Geoffrey Heptonstall

Psst. Have You Heard About..?


‘Psst. Have you heard about..?’ Yes, we all like a delicious morsel of gossip, don’t we? It’s harmless. And if anyone is hurt, well, they shouldn’t have done it in the first place.

Gossip is justified sometimes as a safety-valve, a channelling of legitimate resentments that cannot find other means of expression. Hypocrisy and double standards are the detritus of society that otherwise might flow unchecked were there not the unofficial channels of public shame. The influential and powerful tend to play by different rules. Resistance requires a strategy outside the legitimate sphere. What cannot be said openly is either silent or subtle. A whisper among the few in time becomes the printed word acknowledged by many. How else was Nixon brought down?

But a challenge to the powerful is a case of necessary subterfuge. Democracy needs that means of challenge as surely as it needs elections. Hearing the rumours, testing out their authenticity, is one of the tasks of a genuinely free press. It was always possible that the Watergate reporters might have found no link to the Oval Office. It was right that they sought to uncover the truth rather than simply print the legend. The rumours may have been false. Often they are. Gossip is not to be trusted. It is a lie until its veracity is proven beyond doubt.

In a culture where rumour is everywhere who knows what to believe of anyone? When truth is held in contempt, when it is malleable to the requirements of the hour, it is easy for the unscrupulous to deny, and for the denial to be believable. Wicked celebrities slip away while the rumour hunters follow some easier prey. [‘Never mind the evidence, I say he’s guilty.’]

Gossip is a game of Chinese whispers, a field of rich speculation where surmises become true, where possibilities become fact, where even the improbable is accepted as very likely. Gossip is where calumny grows in fecund ground. Malice born of ambition or envy or spite comes into play. Let us sketch a scenario: ‘I personally thought there was nothing in those rumours,’ instils and encourages doubt where none need be. A feigned innocence protests that nothing actually was said. The rumours weren’t detailed. Indeed, they were denied. But their existence was spoken of in a tone that implied some dark corner hidden from light. If there are rumours there may be some truth. Certainly there is doubt. Of that we can be assured. And so a letter of rejection is typed with polite phrases of regret that mask the invidious suggestion and the unfair judgement. ‘It’s probably for the best. You can’t be sure of someone like that.’

A courageous challenge to the powerful cannot be compared with a cowardly blow at the powerless. And that is the point: the target of gossip is powerless. When things are said openly they can be countermanded. That is why in our law courts we have counsel for the defence. There is no defence against whispers. They succeed by not being fair and, perhaps, by not being true. They are in any event unlikely to be the whole truth. Stated openly they may disappear like dust. Malicious gossip is not justice. It is lynch law.

Wild justice was Bacon’s attribution of revenge. There is something vengeful in gossip. It is the revenge of the mediocrity jealously guarding his/her position. It can be an exercise in power for the sake of being powerful, an arrogance of a low, cunning kind. It doesn’t arise in those who are comfortable in their positions. It arises in those who suspect – or know – they are not more deserving than others. It was chance or influence or scheming that brought them to their position of advantage. Legitimacy can be established only when every possible challenge is eliminated. Gossip is dictatorship in an open society.

The justification is by a curious legerdemain in which the challenge to power is regarded as not only evil but in some indefinite way more powerful than the power being challenged. Stalin characterised Trotsky not as a rival revolutionary leader but as a counter-revolutionary in league with the fascists against whom the humble, toiling masses must seek resistance with whatever weapons they could muster.

Of course Stalin was hardly likely to say, ‘Actually the truth is that I’m not nearly as clever as Lev Davidovitch. I envy his cosmopolitan culture, his charm, his intellect, his originality of mind. Lenin was quite right: I do need watching. I’m suspicious of everything because I’m an undeserving, narrow-minded fanatic with a vainglorious streak that adds spice to my cruelty.’ No, he wasn’t going to say that, not even to himself. But every pejorative was an admission of guilt. That is what gossip says: ‘Our enemies are on to us’, whether or not those enemies actually exist.

The need for enemies is a corollary of power. They have their ‘enemy’ in their grasp. They can do as they wish. It is a violation of human integrity against which there is virtually no legal redress. Gossip takes possession not only of the chosen subject but of truth itself. ‘You are what we say you are.’ Witnesses who could come forward in defence are too frightened, too ashamed or too corrupt to do so. It is, as you may have noticed, a wicked world.

That would be a counsel for despair were it not the case that in the end a restorative balance settles the question. In time the undeniable fact makes nonsense of the false supposition or the deliberate lie. That depends on an essential decency prevailing against the temptations of selfishness. If we lose that decency, well, that’s it. The fear is that we may be losing it.

There are those who would argue that revenge is sometimes necessary, and the only available means are whispers. But revenge is both wild and destructive. Its corrosive effect on the human spirit is indiscriminate. Perpetrator and victim are equally defiled by the violent nature of revenge. Malicious gossip is invisible violence. It is torture. It is rape. It is murder. Its instigators are conscious of their odious intentions.

Gossip is tolerated by the powerful because the vicious tongues of minions willingly do the dirty work of the powerful. Gossip is unattributed and is thereby deniable. Throw in the suggestion and let bitterness and spite do the rest. The end justifies the means. The end is to save ‘everything we hold dear.’ But the means define the end. The means throw everything away. Gossip displays contempt for everything. There is no respect for oneself or anyone else. Those who lack respect for themselves are in no position to regard others. The absence of imaginative sympathy is as absolute as the indifference to the consequence of invidious actions.

Tolerating this as an inevitable part of human nature is tantamount to saying it is acceptable. Yes, there always will be rumours and whispers. That is true. However, what we are considering here is not folk-wisdom but willed malevolence. It is almost systemic in its nature. We are a competitive culture, a society that has lost the value of co-operation. We no longer wish to pool our resources as a society. Winning is everything – by fair means or foul. Social attitudes affect personal attitudes. A lack of co-operation ensures an erosion of empathy. Why should we care about anything or anyone? Is a thunderbolt going to strike us down? Well, no, so, as long as it’s not illegal – or if it is, as long as you don’t get caught – do it. Do it and win. You’re a winner. You’re a winner even if you have lost your humanity in the process.

Geoffrey Heptonstall © 2014