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TERRORISM OF THE TONGUE — A look back (and forward)

 

Aurelio Porfiri

 

At the end of a year and the beginning of a new one, we are always hopeful to improve our social, economical, health conditions. And certainly we want to improve also our spiritual condition, so important for our true wellbeing.

Now, to get all these things, a healthy habit is to look honestly at what was not working in the past. I think we can all think what went wrong in 2017, not only for us, but also for society. We may be looking only in our family. But it is not bad, given the great flow of information we have, also to look at what happened around the world, because some of the diseases that maybe have not yet touched us may be waiting to enter our living space at any moment. Better to know, so as to avoid.

I cannot talk of everything bad that happened in 2017. I can only isolate one (very) bad thing and offer some thoughts about it. You may expect that I will start to talk about wars, homicides, pollutions… yes, there are many of these around us, but I want to dwell on another topic that is very dear to me. This is the topic of gossip.

You may consider it strange that in a Catholic magazine we need to talk about gossip, but do be patient and follow me in this article. Indeed I think is very important to talk about this, especially after the numerous scandals in 2017 starting with the downfall of the very powerful movie mogul Harvey Weinstein amidst claims of sexual harassment.

But what is gossip? It is not simply to talk about others, but to talk about others suggesting or affirming bad things about the people we talk. We are all guilty of this. No one can be excluded, unfortunately. But we may also consider that gossip cannot be completely excluded, because it is part of what we are, even if not the good part.

Gossiping can be very dangerous and can also be a pathology, in some cases. So, when Pope Francis condemns it, he wanted to condemn the abuse of gossip that is also a danger for the good coexistence of faithful Christians. But also here I think that the situation has to be seen from a broader perspective that (saving the meaning of what the Roman Pontiff wanted to express) can take into account also another side of the story.

Gossiping is as old as mankind. Some studies (R Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language) suggested that gossip has an important role for social bonding and friendship. This characteristic was already discovered in our ancestors and may be something worth talking about. Indeed gossip becomes very bad when it is pathological, when there are people who cannot stop thinking about others’ business. But Robin Dunbar suggests that in itself, it is something that is not only acceptable, but even necessary.

In the Gospel of Mark (8) Jesus in a certain way wants to be informed about the gossip about him: what do people say about me? I don’t think that Jesus had any reasons to be concerned about others’ opinions but he thought that was important to know what the others were thinking, including his disciples. So, he asked for gossip.

We can’t forget about this: gossip is one of the main bonding tools we have. We cannot always talk about philosophy or physics. We need also to relate with the people surrounding us, in one way or the other. Many people like to read gossip magazines. This gives them an escape from everyday life, thinking that the famous actor could also fall in love with them, if they can just meet; that the beautiful actress will certainly notice also them, if they can just be in touch. All this daydreaming, thanks to gossip, makes life a little more light and tolerable.

But certainly the abuse of gossip is horrible and today it spreads with the speed of light, thanks to the the internet and social media. The Bible clearly says that gossip (in the bad sense) is not tolerable. In Exodus (23:1) it is said: “You shall not repeat a false report. Do not join the wicked in putting your hand, as an unjust witness, upon anyone.” In Leviticus (19:16) God affirms: “You shall not go about spreading slander among your kinsmen; nor shall you stand by idly when your neighbor’s life is at stake. I am the LORD.”

Saint Paul, in 2 Corinthians (12:20) also talked about this issue: “For I fear that when I come I may find you not such as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish; that there may be rivalry, jealousy, fury, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder.” These are only few examples of how the Scripture rejects gossip as the bad-mouthing of other people.

Pope Francis has talked many times about this issue. In a speech on September 9, 2016 to the participants in the seminary of studies for Bishops in the mission territories, he has said: “Make sure that all that is put into action for evangelization and the various pastoral activities you promote are not damaged or frustrated by existing divisions or those that may arise. Divisions are a handy weapon that the devil uses to destroy the Church from within. He has two weapons, but the main one is division; the other is money. The devil enters through the pocket and he destroys with the tongue, with divisive gossip; and the habit of gossiping is a ploy of ‘terrorism’. The gossiper is a ‘terrorist’ who drops the bomb — gossip — in order to destroy. Please, fight against division, because it is one of the weapons that the devil uses to destroy the local Church and the universal Church. In particular the differences, owing to the various ethnic groups present in the same territory, must not penetrate the Christian communities to the point of prevailing over their good. There are challenges that are difficult to resolve, but with the grace of God, prayer and penance, it can be done. The Church is called to rise above tribal-cultural connotations, and the Bishop, a visible principle of unity, has the task of unceasingly building up the particular Church in the communion of all her members.”

The comparison between the terrorist and the gossiper is quite interesting, and I think quite true. Those who gossip are not just criticizing. Critique is legitimate, one has the right to agree or disagree with the opinions or behaviors of others. Gossiping is the will to destroy, sometimes only for low personal reasons and motivations.

Going back to the many cases of sexual molestations and harassments, there are many doubts that all the denunciations about these cases have a sound story behind. Leaving Weinstein himself aside (who certainly has many personal issues) in some other cases it seems that gossip has been elevated to the ultimate judgment, the one that cannot be questioned. I heard many times, recently, women saying that every report has to be believed without being questioned. But that is really terrorism: in this way everyone can be denounced and condemned without a fair prosecution. There are many people who think that behind some of these cases there is revenge, retaliation, anger for mediocre careers and failed ambitions. There is a technique that is often used in most of these cases; when the woman cannot deny that she was having a consensual relationship with the man (because proofs are overwhelming), she can claim that “inside she was feeling bad.” But we feel bad inside many times, even when we go to work. So, following this way of reasoning, we should denounce our employer.

All these things happen as a consequence of the gossiper acting like a terrorist, following the happy comparison made by the Roman Pontiff. He described gossiping in another occasion as “poison.” The idea is still the same, the will to destroy the other, guilty or not. We should be careful in thinking that this cannot touch us, if we behave honestly and don’t do any bad thing. If we study the life of saints we may find that one of the things they had in common is certainly the amount of gossip about them.

You may be a very good person but today, with the politically correct climate that surrounds us and suffocates us, everyone can say anything about you and you can be condemned in the mind of others without having the possibility of defending yourself. And we don’t forget that gossip is used also in universities, schools, companies as a way to get rid of people they don’t like, using facts and situations that are not “criminal” to put the person in a shadowy situation.

As I have said previously, we cannot avoid gossip and we have also to accept that, to a certain extent, it may also be considered as beneficial. But we don’t underestimate the dangerous situation we are living, a situation that is nurtured by the politically correct atmosphere that obscures what is true to promote false realities and values.

 

 

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