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5 June 2016

Educating our pupils on the dangers of malicious rumours or idle gossip has always been an important part of pastoral care – few things affect our wellbeing or self-esteem as much as the knowledge that false rumours or misconceptions are “out there” in the community or circulated about us.  It is the nature of rumour and gossip that its origins are often difficult to trace and even harder to prove, which can render the victims of such rumours defenceless.  This has always been the case, but the problem has been magnified with the arrival of social media.  These allow any rumour to spread faster than at speed of light.

If we bear in mind that the average teenager has somewhere between 200 and 2000 “friends” on media such as Facebook or Instagram, it is an easy calculation to work out how many people can be reached at the click of a button, if a boy or girl spreads an online rumour about a classmate to all their friends, who then spread it to their friends, and so on.  We have all been affected by cases in the media or in our own lives where a helpless victim of such reputational damage has ended up with mental health issues at best, or was driven to suicide at worst.

Images and metaphors about rumours abound.  Rumours “spread like wildfire”, they seep into the cracks like spilled milk and leave an evil taste and foul smell, they are defined as assertions that are disseminated without official verification and reflect an opinion that does not seem to be able to be attributed to any one person.  Those who spread rumours can freely voice them without taking responsibility for their content. 

A memorable image for the dangers of gossip is the pillow metaphor:  if you climb on a roof terrace and tear open a pillow, the feathers will immediately be blown in all four wind directions.  Even if you regret your action, you will never be able to retrieve the feathers and stuff them back into the pillow.  This is why it is so important to consider carefully the consequences if you are about to utter words that will be hard to take back once they are out there. 

The Latin poet Virgil had a powerful image for what he called ‘fama’ (rumour) and for what these days we would most aptly classify as gossip.  In Book IV of his masterpiece, the ‘Aeneid’, where he describes the ill-fated love between his hero Aeneas and Dido, the doomed Queen of Carthage, rumours of their illicit affair spread throughout the North of Africa.  Rumour in this famous passage is personified as an ever-growing monster:

Rumour raced at once through Libya’s great cities,

Rumour, compared with whom no other is as swift.

She flourishes by speed, and gains strength as she goes:

first limited by fear, she soon reaches into the sky,

walks on the ground, and hides her head in the clouds.

Earth, incited to anger against the gods, so they say,

bore her last, a monster, vast and terrible, fleet-winged

and swift-footed, sister to Coeus and Enceladus,

who for every feather on her body has as many

watchful eyes below (marvellous to tell), as many

tongues speaking, as many listening ears.

She flies, screeching, by night through the shadows

between earth and sky, never closing her eyelids

in sweet sleep: by day she sits on guard on tall roof-tops

or high towers, and scares great cities, as tenacious

of lies and evil, as she is messenger of truth.

Now in delight she filled the ears of the nations

with endless gossip, singing fact and fiction alike.

(Aeneid Book IV, V. 173-189)


This image addresses so many aspects of the power of gossip: the tempo, at which the monster spreads its rumours (she “flourishes by speed”); the embellishment of facts as rumour is passed on from person to person (she “gains strength” as she goes along); the loss of inhibition as time goes by (“first limited by fear”); the inability to trace it to its source (she “hides her head in the clouds”) and finally the mixture of lies and truth thus propagated (“singing fact and fiction alike”).

It is a powerful image, and  an apt illustration to guard against the dangers of gossip, its omnipresence, the difficulties to control it and the damage it can do.  We should all be very careful before we tear open a pillow and release its feathers into the wind.

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