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Why are rumors and gossip so delicious to chew? Is gossip a patently mean-spirited way to trash people? If we know that rumors and gossip are irrational and incomplete stories, why do we persist as gossipers?
We were born to gossip because gossips are stories and our minds are “serial” tellers of stories. We weave stories by connecting things – bits of facts, opinions, legends, our own fears, our own biases.
I fleshed out an earlier life’s role – babysitting- through stories. I took a serious role in raising my two nephews, Nigel and Gambit, many years ago. And my main strategy was to present the universe to them as a gaping basket of stories. Gambit, our family’s very own pawn to the storytelling world, is the one who got addicted to reading and writing stories. Without anyone in the family realizing it, he recently qualified to pitch his animé, futuristic version of Dante’s Inferno, to serious global industry players. We were all left speechless and of course, like geysers bursting with joy and pride.
Scientists know that we gossip because they are a form of stories, which we are wired to create to make sense of things we encounter.
We are addicted to meaning and when what we see does not seem to carry it on its own, we bestow upon it any meaning we can conjure, consciously or not. We make stories about ourselves to others and if you have Korsakoff’s syndrome which I first encountered reading Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal, you will always be inventing many stories including about yourself because you do not remember who you were.
Gossip to really matter is never neutral – it’s either “clean” or “dirty.” If they were neutral, it will be like passing on your own grocery list which is of no use to anyone else. So why do we seem more attracted to “dirt”?
Scientists think it is because focusing on the “dirty” gossip alerts us for danger – whom to mistrust and stay away from. These scientists did a study that had different facial expressions that each came with a statement that told a story. They found that people were more fixated by the faces that had “negative” stories like a face that said “he threw a chair at his classmate” versus others like “drew the curtains in the room” or “helped an elderly woman.” Scientists think that being forewarned about the negative character of certain people helps us form our own defenses and help us survive and even get ahead.
This reaction is akin to the fear that we have over shadows that look like large animals that are about to harm us. It is a natural reaction of our minds for our own survival to mistake it as a lion about to attack us and just laugh about it later than to dismiss it and not be alive to tell others.
But this kind of evolutionary explanation now always comes with a more than the fine print because everyone who is alive now is presumably a modern Homo sapiens. This means we now know that “natural” is not necessarily better or in this case, “ethical.” Cigarettes are natural and so are flesh-eating bacteria but you will be very lonely if you put up a group fighting for the proliferation of either. So liking, and even spreading, dirty gossip maybe natural but it is not necessarily ethical. Beyond the “entertainment” value that we can all appreciate, we should be more reflective as to the other by-products that dirty gossips bring.
The Ashley Madison hacking scandal has caused broken hearts and lives and not a few by the gossips that could be spun out of merely having a name on that list. We know nothing aside from a list but being on the list conjures for many, a labyrinthine goldmine of stories.
We can never regulate gossip because it is rooted fundamentally in the wiring of our brains that always want to come up with a picture of meaning, valid or not, in a bunch of things we encounter. Anyone who tries is just plugging a hole in a web of hoses with many other holes. The fountain of gossip will always find a way.
But maybe we can retrain our minds to create and find equally seductive and interesting stories that would be more meaningful and productive in the modern world, beyond the usual dramas of the lives of celebrities. This is the cyborg age where we humans now have gadgets that extend not just extend our physical selves but our minds – our storytelling minds! Surely, we have grown so much more neural connections that can care beyond the daily stories that Kim Kardashan or any celebrity who seems to have consistently enveloped many by their net of stories, tell.
And we have time to recreate the quality of our stories. When we tell or are told one story when we are young, it never stops there. We crave, yearn and will pay to have more – telling and receiving stories – for the rest of our lives. Even when we die, our properties will get passed on and will become the backdrop to the stories of others. It is the stories of you and by you, true or not or patches of both, that will survive.
Gambit, my storytelling nephew, recently told me that when he was a kid, he really thought I was a parachuting storyteller, i.e., I would come in if their parents needed me to take care of him and his brother for a few days. And yes, he really thought I had a parachute. Last night, he told me that he really liked my story of The Legend of the Toe Nail. I didn’t remember what it was all about. He reminded me that it ended with the protagonist making a big cut of his own toenail and throwing it in the sky to be remembered. He will remember that probably long after I am gone.
So what outlives love? Probably stories. And mine would be about a toenail in the sky. – Rappler.com