Satchel Living: The high cost of cheap talk

Satchel Living: The high cost of cheap talk

By Nick Galifianakis author of If You Loved Me You'd Think This Was Cute
Walking to work this morning, I met along the road a fellow I go to church with who is recovering from an operation. We exchanged pleasantries and then delved into news of our worlds: family, work and holidays. 

Then we ventured beyond the light news into the meaningful, the feature stories, if you will, untangling each thought with an explanation of how we had come to it, a revelation here, a truth nugget there. We wound up by affirming each other ("Your wife is excellent and I hope your recovery is swift!") and then parted company. It was civil, short, fruitful conversation that left a sweet smell in the air. 

No gossip was exchanged in the process. Then I picked up the paper and saw Gina Rinehart's family affairs plastered all over the front page.

In the news-exchange business, there's a fine line between what is news (factual information about noteworthy events of some significance to us or others), opinion (a notion or conviction founded on probable evidence) and gossip (idle talk or rumour about the personal or private affairs of others). 

There is much talk about what is in the public interest and celebrities and other public figures being fair game for the insatiable news media daily cycle (so long as you don't hack into their phones). But is cheap talking costing us more than the cover price of a gossip magazine or newspaper? When it is okay to partake in, or share an interest, in the affairs of other people?

Newsgathering is the primary domain of journalists who go about collecting facts, opinions/quotes and evidence and fashioning them into a reasonable account of some event or issue of the day, shaped by prevailing news values, for their readers or viewers. The images and headlines in accompaniment are designed to grab our attention; to pique our interest.

The objective is to alert, inform, educate and arrive at some greater truth that can be agreed upon or grappled with through further unpacking/extrapolation (a feature story). This, in turn, adds to the grand narrative of human existence, as it is said journalism is the first account of history. It helps governments form policies and laws and informs social mores. 

It tells us who we are and where we are from. It makes us feel like a part of the living world where ideas and thoughts are exchanged. Wars have been fought, empires extended and lost, all according to the information that was delivered by the wire. How would we know of the atrocities committed in the Nazi camps if it were not for story telling? Or that Moses parted the Read Sea (ha! Freudian slip) to deliver the Israelites from Egyptian slavery? Or that there was unrest amidst the Arab Spring?

Journalism gives us something to think about and helps us to make assessments: how we will vote, how we will spend our money, who we choose to associate with, the lifestyles we choose to live. People are often the subjects, as they contribute to significant events and ideologies and concepts are hard to photograph. 

"Australia's Best Boss" Ken Grenda was the subject of The Weekend Australian Magazine's most recent cover feature, described as "an antidote to all tales of workplace bastardry and greed", wrote editor Christine Middap. Just the same, the Old Testament, full of genealogical stories about our relationship to God, the grand narrative of a few faithful men and women, gives Christians, like my friend and I, a foundation for living, thinking and relating, and a hope.

I think that's what gets lost in the dross of the goss.

In our everyday conversations, we do much the same as journalists as we attempt to make sense of the world and relate it to others (our colleagues, partners, friends). In a sense, we are all conduits for news; a notion more apparent in the era of Facebook. We relate to the world largely through each other and form our sense of identity in relationship to others (daughter, sister, friend, colleague, partner). 

Our making sense of the world is an ongoing process shared with our fellow sojourners: some who agree with our world view, and some who don't.

Only, in our quest to be seen and heard by these others, in this exchange of stories, values and beliefs, we sometimes cross the line from news telling and sharing a thought-through opinion into gossip, which betrays our humanity. We are cultural, social creatures and our actions and reactions reflect the times. We live in an era of social media, celebrity and over-sharing.

Used to be that people would exchange pleasant discourse in the public space and keep other matters within the home. Now, the distinction between the public and private sphere is not so clear. Just as the Hollywood celebrities of yesteryear were subjects of intrigue because we knew so little about their off-screen lives, we now know a little too much. Scandal for breakfast, anyone?

Gossip causes disunity, discomfort and calamity – for the subject as well as within the public space wherever we congregate (in schools, offices, cafes, churches, Facebook, blogs). It warps our perceptions of people we don't really know by pandering to our desire to "have something on" someone else and make us feel a little bit better about ourselves. It may occasionally intersect with truth, but it rarely has a positive effect. 

And, sadly, for many gossips peddling other people's problems, that is the purpose: ill intent.

Have you ever been on the receiving end of information about yourself, created by someone else, that is plainly untrue? It's not very nice. But often it's the conduits of the gossip, through whom the ill-begotten information passes, who are the major culprits in the whole scenario. Without them, we would be wonderfully ignorant to much of what's said about us in the negative sense.  

