I recently came across someone trying to say that true statements can be slander if they are used to damage a reputation in improper ways, such as by telling the wrong people true information, or not following proper channels. I was pretty sure this was incorrect, so I looked it up.  Sure enough, it’s right there in the definition.

the action or crime of making a false spoken statement damaging to a person’s reputation.
“he is suing the TV network for slander”
synonyms: defamation, defamation of character, character assassination, misrepresentation of character, calumny, libel; More
make false and damaging statements about (someone).
“they were accused of slandering the head of state”
synonyms: defame, defame someone’s character, blacken someone’s name, give someone a bad name, tell lies about, speak ill/evil of, drag through the mud/mire, throw/sling/fling mud at, sully someone’s reputation, libel, smear, run a smear campaign against, cast aspersions on, spread scandal about, besmirch, tarnish, taint, misrepresent;

So why would someone think that “slander” could be true, especially when the truth of a statement constitutes an absolutely legal defense against slander? Also, I suspect that this misunderstanding is fairly common. “Don’t spread slander” gets thrown around quite freely by followers when any kind of scandal or criticism is leveled at a beloved leader.

I have a theory: because the word “slander” consists of two required elements there’s an opportunity to use it in contexts that weight one of those elements more heavily than the other.  For example, the politician who has been accused of sexually harassing a volunteer for his campaign, can get up and talk extensively about how the “slander” is just a cheap attack and how much it’s hurting him and his family, and that it’s all just about damaging the campaign.  The context is all about “damage,” and the other part of the meaning, the “false spoken statement” is present only in the word “slander” itself acting almost as a connotation/covert denial of the claims.

Slander becomes a dodging word.  It allows someone to talk a lot about how they are being hurt or damaged which tends to make the audience feel empathy.  That makes it harder to pursue the details of what the truth is, because someone has just cried out in pain, and good people respond reflexively to pain with a desire to alleviate the pain somehow.  It also serves a subtle roll as an accusation against the accuser saying– “they are hurting me.” And in a few simple steps we’ve been thrown off the scent of “what really happened?” and “what are the verifiable details that could help us sort this?” into the land of empathy for the accused and suspicion for the accuser.

Realizing “slander” can be used this way makes me want to go on crusade to make sure everyone knows that “if it’s true or could be true, it’s not slander.”  Don’t let the “false” part of the meaning of slander be treated as an optional connotation, if someone says they are being slandered, you should want to know what part of the statement was false, and how they can show absolutely that it’s false, otherwise claiming someone slandered you is itself slander.

Another thing that ends up connected is that no unfalsifiable statements can be slander. Statements qualified by opinion and/or stated as a perspective on acknowledged facts should not be called slander.  “If it’s true or could be true, it’s not slander.”  Now things like “I think he is an arson” are specific and verifiable enough that they might fall outside of “opinion” even if you couch them in those terms.  But things like “I think this case was mishandled” or “as far as I can tell they are not learning from their mistakes” are unfalsifiable, in so far as they are an expression of someone’s perspective.  It would be nearly impossible for those to actually be slander, because they are not statements about facts but about perspective.  People have a right to their perspective and they cannot be prosecuted for negative and damaging opinions of others, unless they are clearly and verifiably false.  Intent even matters in some cases, if the person believes something to be true, even if it isn’t, that is potentially not slander.

So here’s my crusade: “It it’s true or could be true, it’s not slander.” Next time you hear an accusation of slander ask for the specifics.  I think the word will be 100 times less popular when those using it come to expect pointed questions about the truth of the accusations. Most of the time that’s the whole reason the word is used in the first place– to direct attention away from damaging truths, by using a tricky little word that is commonly misused.