On gossip

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. Gossip and politics seem to be inseparable, so it is worth trying to understand gossip a bit better and the kind of role it plays for many in political life – and it’s not a pleasant one. Here, then, is why those who deal predominantly in gossip are not to be trusted.

On gossip

By: Gareth van Onselen

11 June 2012

In politics gossip represents for many a certain kind of power: a piece of information that is secretive or scandalous and which can be misused to advance one’s interests, either by undermining someone else or revealing something preferably hidden.

It is perceived to be powerful because it is sought after, its illicit nature making it a precious commodity. Thus, those who trade exclusively in gossip use it to bolster their standing – a bargaining chip which puts them at the centre of intrigue. In turn, it makes them feel important and, they assume, in the eyes of the powerful, of some special worth.

So gossipers are insecure, desperate for either attention or affirmation, or both; and unsure that, outside of gossip, they have anything meaningful to contribute. For this reason it is always worth interrogating how someone came by the information they present to you and, if it involves a violation of trust, what that says about them. Similarly, if what they present is a fiction. What kind of person deals in deceit?

No doubt, if someone is willing to abuse their various relationships in this way, you represent to them only a convenience, a chance to be affirmed. Certainly that desire is usually far more powerful in them than any loyalty to which they might allude, in order seemingly to justify their actions. If gossip is their favourite pastime, the subject matters not; and you can be sure, when in the company of others, you feature just as prominently in their storytelling. Their only loyalty is to affirmation. Whomever best provides it, their master for that moment.

Gossipers are also petty, their addiction to hearsay means they care more for scheming than the truth, and any small-minded scrap of scandal will do. Likewise, they love to moralise, to pass judgement on their secrets, making their telling all the more damning. The combination of these two things means often they fail to distinguish between what is important and what is not, too busy are they being indignant about the insignificant.

The most powerful gossip is believable, albeit unverified, and speaks to some insecurity – in confirming one’s doubt its influence is amplified. Gossip plays on doubt, feeding off it. An environment in which gossip thrives is therefore often defined by uncertainty; and the more seriously gossip is taken, the more powerful it becomes.

It requires great restraint and courage, in such circumstance, to choose rather to invest only in those things that can be confirmed as fact. More still not to affirm those gossipers that ingratiate themselves before you.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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