Gossip: Who’s Heaving the Rocks?

dante image

When gossip spreads like wildfire, who is responsible?

I’ve been thinking about gossip at an individual level and at a grander, social level, encouraged by our Zen teacher to consider how gossip might harm.

Last night we took the light rail home from an outdoor concert and I marveled at the tattoos on the woman next to us: a heart-shaped tattoo on the flesh of her left scapula, mirrored by another crimson image on the right.

I bit my tongue, trying to resist a snarky comment.

The woman sat diagonally across the seat from her adult daughter, each bowing their heads to tap on their cell-phones.

Their heads bobbed in unison as the train lurched.

Then the tattooed woman propped up one foot on the seat opposite, revealing another host of leg art.

And then she placed her other foot on the seat.

How rude to put her dirty, rotten, stinking shoes on the seat.

And then I had to check myself for my terrible thoughts.

Maybe it’s not her fault: maybe her mother never admonished her for sticking her damn feet on someone else’s seat.

Or maybe her behavior is just like public gossip: it’s a delicious invitation to perform something snarky—whether it is putting up your feet on the train or saying something rude about another soul.

In fact, social media invites us to be rude.

We share gossip in grand and far-reaching avenues.

Remember the woman who was head of the Spokane (Washington) chapter of the NAACP and was outed in 2015 because she wasn’t an African American afterall (people assumed she was).

The woman—Rachel Dolezal—resigned from the NAACP and lost her job as a lecturer at a local college.

And an avalanche of criticism doused social media.

Hundreds of us engaged in gossip and judgment about Dolezal, and most of it amounted to public shaming.

One of my students gave me Jon Ronson’s book (2015) on public shaming, where individuals are humiliated because of actions that may—or may not have—engaged in.

Ronson interviewed people who lost their jobs, friends and family because of derision on social media.

People get publicly skewered on Twitter and Facebook, metaphorically stoned like the citizens heaving rocks in Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story The Lottery.

Public shaming is the new mega-gossip that’s become so normalized we don’t even notice.

Truth is: we all participate.


23 July 2017



Image: An engraving by the French printmaker Gustave Doré of the stoning of St. Stephen, published in Dante’s “Purgatory” in 1868 from The New York Times

Special thanks to Jennifer Campbell for her gift of Ronson’s book and for her continuing insight into scholarship



About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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