What is making them want to have their say?

Any thinking human knows about his or her shortcomings, faults, failings and missteps... we don't need them pointed out by others ("You have cellulite and a fat tum and your breath stinks and you are dumb!"). The exception is, of course, if the intent is to help and not to harm.

I am always alarmed by the lengths some people will go to to make your life uncomfortable. As if it wasn't already a struggle! It's almost as if we exist in a perpetual state of tug-of-war; like there's not enough cake for everyone to eat, so everyone is vying for the biggest slice or to take away yours to have all to themselves. 

The starting point when assessing the motives of a gossip or a piece of news should be, are you telling me this to hurt me, hinder me or to help? Helpful things can hurt, such as being told we're in the wrong or we've upset someone or need to pull up our socks. If we are grown-ups, we should be able to take criticism on board if it is coming from someone we respect and trust and is laced with grace and compassion (in this sense, we are more likely to take on board the news, views and opinions of journalists and news services we also respect and trust). 

Jesus was exemplary when it came to his conduct, quite obviously: no judgement at all for the Samaritan woman at the well. No, "So I heard you have been married, like, five times and that's pretty shameful, no wonder you're out here all alone and the other women don't want to talk to you." Nope.

Just the simple acknowledgement that he knew of her past and did not wish her harm. He didn't advertise her affairs to the world, but met her in secret and gave her good news to share with all her village. She was a news-teller in a New Testament sense! 

He also demonstrated this sense of an even playing field when he confronted the blokes who wanted to stone the woman to death for her infidelity: what did he write in the sand that day that to turn them away from her in shame? Quite possibly an account of every single thing they themselves had done wrong.    

It's not just the person who is the target of salacious, secretive speech but the bearer of the gossip themselves who are harmed in the process of the exchange of sinister information. When we judge, defile or ruin the name of someone else, we tarnish ourselves. Gossip may erode your teeth and damage your brain and also your reputation. It's expensive to make the repairs. It takes humility, which is not altogether a natural thing for prideful human beings.

As a blogger of some five years, this is a lesson I've learnt the hard way. "I'm going to dob on you", "So and so said this about you", "Did you hear what he/she did?", "Look, isn't this interesting!". It creates little to no value at all, except to, in one fleeting moment, give the bearer of the bad news an air of authority, a bit of a rise. Ick. Sick to the pit to have been a conduit.

To formulate an opinion is one thing, but to place ourselves at the behest of the gossips is another – and this is an issue I'm sure many bloggers grapple with. To give away something of yourself for the consumption of people who may very well use it against you, is plainly foolish. But everyone is doing it! Like a confessional en masse, the internet is flush with personal musings on everything from bowel movements to what we had for breakfast.

Some of it is interesting, but some of it is not, and it's very hard to see the forest for the trees when you are dancing with the Zeitgeist. Why this need to say, "Hey, this is every single thing I have done and thought today"? For me, it may have been an act of self-flagellation: if you don't think you are worthy of something a bit nicer, of privacy and integrity, then it's open season on everything. It leaves you feeling naked, and wanting to take back something for yourself.

Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, when they defied God in the search for knowledge and robbed themselves of a peaceful, happy existence, the fig leaves can only do so much to restore us in a world that keeps records of everything we have said and labels us accordingly. "Anything you say can and will be held against you".

Liberation is there for the taking, but there will remain people who do not want you to grow beyond these limits of the past, who will delight in reminding you of where you've been instead of celebrating how far you've come and what terrain you might now navigate. Just look at Bob Carr!

If the motive is to puff up ourselves or profit in some way by tearing someone else down, to cast aspersions on the reputation of someone who is not there to defend themselves, or to exchange secret knowledge so we might feel "connected" to a group or accepted by a group, then we have reason to wonder if we're crossing over from the enlightenment that is truth to the darkness where gossip resides. There are many fine lines. The world is full of little landmines to circumnavigate. 

The guide must ultimately be our conscience together with humility: the deep understanding that nobody is beyond reproach but we are all worthy of redemption. But consciences, they're funny things: they can get lost! When everyone else is doing something, then it can seem totally okay. Finding a space for yourself, carving out a genuine sense of what is right, can be a struggle when everyone is prepared to sell you something: an idea, a fashion, a tasty little gossipy something. 

Save for the truly saintly, we have likely all forgotten our manners and said things about people that they would not have liked said if you were in their company. Even Mother Teresa was the target of gossip!

Unfortunately, gossip is closely associated with women, which has the effect of making our sex seem incapable of anything but small, parochial thoughts about other people instead of grand and interesting ideas. Meddling Millies who have a particular preoccupation with the lives of others cause a lot of trouble. It's one thing to take a sociological interest in people, who are fascinating, but quite another to use their lives as fodder to ameliorate our own discontent.

"Gossip is the opiate of the oppressed," wrote the author Erica Jong, and I can't help but feel that when we are operating under oppression – the feeling that we're not worthy of attention, celebration, respect – is when the gossip bug is lifted from under the rug and runs rampant. The unfortunate thing is that it belittles us without us consciously knowing it, until, perhaps, a pang of regret rises up from our stomachs and into our mouths, or the gossip comes back to haunt us (in this case, don't condemn yourself but do make efforts towards reparations). 

"If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all," said Mother. And she was right. Loose lips beget regret. "Troublemakers listen to troublemakers," says the Proverb (17:4).

The current political and media climate, the state of antics on the parliamentary floor, would suggest that a discourse of verbal jousting, of tearing the other man down, of showing just how superior you are in thought and intellect and knowledge, is alive and well. It is a spectator sport. The whole idea of rhetoric is to win over the other to your point of view, and to rally the troops, but often it collapses into a slanging match. What would that grand statesman Winston Churchill say?

Persuasive talk is an art form. It speaks of robust democracy and reasoned thinking. Some of the most eloquent and convincing speakers of our time have been politicians. There has to be some depth, some meat, to our thinking... we are not all shallow human beings. We think, we feel, we experience, we reason. To keep ourselves at gossip stage is to cripple our capacity to grow not only intellectually, but in our humanity; to grow, thrive and delight in life.

"All I know is: too much useless, intimate information – too much mundane reality, if you really want to know – can play havoc with a girl's passions and fantasies," Melbourne journalist Janice Breen Burns once wrote. "It can spoil the stuff that makes her heart sing."

Hiding from the grittiness of reality, as if all of life were a Disney movie script, is not the point. It's the possibility of a life without gossip lived. The Bible itself is testimony to the manifold shortcomings of humankind; within it we have a script for every awful thing that can happen when we deviate from the good path and wander off into the abyss. But we also see how destructive it is when we deviate from pleasing God to trying to impress others.

Petty, small-minded thinking keeps us from experiencing the fullness of mind and life and God. It keeps us scared and small and second-guessing everything and everyone; believing we are something we are not because of what someone else said. Dread. It also keeps us focused on others' perceived inadequacies and less on addressing our own. It steals our joy and causes friction in communities, churches and homes.

It's wise to be aware that we are not perfect, and if we have hurt someone or someone harbours ill feelings towards us, we should know about it. Ideally, this would involve a private conversation through which both adults explain themselves and an understanding is reached. This requires utter humility and charitable thinking: knowing deep down that we are just as capable of falling into the traps of gossip as the next person, but endeavouring to smooth the way to make the world a better place.

If we observe that someone's behaviours and conduct are causing them pain, or others pain, then we have reason to take them aside and inquire, "Is everything okay with you? Are you coping with life? Is there anything I can do?". There is no sense in talking about others if our intention is not to help or to understand but to lube the rumour mill.

The resolve to not be defeated by trivialities, by people who will try with all their might to make you feel as insignificant, ugly and stupid as they possibly can, is something that can be learned, but it's hard won. There's nothing like bitterness and regret to keep us feeling like the world is a hostile place. Projecting these feelings, like missiles of discontent, everywhere we go can become a habit. People will shrink away from these types once the schtick becomes wearying.   

Apologies, when genuine, and reconciliation take the sting out of living. No sense in apportioning blame. But no reason to be a victim, either: if you have no sense of value because of the opinions of others, you need to find it and live a life worthy of it. And that means refusing to partake in demeaning gossip, or make yourself its object, which leaves more room in your head for processing important information: like your tax, the name of your local librarian, the troubles in Libya.

If you feel you've been wronged, that's life and it's up to you to decide how to deal with it. Honesty is the best policy; cheap talk is costly. The sweetness in life is realising hurt and pain can manifest in inflicting more conflict and pain, or it be turned into something useful, like an outlook on the world that says, "Oh, well, hater's going to hate, what a terrible shame, I wonder what's wrong with them – perhaps I can help them to see there's a better way, but maybe they will throw it back in my face."

There is no art to tearing someone else's world apart; the true art is turning your icky bits (loneliness, insecurity, disappointments, embarrassments) into loveliness, like a friendly exchange between two human beings on a morning walk. In a world full of gossip, persecution and contempt, dare to be civil, kind and respectful. As Taylor Swift sings, "Don't you worry your pretty little mind, people throw rocks at things that shine."

Girl With a Satchel