are lurking in the cover of that shade.
It “is said” there are alarming things hidden in the shady places of a shady character, but no one will claim to know for sure, for a degree of uncertainty is of the essence in rumor. What is more—and this is very important—the uncertain rumor is not propounded by any particular man, but is something that is “said” generally. It is “what people say.” Particular men must, of course, spread the rumor, and to spread it they must say it, but they always do this as hearsay. Their authority is always “people.”
Every rumor begins life as personal testimony, but I believe it is wrong to call it “rumor” at this stage because it is not yet expressed with uncertainty and as hearsay. A whispered slander is not a rumor so long as the one doing the whispering claims to have been an eyewitness, and claims to be absolutely certain that what he says is true. Such whispered slanders are only potential rumors. They are, as it were, the seeds from which real rumors grow.
That a rumor must be something that “people say” generally can be seen in the very roots of the word. The Latin rumoren means noise, clamor, or common talk. Early modern English actually preferred the verb “noised” to the word “rumored.” In Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, for instance, the Second Bandit says to the First, “It is noised that he hath a mass of treasure,” (act 4, scene 3). When Zacharias recovered his powers of speech, the King James translation of the Bible tells us that the story of this miracle was “noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judaea” (Luke 1: 65).
The epistemic value of rumor is not nil. Indeed, we have it on good authority that certain matters of supreme importance will be first made known to us as rumors. We are, for instance, told to suspect that the end of the world is nigh when “rumor shall be upon rumor,” most especially when these rumors are “rumors of wars” (Ezekiel 7: 26; Matthew 24:6).
With that said, we must also recognize the grave dangers in innocent acceptance of everything that is in noised, rumored, and “said to be true.” This is because it is all too easy for designing men to produce smoke where there is no fire. Or, to change the metaphor, because it does not require a green thumb to be a successful planter of rumors.
These thoughts were stimulated by two items that I read this morning. The first was a post at Dalrock’s blog about the unavailing labors of Dr. Wayne Grundem, a biblical scholar who has failed to dispose of the rumor that the Greek word kephalē means something other than “person with authority” (see here). This word appears in Ephesians 5:23 and 1 Corinthians 11:13, where it has for close to two thousand years been read as indicating that a husband has God-given authority over his wife. Back in 1979, it seems, a husband-and-wife team by the name of Mickelsen planted the rumor that kephalē does not mean “authority,” but in fact bears the altogether more agreeable (to feminists) meaning of “source.”
There is, according to Grundem, nary a shred of evidence to support the Mickelsen’s novel reading of the word kephalē, and great wagonloads of evidence to support the traditional reading, but the rumor they planted has proven impossible to kill. The reason for this is, of course, that a great many people today wish that the Mickelsen’s rumor were true.
Just as you and I wish to believe the worst gossip about our enemies and rivals, and so in fact do believe it, so a great many modern Christians wish to believe, and therefore do believe, the worst corruptions of St. Paul’s teachings on marriage. And in consequence, the Mickelsen’s false rumor continues to be “noised.”
The second item that got me thinking about rumor was an interview between the journalists Tucker Carleson and Alex Mohajer (see here). This had to do with Mohajer’s claim that Donald Trump is not our “legitimate” president because he did not win the popular national vote.
Obviously loss of the popular national vote does not make Trump’s election “illegitimate” in the plain sense of unlawful or not recognizable by the law. In fact, to have awarded Clinton the presidency on the basis of her majority of the national popular vote, and in spite of her Electoral College loss, would have been illegitimate, since the law takes no account of national totals in the popular vote.
But, as we all understand, Mohajer (like Congressman Lewis, and a great many others) is using the word “legitimate” in the exquisite Leftist sense of “morally right” (in the eyes of Leftists), while at the same time stealing the legal gravitas that goes with the plain sense of that word. His aim is to plant the seed of a rumor that laws were broken, when in fact all that happened is that the hopes of many (including Alex Mohajer) were disappointed.
Mohajer’s aim (like that of Congressman Lewis et al.) is, of course, to foster the rumor that a surprising election was, in reality, a “shady” election. His aim is to produce smoke without fire. Since a great many people want the Lewis-Mohajer rumor to be true, we must expect Trump’s illegitimacy to be noised for years to come. Indeed, many of us will be “laid to rest” before it is.