“A lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on” - Terry Pratchett
“The art of knowing is to know what to ignore” – Rumi
Distasteful and unethical
Rumour and gossip are universally condemned by just about every religion or ethical institution over the years. Buddha taught skilful or right speech, Greek philosopher Socrates contends that “Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people”, Hindu guru Sathya Sain Baba is plain and clear that “Loud talk, long talk, wild talk, talk full of anger and hate – all these affect the health of man. They breed anger and hate in others; they wound, they excite, they enrage, they estrange”. The Christian new testament exhorts us to keep a tight rein on our tongues and not be the spark who starts the fire nor the one who fans the flames to spread it. And way, way back, Confucius said “To engage in gossip and spreading of rumours is to abandon virtue”.
Yet part of everyday living
It is inevitable that rumour and gossip will persist. Especially in times of crisis. Eric Foster, a doctor in social psychology and market research, and psychologist Ralph Rosnow have shared a wonderful article on rumour and gossip research.
They point out that research into rumour-mongering and gossip waxes and wanes, but certain events and situations trigger interest. For example, during World War II there was a great outburst of interest in the psychology of rumour and also rumour control - in order to maintain motivation and morale and prevent either over-pessimistic or over-optimistic expectations.
They are careful to make a clear distinction between gossip and rumour. The same situation now prevails and both rumour and gossip abound as we fight the coronavirus. China is blamed by the US president. Rumours about lock-down extensions or new regulations pop up frequently. One spin on their occurrence is the argument that gossip is an unconscious way of making comparisons and advancing our social lives and norms, and that rumours are a way “of making sense to help us cope with our anxieties and uncertainties”. (Rosnow R. and Foster, E. 2005)
There is no doubt in my mind that gossip hurts and harms (people, reputation, pride, broken trust) and that rumour-mongering is a sort of virus.
Why do we do it?
We humans have a predilection for being anxious, unduly concerned, and worrying about what may happen. This seems to be a part of our evolved “new brain-mind troubles” so well described by UK psychologist Paul Gilbert. (Gilbert, P. 2010)
And so we rush to seek out information to help us make sense of what is happening to us and bring clarity. We might panic if the news is disturbing. And if ‘good’ and our concerns are alleviated, we quickly pass that on. Thus we are vulnerable and prone to accepting fake news, and prone to passing on whatever information we deem to be important. Sometimes with the best of intentions. Sometimes maliciously. Assumed, although false, knowledge can be self-serving power for some, and when shared can feed into and reinforce the recipients’ unconscious bias.
Whatever our intention, ‘information’ that is devoid of truth is extremely dangerous, and spreads at an alarming rate via social media . Recall the early days of the HIV/AIDS ongoing pandemic, the naming and blaming (of homosexual men for example) and rumours about how it was contracted,
What attitude should we adopt?
It’s quite simple really.
Always ask of any new information from any source:
- Who says? (Does this person or source have credibility, a track record of conveying accurate, helpful information?)
- Does this ring true? (What does my intuition and reason tell me? What trusted person or source can I check this out with?)
- So what? What will be the consequences if I pass this on? (So even if, hypothetically, China deliberately spread the virus what will we gain out of naming and blaming – and should our focus not be on what is helpful, and what we do to combat the spread of coronavirus?)
Remember, as Gregg Krech of the TODo Institute reminds us, that "the future is not happening now"! So don't allow unnecessary and anxious thinking about a possible reality (most likely unfounded) cause your imagination to run riot and disturb your present moment contentedness. (www.todoinstitute.org) The more afraid we are of the future the more our present moment is disturbed. (Just how afraid we are and stressed we become are partly a function of our past conditioning and experience - but more so a function of how we perceive the immediacy of the threat - how close, how soon, how big). One antidote is to deliberately bring yourself to pause and become present. Another is to do something for someone else. (Even an encouraging email to someone else will show them you care and shift your own focus)
Refrain from any hint of gossip and spreading of rumour. “If you must slander someone don't speak it - but write it - write it in the sand, near the water's edge!” – Napoleon Hill (American author)
And it goes without saying that we should refute gossip and rumour-mongering and stop them in their tracks once we cotton on to any falseness or wrong intent.
Someone once complained to Nasrudin that his wife was addicted to gossip. He refused to accept the complaint, saying “Well, she has never once come to me with gossip. So what you say cannot be true”.
Gilbert, Paul (2010) The Compassionate Mind: a new approach to life’s challenges Constable, London
Rosnow, Ralph and Foster, Eric (2005) Rumor and Gossip Research American Psychological Association Psychological Science Agenda Science Briefs April 2005
Unknown author (unknown date) Careless talk costs lives. Mr Hitler wants to know File:INF3-238 jpg Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository