Then the fact stated or hinted is probably no concern of ours. It is not for us to sift its truth, or to bring it to the attention of the individual it tarnishes. Obviously, society would become altogether impossible if each one of us were to constitute ourselves a sort of social police to arraign every accuser before the accused. We should thus, it is to be feared, only make things worse, and involuntarily play the gossip’s own game. The best we can do is as far as possible to banish the tattle from our minds, and, at all events, to keep our own mouths shut.
Even so, however, some harm will have been done. We shall never be quite sure but that the rumour was true, and when we next meet the person concerned, it will probably in some degree colour our attitude toward him.
And with others, less high-minded than ourselves, the gossip will have had greater success. Not, of course, meaning any harm, they will inquire of someone else if what So-and-so hinted of So-and-so can possibly be true. And so it will go on ad infinitum. The formula is simple, and it is only a matter of arithmetical progression for a private lie, once started on its journey, to become a public scandal, with a reputation gone, and no one visibly responsible.
Of course, not all gossip is purposely harmful in its intention. The deliberate, creative gossip is probably rare. In fact, gossip usually represents the need of a bored world to be entertained at any price, the restless ennui that must be forever talking or listening to fill the vacuity of its existence, to supply its lack of really vital interests. This demand naturally creates a supply of idle talkers, whose social existence depends on their ability to provide the entertainment desired; and nothing would seem to be so well-pleasing to the idle human ear as the whisper that discredits, or the story that ridicules, the distinction it envies, and the goodness it cannot understand.
The mystery of gossip is bound up with the mysterious human need of talking. Talk we must, though we say nothing, or talk evil from sheer lack of subject-matter. When we know why man talks so much, apparently for the mere sake of talking, we shall probably be nearer to knowing why he prefers to speak and hear evil rather than good of his fellows.
Possibly the gossip would be just as ready to speak well of his victims, to circulate stories to their credit rather than the reverse, but for the melancholy fact that he would thus be left without an audience. For the world has no anxiety to hear good of its neighbour, and there is no piquancy in the disclosure of hidden virtues.
’Tis true, ’tis pity; pity ’tis, ’tis true; and the only poor consolation to be got out of it is that the victims of gossip may, if they feel so inclined, feel flattered rather than angered by its attentions; for, at all events, it argues their possession of gifts and qualities transcending the common. At least it presupposes individuality; and, all things considered, it may be held as true that those most gossiped about are usually those who can best afford to pay this tax levied by society on any form of distinction.