Gossip, An Urban Form of Sorcery
by Lennox V. Farrell
Gossip is an urban form of sorcery. Its impact on communities is an issue which I recommend for serious discussion, analysis and possible solutions during Black History Month [BHM], 2002.
Let me explain. In the following, I describe what I think gossip is, and to what it is analogous in its genesis, and impact on both its victims and victimizers. I describe this impact on a particular set of victims, and make some recommendations.
Recommended, too, is a book that describes the role played by malicious gossip, and the similarities between its practices and those of sorcery. Like sorcery, according to anthropologist, Karen J. Brisson, gossip both shapes, and re-arranges power relations in communities. It both supplants functional, community institutions, and institutionalizes itself, instead. The book is, Just Talk: Gossip, Meetings, and Power in a Papua New Guinea Village.
Though gossip might appear to be an innocuous way of wasting time, its ability to destroy relationships is vast. Like witchcraft, it has the capacity to incapacitate. Like witchcraft, it, too, is based on using unsubstantiated accusations by those who make them, and on uncritically accepting these by those enticed into listening.
Malicious gossip--as opposed to negative propaganda strategically used by hostile institutions to further victimize already stereotyped communities--originates most often from individuals whose lives are of unrealized (and in their fears, unrealizable) dreams. These individuals are themselves victims. Using gossip against others not only provides justification for their own failed existences, but also increases opportunities to acquire some control, if not over their own lives, over those of others: both the gossiped to, and the gossiped about.
Gossip also multiplies within an atmosphere of normalized hysteria, reduced appreciation for literary and other cultural pursuits, diminished regard for incisive thinking, rapidly changing societal conditions, widening gaps between social classes, and communities neglected, impoverished, hopeless, and in disarray.
In a similar manner that flesh-wasting diseases consume the bodies of their hosts, so too, does this social malady consume the characters of its victims. In addition, its devotees are either unable to fully discern its destructive impact, or are innurred to its ill effects on others, and on themselves. While it does not solve the problems of its practitioners, it simultaneously makes less effective, efforts made by others hopeful enough to act on behalf of a community's interest.
The easiest victims of gossip are usually those operating on the fringes of their societies and communities. In the past, some were individuals considered as, `odd-balls'. Today, they might be referred to as, `radicals'. Subsequent victims of gossip, though, include others more established. Conditions created by gossip create a widening vortex of disempowerment, and of disempowering. In this, it is the already disenfranchised who disenfranchises. It is power for negative use by the powerless.
For example, it has been observed by many concerned with this issue, how gossip can affect students in school communities in the Greater Toronto Area. Among the most predictable victims are Black and other female students within the range, before and after, of Grade nine. They can be subjected to sexual harassment by male students, usually a grade or two above them.
Under such circumstances, a female student has two choices: resist, or submit. If she resists, and thereby seeks out teachers or parents for support, she can be labeled and shunned as an "informer". Unless she can team up with other students for support, shunning can increase her vulnerability. On the other hand, were she to submit, she could be forced on future occasions by those who can label her a derogatory "sketta, ho, skettaboom, boomie_".
In fact, even if she resists and refuses to be intimidated, she can still be gossiped about, and effectively labeled by accusations that though baseless, are still base enough to spread within days, from school to school.
Adults and others wishing to reduce the influence and impact of rampant, malicious gossip can do some simple things. Among these is to let others who gossip know that you do not! Another action is to ask gossipers if they would be prepared to repeat their comments in the presence of the gossipees. The cursing tongue, "lashon hara" in the Hebrew, could be turned instead to blessing each other, and our children already blighted by stereotyped curses.
Some very sound advice on this issue came from Dr. Jeremiah Wright, the African-American Pastor of the Trinity United Church of Chicago, Illinois. In a sermon on the evils of gossip, he advised his parishioners, "before allowing negative remarks about others into your presence, consider the following: first, are the remarks true; next, are they necessary; and, most importantly, are they nice?"
The case laid out here for consideration during BHM activities, 2002 is much simpler than life's complexities allow. Addressing this issue, is, however overdue. BHM organizers who continue to consider global issues and those of historic import, but ignore local, and malicious realities of gossip, are like the unfortunate man who believes he is in transit from one place to another by train, when what he is really travelling on is a roller-coaster.