I learned the other day that Pope Francis is waging a war on gossip. "Gossip is the terrorism of words," the Holy Father said last July, emphasizing a message he has expounded throughout the year.
“Whoever gossips is a terrorist,” Francis said in February. “He is a terrorist in his own community. It’s as if his words were a bomb that he tosses against this one or that one, and then walks away. This destroys! Whoever does this destroys, like a bomb, and then walks away.”
I think the pope is overstating the case somewhat---in many cases gossip causes little harm, but there's no such thing as "little terrorism," just unsuccessful terrorism. But there is no question that gossip ruins lives, and poisons the practitioner as well as the listener and the victim.
Around these parts, the public schools are starting up again today, so it seems like as good a time as any to mention that as a public service announcement. Gossip is a menace; it is a vice that has won the currency of a virtue.
I've been the victim of gossip, some true, some false, all exaggerated. I've also gossiped, usually convincing myself that there was a good and noble reason: I was giving a warning, I was eliciting sympathy for the subject, I was spreading humor and bonhomie, I was sharing a confidence with the person to whom I gossiped. I never asked myself if the subject of the gossip would have wanted me telling the secret. What fun would that be?
(Once I spent a week working for a gossip magazine. You know how tawdry and miserable you'd expect a place like that to be? Double it. Now annihilate any ideas of celeb glamour. You're getting closer.)
I have tried to tame my tongue, with mixed success. As St. James writes in his epistle: "Mankind can tame, and has long since learned to tame, every kind of beast and bird, of creeping things and all else; but no human being has ever found out how to tame the tongue; a pest that is never allayed, all deadly poison." It is a sin against the Sixth Commandment, for character assassination is killing part of the man.
Sometimes it's done specifically for the ruin of the victim, as on soap operas, but I would have to say it's most often done to ingratiate one's self with the person to whom one is gossiping. C.S. Lewis believed that one of the most subtle and compelling of the temptations was the desire to be in the secret inner circle. Some inner circles of any society---schools, offices, bureaucracies, lodges, churches, armies, anything---may admit one for one's family, or sense of humor, or looks, or wealth, but all of them will consider admission to someone known to be a reliable source of valuable information. The gossip may not be loved, but he may be needed. Even if the information is not reliable, the gossip may be popular for his vicious attacks on those deemed socially unacceptable to the inner circle.
So there are a lot of reasons why one may want to be a gossip. Probably the best practical advice I ever heard of regarding gossip in the office is that one should listen to it but never spread it. This way one knows what's going on but does not get a rep as untrustworthy. But is it worth it to be immersed in any corrupting influence?
Remember, as George Harrison sang on his last great album:
I heard it in the night, words that thoughtless speakChange the station.
Like vultures swooping down below on the devil's radio
I hear it through the day, airwaves gettin' filled
With gossip broadcast to and fro on the devil's radio