Forget the death of Bambi’s mother. The scene that riveted me in the movie Bambi was dark, tense, everyone staring at the rude little rabbit who was being reminded by his mother of how he was supposed to treat others. All my attention was on Thumper as he said carefully, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”
Now, I understand that gossip is the real currency in a small town. When I get home after time away, my first question is always, “What happened?” I want to know who said what to whom, who’s got the bug, what’s going on at the village, what new projects the neighbors have in store. For the most part, this kind of gossip is harmless, although anyone participating has to realize that it’s reciprocal. Reciprocity isn’t necessarily comfortable: it’s weird to realize that people I hardly know are well aware of my mah-jong addiction. But I guess that Mr. Bennet, in Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice, says it well: “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in return?”
But gossip is also the currency of bullies, as Thumper (and Mr. Bennet) knew so well. This kind of gossip is neither harmless nor reciprocal, and it is death to trust in a community. This is tongues wielded like razor-edged swords; this is callous disregard for truth and those who get hurt.
Here’s what I’ve seen: a coffee klatch rumour started that someone’s marriage was disintegrating. It wasn’t true. But that rumour caused humiliation, confusion, and isolation for a couple who’d loved, and felt loved by, this community. They moved away soon after; you could truthfully say that my friends lost their home to gossip.
I could list what I’ve watched over the years: elevation of an innocent mistake into a public shaming, character assassination to get back at an ex-partner, ascription of bad motives to those with whom we disagree. I could also tell you about the humiliation, grief, soul-sucking suffering, and destruction of relationship that have resulted from these actions.
One thing I’ve noticed—and I’ll bet I’m not alone—is that when asked, “What’s going on?” I want to cough up something tasty. I want to please the other person; I want to cement our friendship. If I give in to this desire—pulling out something savory but confidential, or something particularly nasty—I may feel a momentary connection. But that fades quickly as I realize that I’ve betrayed myself by making a cheap play for relationship. This is a good way to destroy my own soul.
I assume that those who prey on others with their cruel tongues are insecure, and lack an internal wholeness. They are to be pitied. But to understand is not to approve. Writ large, this behavior destroys nations. Writ small, it shatters homes. So listen to Thumper: Don’t repeat that crap or stand silent when others are being shredded. Stuff a sock in that gossip hole.