Gossip plays a crucial role in one of our greatest epics. I am talking of the Ramayana, and what Sita has to undergo as a consequence of, yes, gossip after she has been rescued by Rama. Of course, distrust of gossip is also stressed by other religions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Islam goes so far as to consider gossip to be the moral equivalent of sibling cannibalism.
The more things change
But, alas, we seem to have forgotten – and new technical developments have encouraged us to forget. Because if there is something that social media reminds me of most, it is not conversation, not discussion, not even argument; it is gossip.
Conversations, discussions, even arguments are basically reciprocal. You know who is talking and who is listening. You know where the words are coming from, and hence you know what they are intended for, or can at least guess. Being reciprocal, they have limits, both temporal and spatial. But gossip is not reciprocal; it circulates endlessly. It mutates and infects like a virus; it is alive and dead at the same time. In this, again, it resembles social media.
Gossip has no fixed source or end. There are no limits to gossip; the more outrageous it is, the more it tends to spread. In this again, it is like ‘information’ on social media. Actually, given the way in which Twitter and Facebook work, it pays to be outrageous and polemical. The more people you offend, the more visible your posts get — the more your ‘gossip’ circulates. So-called polarisation is inevitable in such a situation. Gossip is also embedded in polarisation of the sort that social media basically enables — because it can be faceless and highly mobile, two essential characteristics of gossip.
There is a convincing argument, which I have made in my column earlier, that digitalised communication makes it easier to evade difference, and to stereotype and ridicule it. In other words, it is easier to avoid facing the other on computers. At its simplest, this can be explained with reference to an ordinary conversation: in a conversation (unlike in gossip), one faces the other, and this face-to-face interaction often modulates both the positions despite differences. Healthy politics depends on such conversations, which include but also absorb arguments. When polarised arguments end the conversation, we move from politics to war: one can argue that countries can exist in this state of war internally too.
Disturbingly, in digitalised interactions one need not engage with the other; one can simply ‘unfriend’ a person one disagrees with (as Donald Trump regularly does) — or only accept Facebook friends one agrees with. Once again, this aids political polarisation, which is not really a serious and respectful engagement with differences but a kind of gossiping about it. More so because one does not really read social media postings much of the time, given the non-contemplative and distracting nature of the medium. Like gossip, one repeats it or ignores it depending on what one already believes.
If reading was just a mechanical act — which is what it appears to be much of the time on social media — then perhaps political polarisation would be the inevitable state of human communication. But that is not so. Reading involves the kind of personal investment and deep attention that goes beyond the mechanical. It calls for time and effort. It forces the reader to enter other – different – spaces. Hence, Facebook, Twitter and other digital media posts (and responses to them) are not acts of reading: these are incredibly flat activities. They lack depth. They do not enable a conversation. At best, they resemble gossip: talking in a one-sided, flat manner about someone who is not present and, hence, cannot engage you in a discussion.
Real conversation requires depth, consideration and contemplation. It sets out to accomplish an understanding – and hence a change on both (all) sides. That is also what real reading does. Reading on social media — and much of digitalised reading – does not resemble a conversation. It resembles gossip — and is just as superficial, incidental and shallow.
It is true that gossiping is considered to serve at least three crucial purposes. Scholars often define these in terms of social bonding, the creation of cooperative reputation, and indirect reciprocity. But here again, a degree of nuance is necessary. Gossip creates social bonding in terms of innuendo, prejudice, prejudgment (which is etymologically the source of ‘prejudice’), etc. Such ‘social bonding’ is negative – and definitely detrimental to democracy. Something similar can be said of ‘cooperative reputation’ – the words ‘cooperative’ can be replaced by ‘coercive’ in the context of gossiping. And ‘indirect reciprocity’ in the case of gossip is not an engagement with the other; it is a framing and dismissing of the other. Gossip, by its very nature, takes place behind the victim’s back.
In all these respects, much of what exists on social media is not conversation or even argument. It is sheer gossip — in content, context and structure. We ignore this aspect of social media when it fits our prejudices, even though we know that gossip, especially when it is not recognised as gossip, can cause much damage. Or at least we Indians should know this: we have the latter part of the Ramayana.