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What Is Character Assassination?

In smaller settings, such as workplaces or schools, bullying tactics may take the form of character assassination.
Character assassination can occur when rumors are used to cause harm to a person's reputation.
Character assassination can occur when rumors are spread through text messages.
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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 31 July 2014
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Character assassination is the attempt to discredit a person through damage to his or her personal character. This tactic is often used to harm an individual for spite or personal gain, in situations as small as a classroom rumor mill, or as large as a national election. When character assassination is attempted through the use of lies, gross exaggeration, or misrepresentation of facts, it may be considered slander or libel, and may sometimes result in legal charges.

In general, the goal of character assassination is to cause some harm to the target as a result of the stories or rumors. For instance, in a political election, a candidate may try to damage an opponent's reputation by claiming he or she is estranged from family members, or has a history of marital affairs. The rumors spread do not necessarily need to be related to the issue at hand, such as whether or not the targeted individual would make a good mayor or governor; instead, they need only to cause voters to question whether the target adheres to culturally acceptable moral and personal standards.

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In smaller settings, such as workplaces or schools, bullying tactics may take the form of character assassination. If a student wishes to get revenge on a foe, he or she may spread rumors that the person takes drugs, is sexually promiscuous, or cheats on tests. While these tales may seem frivolous, they can cause the targeted individual to experience scorn and mistreatment from peers, and can lead to social isolation and even depression. In the workplace, rumors about a co-worker's personal life can not only be harmful socially, but may damage career prospects within the industry.

Character assassination is frequently associated with political and public figures, and has long been a mainstay of election drama. In mid-20th century America, during the height of McCarthyism, many innocent people found their jobs terminated for the mere suggestion, without proof, of Communist affiliations. Election campaign advertisements, while often skirting direct accusations, frequently stress negative aspects of a candidate's character in order to create a more flattering picture of his or her opponent.

While some attempts at character assassination may pass on verifiable information, those that deal in lies and exaggerations run dangerous close to illegality. Knowingly and maliciously spreading lies is illegal in many regions, and may result in criminal charges levied against the instigator. Slander and libel laws aim to prevent character assassination through lying, but are charges are often difficult to prove in court.

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Discuss this Article

jessiwan
Post 10

@Perdido: If a political candidate truly was using public funds to use private jets and other luxuries, it would not be character assassination (because it would be true). And I personally think the voters would be better off knowing about it.

anon283075
Post 8

I was forced into accepting a settlement and walked away from my job because the facts about my work incident were manipulated to make me look bad.

I was worried that I would lose my case because of the company's lies. Is this character assassination?

anon270457
Post 7

Character assassination happens when a person lacks competence and is fearful themselves, and must blame someone else.

live2shop
Post 6

Even though I was young, I remember the feeling of fear during the McCarthy Era. A morbid fear of communism led to so many innocent people being accused of having ties with communism. It ruined the life of so many families.

Even an innocent comment by someone could be exaggerated into a web of lies and accusations. Of course, there were some who were involved in the communist party. But so many were absolutely innocent.

sweetPeas
Post 5

Politics is a rich arena for character assassination. In an election, I think that it is for the greater good if a politician exposes bad behavior of an opponent if the accusations are true and can be proven to the public.

But to intentionally lie and dig up dirt about another that is absolutely untrue and damages their reputation and future goals is unethical and criminal behavior.

orangey03
Post 4

@Perdido – It sounds awful, but it is a very effective way to win an election. If you aren't attacking your opponent, then you are leaning back and letting him soil your name. This could be viewed as weakness.

Everyone does it, so if you don't participate, your votes might suffer. I agree that most slanderous campaigns are tacky, but if you use information that can be proven in writing by either statistics or bills, then you will prove yourself to be of greater character and smarter than those who rely on emotionalism.

If I were a candidate, I would wait until someone had attacked me before taking a jab at them. I would gather pertinent damaging information, and I would take out my own ad exposing the actual facts about his or her undesirable behavior.

Perdido
Post 3

Candidates for political office are ruthless when it comes to character assassination. They don't hold back at all. They launch a full-on attack on their opponents' values, even if this makes them look bad for using this technique.

They also word things in the worst way possible. I heard one advertisement stating that a candidate was for “killing babies,” rather than “supporting abortion.”

Numerous candidates point out the fact that their opponents took pay raises during hard times for citizens or cost the state money by using private jets and other luxuries. These are probably the most potent forms of attack, because they can be proven.

Oceana
Post 2

I'm amazed at how easily people will believe rumors that have no truth to them. My favorite schoolteacher got fired because of one that even the school board and parents came to believe. It simply wasn't true, so she filed a character assassination lawsuit against the board.

Even though they did not start the rumor, they gave it credence when they dismissed her because of it. They had no evidence, and their only reason was that angry parents were making threats.

She won the lawsuit, and she got enough money out of the deal to allow her plenty of time to look for a new job. Though she did receive compensation, she said it was more about principle. She did it so that future teachers would have a precedent to protect them.

lighth0se33
Post 1

I bet that schoolchildren have no idea that there is a name for what they are doing to their classmates when they spread vicious rumors about them. I would love it if a teacher would sit one of them down and tell him that he could face legal action for character assassination.

I'm sure that a court would never prosecute a kid for spreading rumors, but that would be a good scare tactic to discourage this type of behavior. It's a sly form of bullying, because it hurts the person emotionally, but they may never know the source of the damaging rumor.

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