Of Rumours and Gossip

Mohamedarif Suleman – Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

In Gujrati we refer to this as “panchaat” and those who practice it as “panchaatilas” – now whether these are real words from the soon-to-die Gujrati dictionary, or if it is another one of our pseudo words that help us depict a given practice, only our seniors can tell.  Suffice it to say that we are referring to the culture of gossip and rumour-mongering here.

Initially, it was thought that cultures from Indian-descent such as ours, had this innate ability to mill off some fantastic fables sometimes for nothing more than a laugh (ask those from Zanzibar).  With time, we do realise that the spread of an uncivilised word about someone, while effective to garnish our baraza with new found life, is equally hurtful to the person in relation to whom the gossip is being spread.  At the same time, not just Indians, but cultures of every colour seem to have this exciting practice as a predominant side-scene of social interaction amongst her members.

Naturally, our area of interest and focus will be our community since it is this that we must seek to reform, if we are sincere in our goal of impacting the lives of non Muslims with our good and impressionable behaviour.  The preoccupation that hitherto was in the domain of the womenfolk, is now emergent in gatherings of men.  In the early 2000s, when the new technology of email came around, I had suggested in one of my writings that we were now beginning to shift from barazas to e-barazas.  Note well that in those days, the only form of digital communication was email – there was no social media and mobile phones were still on the way (East Africa).

I do not need to tell you what happens in social media today – every one has assumed the role of story teller.  Acts of sharing and forwarding have become the most favourite past times of technology lovers.  Ironically, most of what is shared is hardly internalised first.  In other words, someone in your network may be quick at sharing an anecdote or a powerful saying without first trying to implement it in his or her own life.  So now you find every second person, regardless of their wisdom, is an advisor.  A know-it-all generation, indeed.

We may have changed our scene from physical barazas to electronic ones, but we still retain our prowess in sharing at lightning speed.  For instance, it is not uncommon to receive news about a local issue here from someone in North America, even before word has gotten out.  In many cases, those who work at Jamaat level or take up jobs, have no sense of secrecy as every bit of morsel – financial secrets, trade practices, boss’ stresses or spendings, and so on, are all offloaded in the name of honest advise in a cool evening session.

What is now obvious is that our people are going all out – they are not even sparing themselves.  Endorsing the adage “no smoke without fire”, we regularly notice Muslim men throwing away their pride and their dignity by shamelessly showing off their wive’s beauties and in fact posing with them in manners which are romantic and intimate in suggestion.  In history, we learn about how wives were treated as property so that men could boast of having the prettiest of them all to his contemporaries.  We are now there again – back in time.

Nobody wants to bite their tongue – make the mistae of sharing your innermost secret with someone, and off it goes in an uncontrolled manner that is capable of destroying people and relationships.  The new business community is also very street like as they eloquently share information about people in their receivables list with pride and silent pomp – while censuring this and that person as a risky business venture.  In the past, such advise was priceless because it was honest and given in secret, now it is scandalous and very subjective to the narrator’s tune.

Taylor Clark in his “The 81/2 Laws of Rumour Spread” points to the following reasons why rumour and gossip is hot cake:

1: Successful rumors needle our anxieties and emotions.

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, water wasn’t the only thing that flooded the city. In the environment of intense anxiety and uncertainty, grim rumors flourished: Sharks have infested the water! Terrorists planted bombs in the levees! Murdered babies and piles of corpses filled the Superdome!

2: Rumors stick if they’re somewhat surprising but still fit with our existing biases.

If you ever open endlessly forwarded e-mails, you’re probably familiar with at least one of many notorious malapropism from celebrities who never actually said those things

3: Easily swayed people are more important than influential people in passing on a rumor.

In the mid-1970s, the Life Savers Company introduced a product that revolutionized the way kids chewed gum: Bubble Yum. Before it came along, you had to work on a piece of gum for ages to make it soft enough to blow bubbles. But Bubble Yum was squishy right out of the wrapper. It was the perfect gum… maybe a little too perfect, kids thought. What was making it so soft? Soon, the obvious answer presented itself: spider eggs. Bubble Yum was made with spider eggs.

4: The more you hear a rumor, the more you’ll buy it—even if you’re hearing that it’s false.

According to a poll, 11 percent of Americans believe the rumor that Barack Obama is secretly a radical Muslim who refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance and was sworn into the Senate on the Qur’an (and probably hates mom and apple pie as well). The myth that he is a Muslim is so pervasive that The New Yorker could satirize it on a cover depicting a cheery new prez Obama hanging out in the White House in full Islamic garb—with an American flag burning in the fireplace and a portrait of Osama bin Laden on the wall.

