Dr Jyotsna Bhattacharjee
In one of her famous Hercule Poirot stories, “The Learnean Hydra”, the distinguished writer on crime fiction, Agatha Christie wrote about the harmful consequences of rumour in her own unique style. The famous detective Poirot compared rumour to a monster with nine heads, which is not a flesh and blood animal. If one head of the monster is cut off, two more emerge. He said that there is nothing so difficult to pin down as the source of rumour, but it causes irreparable damage to somebody or some group. It causes terrible mental anguish for some person, if the rumour happens to be a kind of character assassination, since most rumours are slanderous.
Psychology defines rumour as a form of communication which is not only interesting in itself, but it is also an important means by which various kinds of collective behaviour are produced. A rumour may be defined as an uncomfirmed communication transmitted from person to person in a situation of anxiety and stress. Young, the renowned psychologist, remarked about the characteristics of rumour as follows: “Rumour is a special kind of suggestion or story about some real or fictitious person or event, which grows as it spreads. Beginning as simple facts of suppositions, rumour in time may become elaborated into highly emotional stories of great significance”.
Regarding the characteristics of rumour we may say that it is a suggestion or report about a person or group of persons, real or imaginary. Actually it has little basis. The rumour-monger colours the story in a language of high susceptibility by introducing high emotion. Rumours are always unverified accounts regarding somebody or something. It can neither be claimed as true nor as false. Usually rumours are spread for the fulfillment of some motive by some interested persons and most of the people usually swallow them, hook, line and sinker. Often rumours are spread to give a boost to somebody’s career for selfish interests and they are also spread out of jealousy or to take revenge on somebody. Once it starts, it rapidly gets magnified and covers a large number of people. When it passes from person to person, the original story gets distorted and assumes a form of sufficient dimension. The topic of rumour may be anything or anybody.
A rumour is generally spread by gossip, by letter, telephone message or telegram and by newspapers, radio, magazines, pamphlets etc. but the most effective rumours are spread through gossip. The rumour spreads more rapidly by gossip and as it moves from person to person, it gathers more and more material, some real and some imaginary, and thus a mountain is made of molehill. Rumour spreads though gossip, post and telegraph offices in a small scale. The same is done in a much larger scale by the radio, the television and news papers, magazines and books.
Bartlett conducted some experiments on rumour. He wanted to find out how a story gets modified as it is communicated. After the experiment he found that a particular story gets distorted when it is repeated by diverse persons. More extensive studies were undertaken by Allport and Postman and after some experiments they concluded that rumour is never under any circumstance, a valid guide for belief or conduct.
When rumour spreads like wild fire, its influence on social life is immeasurable. Usually people believe many rumours and accept them as true, even when they know that these stories are incredible. Again, when the rumour comes in print, it is thought to be authentic. Rumour seems to be a social problem. Once there is a rumour, it easily leaves an impression on the individual mind. Men, though they are rational creatures, are often guided by emotions and non-rational elements. These non-rational elements generate an attitude in human mind and people come to believe whatever seems favourable to this mental attitude, and all that is incompatible with this system, is rejected by them. Although the influence of rumour cannot be eliminated, its spread can surely be curbed through proper education and careful publicity of true and exact news.
Rumour-mongering is a thoughtless and irresponsible conduct. It has positive and negative aspects. In the positive side it is an attempt to bolster the image of oneself or some other person to the detriment of some others in order to fulfill some selfish motive. In the political arena it can be seen occasionally that the supporters of some leader start a rumour to create a favourable impression of the particular person. It is mostly used at the time of elections. It may be regarded as a harmless attempt to make somebody adorable in the eyes of the public. But rumour has a very damaging negative side, which causes terrible mental anguish for some person or people who happen to be the target of the rumour-mongers. These unscrupulous rumour-mongers do not seem to have even a spark of decency in them. These people are utterly cruel, selfish and irresponsible. Their sole aim is to achieve their ignoble objective.
