The danger in talking past each other

Much of what exists on social media is not conversation or even argument. It is sheer gossip
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.
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.
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