The latest inside word on gossip

SAYING a good word for gossip is like defending the rights of the black fly on a hot day in June. Consider the psst!-psst! operation in sneaky practice.

Gossip is not spoken; by tradition it is whispered - at the level of a snigger.

And is there a smile less nice than the smile of the gossip? A smirk straight out of Daumier!

Gossip is a misanthrope's documentary - life seen meanly through the keyhole of a third-rate hotel as if this were all there is.

There can be no glory to the game. Gossip is a sport participated in by two players, face to face - behind a third player's back.

``Dishing out the dirt'' - what more needs to be said?

But now that gossip has become an industry, a rationale seems to be developing to go with it. Two Northeastern University professors, Jack Levin and Arnold Arluke, have written a book, ``Gossip: The Inside Scoop,'' in which they practically ask us to discount as nasty gossip the things said about gossip.

Gossip, as they see it, is often positive. According to their research, only 27 percent of the time is gossip ``clearly negative.''

Gossip can be virtually an exercise in idealism - an impromptu way of sorting out what we value and whom we admire.

What those sweet old gossips are really doing is expressing ``hope for a better life.''

Is gossip sometimes inaccurate when it reaches print? Well, so are other forms of reporting, and even academic disciplines, like gossip's first cousin, anthropology.

Why then has gossip gotten such a rotten reputation? Because, Levin and Arluke suggest, it has been scornfully dismissed as a ``woman's weakness.'' Men ``shoot the breeze.'' Men ``talk shop.'' Men engage in ``locker-room chatter.'' Men do not gossip.

Levin and Arluke are skilled - and often witty - at pointing out these prejudices on the subject of gossip. They almost convince a reader that gossip is as wholesome and improving as aerobic exercises. Almost.

But then one reads still another story, speculating about Charles and Di. One notes how much space Gary Hart received when he was talking about the issues compared with how much he was allotted when Donna Rice entered the scene.

There is a mild pathology to gossip that no revisionism can quite dismiss.

Why do we want to know intimate facts (and non-facts) about strangers?

Why is gossip so often a strategy of revenge? - systematically eager, it seems, to prove that the rich do not deserve to be rich, that the talented are not happy, that the good are less good than they appear to be.

These are not pleasant questions to answer.

If gossip passes for comparative innocence these days, the reason could be that technology, in the form of the computer, is proving itself a more devastating destroyer of privacy.

Indeed, the present taste for gossip may be partly a case of nostalgia, as if thus do we restore the late 20th century to the tittle-tattle state of a village green. And thus do we deny the gray statistical abstract of the city crowd.

It would be hypocritical to pretend that gossip - yawn! - holds no interest. But if our hearts soften so far as to turn generous and forgiving toward gossip, it is probably not gossip we are talking about.

Just this side of gossip there is fiction, even biography. Where does the line get drawn? We are entitled to some guiltless curiosity - even nosiness - about the rich eccentricities of everyday life.

The simple test is to imagine that all the buzz-buzz is not about Burt Reynolds or Joan Collins but about oneself.

Do we hear a loud and unequivocal ouch?

Now that's gossip.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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