We have noticed innumerable tragic incidents to demonstrate the terrible consequences of rumour-mongering. Most of these religious conflicts, ethnic clashes, even murders are based on these baseless rumours. It has been claimed that the recent communal violence in Kokrajhar occurred due to the spread of some rumour. Thousands of people were rendered homeless, some were killed, and houses were burnt down. All these happened because of some anti-social elements, who derived pleasure by terrorising others and who spread rumours against some community to create a fear psychosis amongst the people. Assam was a land of peace till a few decades back and there was no division between various communities. But now some people with ulterior motives have sowed the seeds of distrust in the minds of various communities by spreading rumour.
Then we received the sad news of the exodus of people from the North-East from some states in the South, as there was intimidation from some quarters. I have travelled in South widely and I always found the people of all those places, Tamilnadu, Karnataka, Kerela and other states to be very decent and helpful. I cannot even imagine these people to be violent. Possibly due to wild rumour circulation people from the North-East came back home in large numbers in fright. It appears to be a fiendish conspiracy hatched by some diabolically cunning people. Rumour spreads like wild fire and it has the power to weaken even the strongest mind.
Then some people, mostly women, are harassed and killed on assumption that they are witches. These women go through untold sufferings due to the brutality of the local people, who are gullible enough to believe these motivated rumours spread by person or persons, who are bent on fulfilling their evil designs. This kind of rumour is based on some occurrences in the locality, like epidemic, death and some other events. When these things occur, which are natural enough, some interested party spreads the rumour that these events are due to the machination of an evil woman with magical powers. So the whole village erupts in anger and the unfortunate woman is driven out of the village in disgrace or killed. The reason for these incidents is difficult to pinpoint. Somebody might have nourished a grudge against the woman or her family so he takes revenge by spreading the rumour. If the village people had considered the matter rationally, they would perhaps never have committed such a heinous crime.
Some rumours are politically motivated and stories are circulated by the supporters of the party against the rival party, which may not have an iota of truth. But people are swayed by the oratory of the speakers and their power of discrimination is subdued by emotion and weakness of character. A person of strong character would never believe such baseless stories.
Group clashes are often the results of rumour-mongering. It emotionally affects the people and as a result they lose the power to discriminate between right and wrong. We have seen in our own state the catastrophic consequences of rumour. Political parties also take advantage of peoples’ weakness to lay the germ of distrust in the minds of the people against some body or some other party.
There are some people, who love to magnify a small incident to make themselves interesting and important. The fact is that we usually like spicy stories and it is perhaps our nature to denigrate somebody on the basis of rumour. It is difficult to list all the causes of rumour, since they are varied and colourful.
Some rumours are spread to bring somebody to public focus for some gain, monetary or otherwise. We often see in the newspapers advertisements regarding miraculous power of some astrologer or someone else, who can perform miracles, like curing some incurable disease, giving children to childless couples, giving job to unemployed or so on. People live by hoping against hope. For instance, if a woman is incapable of giving birth to a baby, she would go to anybody, who promises her a baby even to a miracle man would sway her with his smooth talk. Clients will do everything he commands for the fulfillment of their desire. If fortunately one of his clients gives birth to a baby due to normal and natural reasons, the miracle man will claim that as his success and the news would spread like wild fire. That is how rumour spreads.
Rumour also spread due to jealousy. If a person is jealous of somebody, he/she will do everything possible to humiliate that person, by the means of character-assassination. If a young girl is seen with a young man in a park or restaurant, many slanderous stories might be made up regarding her character. Immense harm might be caused to the young girl by such kind of rumour-mongering. The insignificant incident may pass from person to person to get a larger than life image.
People often quote that trite phrase to defend themselves that “there is no smoke without fire”. That is true in a way, because logic has also declared that nothing comes out of nothing. That is, every event must have a cause. But it is also true that a small insignificant incident can be turned into a big one, by vicious gossip. The small incident becomes magnified when it passes from person to person. The colourful imagination of diverse people adds spice to the original story and it grows out of proportion.
Rumour mongering causes immense harm to the society. It leads to conflicts, group clashes, violence and mental anguish. Hence it is better to stick to the truth and dismiss rumour as bunkum. We should restrain our unbridled imagination, which may do a lot of harm to individuals and groups and also bring untold misery to the whole nation, which has been demonstrated time and again by innumerable incidents of violence. So rumours should not be taken as gospel truth without verification.
(The writer is a former Head, Department of Philosophy, Cotton College, Guwahati)