The internet is practically an engraved invitation to indulge in gossip and rumor. It's so easy to blurt out whatever thoughts come to mind. Once posted, these thoughts take on the authority of print (particularly if they appear in some book-typeface-like font). Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to question something when it appears in Courier than when it's in Times New Roman? For the poster of the thoughts comes the thrill of instant publication. Only in the aftermath, when untold number have read our blurtings and others have linked to them, not to mention all the comments and comments-on-comments, do we draw back and realize that we may not have acted with either wisdom or kindness.
To make matters worse, we participate in conversations solely in print, without the vocal qualities and body language that give emotional context to the statements. I know a number of people who are generous and sensitive in person, but come off as abrasive and mean-spirited on the 'net. I think the very ease of posting calls for a heightened degree of consideration of our words because misunderstanding is so easy.
I've been speaking of well-meaning statements that inadvertently communicate something other than what the creator intended. I've been guilty of my share of these, even in conversations with people with whom I have no difficulty communicating in person. What has this to do with gossip?
Gossip is either one of the forms of glue that bind a community together -- "news," as it were -- or else a pernicious form of social control, of putting people down/who's in-who's out/of taking glee in the misfortunes of others, of basking in reflected and unearned glory.
Where this is leading is that such statements can be hurtful and damaging whether they are true or not. They are particularly embarrassing to the tellers when they are false and that falsehood is revealed. Human beings are peculiar creatures. When we have injured someone by passing on a rumor, false or not, instead of doing what we can to ameliorate the situation, we set about defending ourselves. "But it was true!" is one tactic, or "I didn't know!" or "Blame the person who told this to me!" Or we find some way to shift responsibility to the person who is the subject of the gossip. Even well-meaning people, people who see themselves as honest and kind, people who should have known better than to spread rumors, do this.
I believe that when we engage in gossip or rumor, we damage not only the person we have spoken ill of, but the bonds of trust in our community. We divide ourselves into those who are safe confidantes and those who are tattlers, between those who are willing to give us the benefit of the doubt and those who will use any excuse to criticize and condemn us.
A huge piece of the problem, in my experience, is that we are inundated with role models of gossipers. We are told overtly and covertly that it is not only acceptable but enjoyable to speak ill of others and to relish their misfortune. If they have no discernible misfortune to begin with, well then we will create some! If media portray the pain of those who are gossiped about, it is often to glorify retaliation in kind. Almost never are we taught what to do when we speak badly. Saying "I'm sorry," or "Shake hands and make up," (as we're forced to do as small children) does not make amends.
Certainly, we must begin by looking fearlessly at what we have done or said (or left undone and unsaid), but we must also be willing to accept that there is no justification for our behavior. It doesn't matter if what we said was true or not if it harmed someone. It doesn't matter if we were hurting or grieving or too Hungry-Angry-Lonely-Tired.
What we have done does not make us unworthy, unlovable, inadequate, or anything except wrong. Good people can be wrong. Good people, when wrong, strive to make things right.
When we do this, we strengthen not only our relationships and our communities, but our own ability to choose better next time. As we have compassion for others, we owe ourselves compassion -- not excuses, not defenders, not "who's on my side," but gentle understanding, encouragement, patience, and courage.
Photo by Rebecca Kennison, Gossips in the Altstadt in Sindelfingen, Germany, licensed under Creative Commons.