Gossip feels good. At least, good in a way that virtue cannot compete with: it’s immediate, dangerous and full of exciting contradictions. A story is delicious when it’s distasteful and disgraceful. A forbidden secret tastes better than the biscotti it was shared over — so long as the secret is not about you.
From a critical perspective, gossip represents a scale model of any definable group’s values. A rumour will quickly show public opinion unconstrained by political correctness or vague euphemisms. At first, a piece of gossip may seem like a petty scandal, but by observing the reactions of others we can question our own prejudices and norms.
Dylan Farrow’s alleged molestation by Woody Allen reflected some telling public opinions on rape. The rumours surrounding Laureen Harper’s homosexuality might stem from Stephen Harper’s rigid personality. They might be a political smear tactic. Or they might be true.
Barack Obama has been accused of being a Muslim by American conservative pundits on numerous occasions, yet he has been elected to office twice. Maybe Americans are becoming more tolerant to other religions. Maybe he’s just handsome.
Gossip is never spontaneous. If we are previously inclined to believe something to be true, all we need is a nudge from a little gossip. We know that gossip should be ingested with a healthy dose of salt, but gossip tends to flourish in the absence of clear truth and rumour fills in the blanks. Political smut shows this.
The backstage murmurs of Laureen Harper’s lesbianism didn’t spread because of scorned lovers declaring their heartache, but because her husband lacks sexual charisma. Despite our Prime Minister’s attempts at displaying a personality (notably with public covers of Beatles songs), he still appears cold and dispassionate. To many, Stephen Harper’s behaviour is alienating, which is further shown by his reputation of putting companies before people. Why would Laureen Harper, a popular, outgoing and attractive woman, possibly share a bed with this robot? She must be a lesbian.
By suggesting that Laureen Harper is homosexual, we begin to suspect the Prime Minister’s most intimate relationship. The result is sterilizing and emasculating to his image.
If Harper’s relationship with his wife is a hoax, how can he understand or care about the hearts of Canadians? How can he tell us the truth? The prevalence of this rumour reflects more than just titillation at a cuckolded husband, it reflects a national mistrust of Harper’s status as an honest human being.
An examination of gossip can also measure the extent to which unconventional behaviour will be deemed reasonable. Gossip would not exist in a non-judgemental, liberated world. Gossip only exists at the discrete intersection that joins the unacceptable to the remotely plausible.
For example, a rumour that Barack Obama enjoys making love to Vladimir Putin while they both listen to Pussy Riot will never become popular because it lies beyond the boundary of believable truth.
Stories suggesting that Obama is a Muslim and faked his American citizenship, however, created so many headlines that he publicly denied the rumours. How did such a petty and irrational narrative gain American support? How could Donald Trump, a D-list celebrity with more hair than respect, feel confident in questioning the authenticity of the President of the United States’s birth certificate? The Obama birth certificate debacle is one of the most visible modern examples of the persistent bigotry of America against visible and religious minorities. Sorry, Miley Cyrus, but just because you have a mixed President doesn’t mean that racism is on its way out. Would Americans have reacted with equal hysteria if a white candidate, like Hillary Clinton, was accused of being Muslim? No.
A common argument against the validity of gossip is its frivolity and pettiness. Gossip is an exercise in superficiality and sensationalism, but it is never trivial. Gossip does not exist without personal cost or benefit to its target, and it encourages the disregard of personal privacy. Furthermore, gossip has the power to impact a subject’s reputation long after a story is stale.
Gossip must be taken seriously as a symptom of our immediate social climate. What do we consider embarrassingly deviant activity? Look to gossip. What sources of information do people trust? Look to gossip. How accurately does political correctness reflect what we really think and feel? Look to gossip.
Gossip reveals that we may not have changed much at all. We still condemn sexually promiscuous women, from Kristen Stewart to Catherine the Great. We discourage open homosexuality — the same closet rumours about John Travolta were directed at Michaelangelo. We also hesitate to judge admired individuals, like Woody Allen and Oscar Wilde. Gossip is very much about us and displays an honest mirror of our judgements and what we don’t like about our own personalities. So do not kid yourself — if gossip ever seems so bad that it feels good, it’s probably just bad, and I dare you to stop from joining in.