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On Gossip

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From an early age, kindly people are liable to leave us in no doubt that gossiping about the private lives of well-known or prestigious people is despicable. At the same time, as our search histories and clicks prove, we evidently enjoy gossip very much.

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It would, for example, have been very hard not to read at length in the Chinese media about the actor Wang Baoqiang and his wife Ma Rong. After a heady romance and years of apparent marital idyll, things fell apart for the couple when Ma Rong had an affair with Wang’s manager Song Zhe. For weeks, Chinese media reported on Wang Baoqiang’s rage and sense of betrayal, Ma Rong’s dissatisfactions with her often absent husband, Song Zhe’s attempts to justify his behaviour, and elite Beijing’s surprise and condemnation. To read such stories is obviously demeaning and idiotic – but plainly irresistible.

If there is any way out of the conundrum, it is offered to us via the peculiar recognition that most of what we call great literature is in the end not so very far from gossip. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina could be described as little other than 800 pages of quasi gossip about an apparently idyllic couple, Anna and Count Karenin, torn apart by the former’s affair with Vronsky, a cavalry officer, much to the surprise and condemnation of St Petersburg society.

But if in the end we resist calling Tolstoy a gossip, it has nothing to do with the topics he considers. It is entirely possible to talk a lot about someone’s intimate existence, to take an interest in the details of their divorce, to wonder about their career or to reflect on their disgrace – and still not to be guilty of gossiping in any way. The activity is not defined by a particular subject matter, solely by the manner in which it is being considered. The China Daily or the Sankt-Peterburgskie Vedomosti could easily have turned the bare facts of Anna Karenina and Vronsky’s affair into gossip, just as Tolstoy could have transformed news of Wang Baoqiang and Ma Rong’s breakup into a masterful slice of Sino-Russian literature.

What identifies gossip is the pretence that only certain people are foolish, sexual, embarrassing and prone to lose their tempers or say things they regret. The gossiper holds unfortunate specimens in their tweezers, turns them over with glee and refuses to see any connection between every new shamed or ruined personality and their own flawed nature. They withhold the truth, on which every act of compassion is based, that we are all sinners, every last one of us, not merely this or that miserable creature unlucky enough to have attracted the malicious attention of the latest hard-hearted journalist.

We don’t need to be great writers to avoid treating the intimate difficulties of others as gossip. We just need to keep seven important ideas in mind as we ruminate on the travails of people in the news: That insofar as they hurt anyone, they are extremely unlikely to have set out to do so.

1. That insofar as they hurt anyone, they are extremely unlikely to have set out to do so

2. That the difficulties they caused are almost certainly unwitting by-products of passing weakness and idiocy.

3. That they are liable to be mortified by what has happened and to long to make amends.

4. That despite their possibly prestigious position or fortune, they were once a child, and, like all of us, are desperate be held, treated with consideration and forgiven.

5. That if you knew them properly, you would probably like them.

6. That if you saw them sleeping, you could not hate them.

7. That if you dared to look at them adequately, you would recognise a version of yourself.

We can of course, and in terms of our psychological development probably should, spend time discussing the turmoils in the lives of influential people. Their difficulties present us with a chance to reflect on the powers of fate and the entanglements of the heart; we just need to remember our humanity and our vulnerability as we do so. The difference between gossip and literature is love.

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