Gossip is everywhere. You’ve heard about Robsten’s “real” romance, haven’t you? Perhaps delighted in the idea that Tiger Woods – a sport superstar – could destroy his own marriage? Couldn’t stop reading when you heard that Jamie Lynn Spears was pregnant? Oh, wait, that was a long time ago. Can you even still remember her time in the tabloids? Hey, many other people have trashed their names since then, so Perdeby doesn’t blame you if you don’t remember.
Hollywood gossip – the rumours recounting every intimacy and intricacy of the lives of the special few we have dubbed celebrities – is commonplace. Why obsess over lives so entirely inconsequential to you? Is it an extension of the more personal kind of gossip: relating the personal details of your acquaintances and friends as fervently as possible? Let’s face it, at varsity, talking about the scandals everyone is always getting up to can, quite frankly, be riveting.
Second-year student Jacob* knows all about this. “One of the shyest, nerdiest boys from my high school turned into a complete party animal at varsity. There were even rumours a few months ago that he got a girl pregnant,” he says. Jacob adds, though, that he knows it’s “kind of childish” to gossip about old classmates. “This isn’t school anymore and I don’t actually care anymore about the people who went to school with me. But I always like to think that whatever Daniel* [the former nerd] is getting up to, I’m not doing anything even nearly as bad.”
A German term, Schadenfreude, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “malicious enjoyment of the misfortunes of others”. Earl Wilson defined gossip as “hearing something you like about someone you don’t”. The two seem linked; we enjoy hearing – and spreading – bad things about people. Jacob is a testament to that; talking about Daniel’s misbehaviour clearly makes him feel good about himself.
Hasn’t it become a bit of cliché, though, to talk about the harm that gossip can do? Everyone has seen Mean Girls at least a dozen times, right? But when someone sanctimoniously tells you that it’s wrong to gossip you can bet it will be followed by a hypocritical “and you know who gossips the most …”
Not that gossip can’t do harm. But identifying it is much more troublesome than you might expect.
Lisa Maphanga, a third-year marketing student, admits to gossiping. “But,” she says, “it’s more just like passing on news. That’s why I think it can be okay when you know what you’ve heard is true.” The difficulty being, of course, to distinguish between fact and fancy. This is exactly what Thembeni Malevu, also a third-year marketing student, identifies as the problem. “You have to make sure it’s true. And even then, is it really your business to talk about it?”
Taking Facebook as an example, though, it might just seem as if people do want to be talked about. Jeff Broderick, first-year BA Own Choice student, attributes it to “this weird lack of privacy that’s just everywhere today. But even if you know what someone did, you can’t pretend to know why they did it.”
Which makes some sense, at least, it was Oscar Wilde who said that all history is merely gossip. An extreme idea, perhaps, but even looking at what someone like Hitler did is a form of interpreting what he did. And by its very definition gossip entails spreading “facts” coloured with subjectivity and personal intent. It’s bound to come out at least a little bit perverted at the other end.
But, according to Jeff, “it’s not a moral issue anymore. I mean, people basically gossip about themselves on Facebook. They want people to know their business.” So it would seem that gossip has become more acceptable, but is it at the cost of privacy? And if you are willingly changing your Facebook profile picture to something trashy, should you not be prepared for the gossip that will follow?
Not that Perdeby is one to preach – after all, we know how fun it can be (just look at Psssst), but the next time someone tells you about that one time they got drunk and hooked up with their own cousin, you might want to consider checking if they posted photos of it on Facebook before telling everyone you know about it. And once you’ve ascertained that they have no problem whatsoever with the whole world knowing, maybe then you can spread the word.
*Not their real names