A Point of View: Why gossip has to stop

  • 20 June 2014
  • From the section Magazine
Hand picking gossip mag out of newsagent shelf

Do we live in the Age of Gossip, asks AL Kennedy - and is it time to call a halt to it?

Somebody told me recently that I live in Bromley. Or rather she told me that someone had told her that I live in Bromley. This was strange for two reasons. First, I don't (no offence to Bromley) live in Bromley, and second, as gossip goes, it was monumentally dull.

Having noted that, I then felt both relieved and disappointed. Relieved because no major wrongdoing on my part had been suggested and disappointed that my life isn't thrilling enough to produce a single incident of louche athleticism worth reporting. I'm a workaholic typist - that's not thrilling. Then I felt sad that I'm boring, paranoid because people are talking about me and angry that one of them told me.

In other words, even the most banal bit of gossip did what it always does - it distorted my relationship with myself and others. My ego was toyed with and I was encouraged to think of human beings in terms of salacious titbits and areas of weakness.

Which would be why philosophers and religious thinkers throughout the ages have counselled against gossip. The general opinion holds that gossip damages the speaker, the listener and the victim. And, as an old Irish saying suggests, "who gossips with you will gossip of you." But we continue to gossip. Murmur something to me about a complete stranger and I will listen.

This is partly because talking about each other can be useful. If you murmured that the man beside me was a notorious pickpocket the information could save me money. Human beings live in large social groups and if we're to coexist successfully we need to know who can fix our boiler and who'll steal our credit cards. And we have deeper imperatives that gossip fulfils. We no longer search through each other's fur as happy primates should, so instead we can bond by sharing stories about ourselves and others.

So gossip isn't just hateful - it can be helpful and some early definitions of gossip have mirrored that duality. The ancient Greeks had a female - yes, I know, because men never gossip - personification of rumour called Pheme who went about with wings and a trumpet, spreading information that could bring infamy, or could bring renown. The Roman equivalent Fama was more disturbing - lots of eyes and tongues and feathers - but again she sent information, good and bad, rippling outwards and growing louder as it spread.

Image caption Pheme, or Fama, is celebrated on the cupola of Dresden's Academy of Fine Arts

In English the word "gossip" comes from the Old English "godsibb", a term for godparents or the parents of godchildren, or later just close friends - people you would talk to and with whom you'd exchange useful facts and amusing tales and exemplary stories of others' failings, or spite aimed at those you already don't like.

Which may be one way negative gossip gets a foothold. That girl we all didn't like at my school was blameless, but not liking someone can feel bad and inventing reasons for our loathing seemed necessary. So rumours began of stolen pencils, playground incidents, until she faced us down, angry and tearful, and made us - quite rightly - thoroughly ashamed. Our gossip wasn't useful. Like workplace rumours amongst adults, it was aggressive and caused stress. And when we look at reported causes of stress at work, relationships with others and communications are always highlighted - with gossip there, poisoning and demeaning while claiming to entertain.

Our school gossip wasn't just spoken. I recall little notes - not from me, of course. And the power of gossip has been increased by the possibilities of publication. The fervour which sparked the French revolution, for example, was partly fuelled by pamphlets filled with scurrilous and pornographic rumours. Words of mouth are more authoritative on paper.

And with a growth in power came a growth in negativity. So by the early 19th Century gossip came mainly to define a negative - idle chatter, expressions of hatred. We were less ambivalent about something which may have been becoming more unpleasant. The 20th Century saw increasing mass media flirtations with gossip and I would argue that, here at the start of the 21st Century we are living in the age of gossip.

Some of this can seem fun. I'm not following the World Cup, but a bit of rumour about injuries, or what's really going on with Rooney - well, it could spice things up. Or alternatively have made you sick of the whole thing before the first match. Then there are the papers, magazines and TV shows which adore sniping about the cellulite, dodgy cosmetic procedures and behaviour of total strangers. Their phrasing is generic. Teens must always be "troubled", there have to be "demons", perhaps imperfectly battled, "loved-up" couples must become singles confessing their "secret torments" while everyone gets scrutinised in venomous detail.

  • "No one gossips about other people's secret virtues." Bertrand Russell
  • "Gossip is what no one claims to like, but everybody enjoys." Joseph Conrad
  • "What I learned in the military is that gossip starts early and it stays forever." Wesley Clark
  • "Gossip is just news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress." Liz Smith
  • "Gossip is the opiate of the oppressed." Erica Jong

If you're in any way insecure, the media's emphasis on bodily perfection becomes debilitating. As someone who embraces low self-esteem I can see the appeal of clawing the rich, visible and successful to pieces, so I can feel better about myself. But as a major cultural influence this - in my opinion - is horrendous.

A constant flow of gossip normalises nastiness. A generation has grown up being shown forcefully and repeatedly that verbal abuse and personal comments are the jolly, bantering norm. Online insults and the calculated use of sexual gossip to attack women can become more acceptable.

It's not just the tone of gossip that has affected our public discourse - it's corrupted our content. In an unpleasant self-fulfilling prophecy, gossip is seen as something which sells well and is therefore increasingly all we get, from news of royals walking about and wearing clothes, to reports on spats between entirely fictional characters in soaps.

And gossip is economical - it's supplied free by promoters, PR firms and amateur sources. This means it edges out real news and information, large and especially small, supplied more expensively by journalists and researchers. So it's hard for me to find out how many air miles my dinner involves, or if there's a higher-than-usual meningitis risk, but a breeze for me to know all about George Clooney's progress towards marriage, or how Dean Wicks is getting on.

Dean Wicks doesn't even exist. But manufactured East Enders gossip is just another part of the noise drowning out things I may need to know.

And gossip has taken control of our political lives. When Michael Foot was brought down by wearing what was rumoured to be a donkey jacket at the cenotaph in 1981, in a way it marked the end of politicians as primarily intellectuals, ideas-men, and was a triumph for gossip. Gossip didn't care about his policies, it wanted to criticise his coat. We've moved from dismay over Tony Blair's makeup bill to taking it for granted that our leaders can be light on content, as long as their faces are HD ready.

Image caption Michael Foot at a 1981 Remembrance Sunday service in what was wrongly described as "donkey jacket"

And if the type of behaviour gossip loves is what gets you attention, then, guess what - shoddy behaviour is glorified as a path to quick success. Gossip appears to have the winning hand. Even if it's toxic, even if it leaves no room for facts. And even if it's factually wrong - the donkey jacket was a short, substantial overcoat, I don't live in Bromley. But why not stick with the winners, join the gossips - start the rumour I helped gang up on that girl in Primary Three, because usually I was the odd one out and it was good to be part of a team - albeit a horrible team?

I did a bad thing and it still makes me feel bad. But that isn't gossip, it's simply a useful bit of truth - that being unpleasant to other human beings isn't smart or glamorous, doesn't haul us up as equals to celebrities we'll never meet but love to mock. Gossip obscures truth, sours our outlooks on each other and can trivialise any debate. It might be tempting, but we really could do with less of it.

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