PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus


Gossip, Rumours and Political Ads by peaceprobe
September 19, 2008, 2:11 pm
Filed under: Digital/Star War, Getting on the Way to Peacemaking, Nonviolence, Viet Nam

Political advertising has assigned itself the work of taking us to new heights or lows as we discover our vulnerability to half truths.  Gossip is chitchat about someone else and usually turns up dirty secrets related to intimacy,  misuse of money or abuse of power.  Frequently it is a malicious report which will affect the other person’s ability to function or perform in the public sphere. I cringe when I watch political advertising.  I struggle to find ways to not allow my world to be so simplistically defined by the good or evil portrayed before me.  

When I listen to gossip I become unglued until I remember that the half truths and atmosphere of secrecy upon which it depends need not define my inner knowing.  Gossip does not come from rationality or deep conviction but why do I so easily forget and respond with anger.  Why do I forget that gossip comes from a need to demean, destroy, and thereby achieve a quick victory. I am still learning how to live with the two kinds of gossip that assault me;  the personal type that is passed on to me over coffee and the culture of gossip reflected in political advertising.

The gossip may be about Muslims, persons of African discent, liberals, evangelicals, Iraqis, Israelis, or politicians.  This is the time to do what is right and make a break from the habits of gossip.  As we compost our old habits there will be space and natural fertilizer for the new that is trying to come to life.   

The power of gossip first came home to me in Viet Nam when friends described public officials as corrupt, meaning they took money, cement, or construction materials from government coffers.  It became so normative that I expected some gossip whenever the subject of the performance of public institutions, particularly government, was discussed. Now forty years later whenever I carry on a conversation with Vietnamese the discussion will not proceed far before someone in the circle will say how corrupt the government is – all this after a revolution.  I suppose that some of that is true but in hindsight I can see a cultural thread that implicitly identifies public figures as inherently corrupt and tolerates passing on or inventing rumours. Viet Nam is not the only culture that does that.  

In Viet Nam I learned that the person who passes on rumours seemed really smart, and more connected.  I also discovered that governments, and intelligence operatives often from foreign countries understood the power of gossip (rumours) as a political tool to influence people and turn them against government.  Finally on a personal level I learned that gossip often challenged my self confidence.  This meant that the source of my power was no longer from within but was allowed to be defined from outside of me. In the end I had less to give untill I could summon the courage to respond out of my core values arising from my heart and communicated with the power of reason and respect.  

Over time I learned to trust my inner eye to recognize gossip and rumour. There is no absolute answer to the tricks of gossip.  Sometimes silence can communicate rejection of half truths and rejection of untruth.  Calling the soldiers of gossip liars usually doesn’t help a lot. And, heated argumentation rarely works though it is tempting.  If I think I am going to get pulled into an extended argument I know it is better to say nothing but sometimes I can’t overcome the temptation to argue. I end up marshalling all kinds of extraneous facts that might impress me but do little to win over the gossiper. My adversary may, in fact, be delighted that I have came out swinging with a verbal assault. 

We are surrounded with a culture of gossip that is reinforced by gossip columnists who masquerade as reporters, political advertising and news systems that we don’t completely trust.   In this environment we can feel trapped, isolated, and cut off from our own best judgements.  This has happened to me.  

It was after I returned from Viet Nam that I became more attuned to the hold of gossip in my own society. In April 1968 during a speaking tour across the United States I arrived in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on the day Dr. Martin Luther King was buried.  All of my speaking engagements had been cancelled so I passed some time in the lobby of the YMCA where I had a room. There I heard from local people that King was a communist (remember this was as bad as anything you could say about someone at the time).  

Evidence was variously presented by everyone in the room. One person had a relative in the police.  Another claimed to have studied King`s life.  A third quoted authoritative family members.  I was shocked at the unity of conviction about King`s communism.  No one in the room correctly identified King as one of a long line of Christian reformers, black and white reaching back before the dawn of American democracy whose faith, conviction and method were deeply rooted in the gospel.  

I had personally experienced similar charges during my months of speaking. I felt that neither strong words nor silence could respond to the assault of this culture of gossip that was bleeding the heartland. On that day my silence was not the silence of strength.   

Society depends on confidence and trust among its members or it can self destruct.  But it is hard to deflect the quick fix of gossip.  Stopping gossip one on one is already difficult but what I encountered in the Sioux Falls YMCA was a culture of gossip.  So how do you answer gossip the kind that impugns you either as a compulsive leftist, conservative desperado, or an unkempt person in your private life.   

One of the best responses to gossip is to name the falsehood and supply correct information even when you know it may have little immediate effect.  In those moments you live in the faith and confidence that a word of truth does not return empty.  Even one sentence may be enough. 

Our churches, peace groups and workplaces are not immune to the violence of gossip. Nor are we always aware of the nonviolent ways to answer untruth.  By making clear that half truths and unsubstantiated rumour will not be tolerated within our organizations we make a start. But this is not just a matter of having good rules.  Each one of us must be relied upon to know our own inner truth and to speak out in timely ways.  Even winning a defamation of character or discrimination suit in a court of law does not cure the culture of gossip although it puts everyone on notice for a time.  

The negative political advertising that shortchanges truth and undermines democracy leads to long term distrust of government and other public institutions. Sometimes that culture is fed in churches and church institutions.  Gossip and its first cousin casino type investing that is also rooted in irrationality has now gotten us to an economic melt down.  Of course we can throw up our hands and just say “Oh my, things are just awful,” which may be true.  But this condition can get a lot worse unless we speak up.  

There is no single package of modalities to use to speak back to half truths. Election season with its off key choir of negative ads can turn us all into little people who are either counter attack or become whiners.  We are tempted to polarize with all the good being on our side and all the bad out there somewhere else.  The answer won’t come from polarization.  It will come from collaboration across boundaries.  This is the time when we refine our inner knowing and hold to our vision of something better in our personal and political lives.  Saying NO to gossip is a skill that begins as a gift within each of us.  The NO is the first step.  What follows is hard work because something more healthy is getting started.  

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