5: Rumors reflect the zeitgeist.

Every fall, right around mid-September, Barbara Mikkelson starts receiving urgent reports of a grisly new trend in gang initiations. Prospective gang members are driving around in the evening with their headlights intentionally turned off, the story says, and when a well-intentioned motorist flashes his brights at them, the would-be gang member has to follow the car home and kill everyone inside. SO NEVER FLASH YOUR LIGHTS THIS IS FOR YOUR OWN GOOD PLEASE FORWARD THIS TO EVERYONE YOU LOVE!

It’s always in mid-September that the rumor resurfaces. “That’s when you first have to start thinking about putting your headlights on when you’re coming home from work,” she explains. “Headlights are on people’s minds. That’s why you never hear it in the dead of winter or the height of summer.”

6: Sticky rumors are simple and concrete.

Examine your stockpile of offbeat conventional wisdom: It takes seven years for swallowed gum to pass through the body. We only use 10 percent of our brains. The Great Wall of China can be seen from space. People swallow eight spiders a year in their sleep.

These tidbits are all simple and specific, with a vivid detail that sticks in the mind. They’re also false. But they illustrate the point that tangible, easily graspable tales have an excellent chance of catching on. “Complicated ideas are not that spreadable,” says Duncan Watts. “Ideas with content, when they do spread, lose their content.” Rumors work just like a game of telephone; after they’ve been transmitted a few times, the details get lost and the message grows simpler.

7: Rumors that last are difficult to disprove.

Ever wonder why even the craziest legends and conspiracy theories never seem to die? Why do people still believe there’s a giant prehistoric reptile prowling Loch Ness, even though innumerable hours of investigation have produced zero proof of such a creature? Well, it’s a pretty big lake: How can we be sure she’s not in there? It’s tough to disprove the idea definitively.

8: We are eager to believe bad things about people we envy.

It just seems right to hear bad things about people who are otherwise out of our range or reach.  It is like a settling of scores

The Ninth Law

We might also postulate a final law of rumor survival: Sometimes, there is no “why.” Often, we tell remarkable tales to build relationships or show off our yarn-spinning prowess—not necessarily because we think they’re true.

And hey, sometimes they are true. Research by DiFonzo and Prashant Bordia, of the University of South Australia, has found that in groups with an established hierarchy—like large offices—the scuttlebutt you hear about company affairs is around 95 percent accurate.

“Every Halloween, you hear the rumors about people putting razors in apples and giving them to trick-or-treaters,” DiFonzo says. “Actually, my own family had an experience where my wife found a sewing needle embedded in a piece of our kids’ Halloween candy. I know, it sounds crazy—the rumor expert believes a rumor. Don’t tell anyone.”

So did you find your reason why you spread rumours?

Here are a few verses from the Holy Qur’an that refer to this practice:

24:11. Verily, those who brought forth the slander are a group among you. Consider it not a bad thing for you. Nay, it is good for you. Unto every man among them will be paid that which he had earned of the sin, and as for him among them who had the greater share therein, his will be a great torment.

24:12. Why then, did not the believers, men and women, when you heard it, think good of their own people and say: “This is an obvious lie”

24:13. Why did they not produce four witnesses against him Since they have not produced witnesses! Then with Allah, they are the liars.

24:14. Had it not been for the grace of Allah and His mercy unto you in this world and in the Hereafter, a great torment would have touched you for that whereof you had spoken.

24:15. When you were propagating it with your tongues, and uttering with your mouths that whereof you had no knowledge, you counted it a little thing, while with Allah it was very great.

24:16. And why did you not, when you heard it, say: “It is not right for us to speak of this. Glory be to You (O Allah)! This is a great lie.’

24:17. Allah forbids you from it and warns you not to repeat the like of it forever, if you are believers.

24:18. And Allah makes the Ayat plain to you, and Allah is All-Knowing, All-Wise.

24:19. Verily, those who like that Fahishah should be circulated among those who believe, they will have a painful torment in this world and in the Hereafter. And Allah knows and you know not.

24:20. And had it not been for the grace of Allah and His mercy on you, and that Allah is full of kindness, Most Merciful.

24:21. O you who believe! Follow not the Khutuwat (footsteps) of Shaytan. And whosoever follows the footsteps of Shaytan, then, verily, he commands Al-Fahsha’ and the evil deeds. And had it not been for the grace of Allah and His mercy on you, not one of you would ever have been pure from sins. But Allah purifies whom He wills, and Allah is All-Hearer, All-Knower.

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