Gossip: Social Politics and Activism
from No Compromise Issue 23

By Neva Davis

When I started to write this article I intended to write a brief argument for not blindly believing all the rumors and gossip we hear about other activists. What seems like harmless gossip can actually cripple groups and put the brakes on our efforts to help animals.

As I researched this topic and spoke to other activists about it I began to realize that gossip is just one aspect of the kind of social politics that runs throughout the Animal Rights movement. Sometimes these behaviors can be detrimental to our cause, pushing good activists out of the movement and sabotaging projects. I hope that this article can bring some light and generate discussion on these aspects of activism we rarely acknowledge.

Why would we want to avoid gossip? First, gossip limits productivity by distracting us from the larger picture: helping animals. Gossip also breeds mistrust, as even those who are not victims of rumors begin to fear being blacklisted. Good activists may be improperly labeled as security risks, not team players, or troublemakers and they can become ostracized from participating in a productive manner. Finally, new psychological research shows that gossip can actually backfire against the gossipers themselves; people subconsciously associate the negative aspects of gossip with the person spreading it.

Why do we gossip?

But to discuss the social politics of the movement, we need to look more at why we gossip, how it affects those we gossip about, and what it ultimately does to our work to help animals.

Gossip is a tool used in establishing a social hierarchy and vying for power. Those who use gossip do it for the following reasons: 1) it makes the speaker important, i.e. he or she is sharing vital news that others do not know; 2) it bonds individuals—they share in the pleasure of a secret and now have something in common; 3) it establishes allegiances, i.e. I think you're important enough that I'll tell you this secret, but now you owe me the same regard; 4) it can damage adversaries without the display of an open attack, while depriving them of the chance to defend themselves.

As cold and calculating as this sounds, it is very basic human behavior, and to a certain extent we all do it, often without realizing it. We may rush home to tell a best friend or partner a bit of news and enjoy the moment as a bonding experience; we revel in being the first to know something exciting or important. Activists use gossip to bond with one another in groups and form friendships. Unfortunately none of those reasons have anything to do with our cause; they are only about ourselves.

The fallout of gossip

The consequences of unfettered gossip can be very dramatic. Good activists may be ostracized from groups because of negative gossip, and their skills and contributions lost. Some of those who suffer under such negative campaigns may never feel able to return to animal rights work. This means fewer people helping animals, which is never a good thing.

Activists who actually have done poor work or engaged in negative behaviors are denied an opportunity to address those shortfalls and improve; they find themselves suddenly personally attacked. They may be kicked out of their AR group entirely. Again, this is to the great detriment of our movement, because they may have a great deal to contribute to the cause if their energy can be directed properly.

Sometimes, even the truth spread as gossip can be harmful. Real concerns need to be addressed in an open, professional manner, though that is often the most difficult road to take. Unfortunately when someone realizes, for example, that there is a real problem with a group, they may feel powerless and only voice their concerns confidentially to friends. The friends then pass the story on and it becomes gossip. That gossip spreads until it begins to polarize the community, as activists choose sides based on limited or distorted information.

How do we deal with gossip?

Bringing up concerns about activist behavior, management of groups, or security concerns in an open and honest manner requires a great deal of courage and commitment, often more than individuals feel they can muster. There is too much fear of retribution within our movement currently for most individuals to feel empowered to stand up and address problems.

This is why I feel it falls on those in leadership positions in the movement to teach by example. They should distance themselves from rumors. They should encourage group members to speak up without fear of retribution, while at the same time setting limits on discussion so that it cannot continue endlessly. Leaders in the movement should also address their concerns about individuals or groups honestly and openly, even though it may place them in an uncomfortable position. This can only strengthen our groups and make our work to help animals more effective.

In conclusion I would ask all of you to think twice before you believe, start, or spread gossip about activists. Try placing yourself in the other person's shoes. Is there an alternate explanation for their behavior? Also consider whether gossip is beneficial or detrimental to the project at hand and to the movement as a whole. Does repeating this help the animals in any way?

Be kind to each other.