In defense of tsismis

Isyu 23 January 96

Natabunan nga ba ng Jenny-Gabby scandal ang EVAT, jueteng, at iba pang isyu? Dapat nga bang lubay-lubayan ng media ang katsitsismis about the private hells of the rich and famous dahil wala naman itong katututuran except as escapist fare for the poor and obscure?

These are questions raised by media mismo, rendered schizoid as we are by showbiz scandals. On the one hand we happily hype up the Jenny-Gabby story, milk it of all it’s worth, the better to sell our papers; on the other, we are defensive about it, express distaste for the whole exercise, and righteously regret the wasted space and energy; sometimes, all on the same page.

The two-mindedness is to be expected, and it begins with the individual, that is, with you and me. Every one of us is just as divided about gossip. We enjoy it but we feel sort of guilty when we indulge. The guilt comes from social conditioning. Our elders’ position has been that, if you have nothing nice to say about a person, it’s better (classier) to say nothing. They are greatly influenced by the Church, of course, which institution discourages gossip or idle talk as the work of the devil for it evokes uncharitable (even, impure) thoughts, and sows disharmony rather than love among neighbors.

Yet gossip persists, and I had always wondered why. Is it a matter of pleasure, like sex? Or is it purely a matter of mind, like curiosity? Basta my gut feeling was, there’s more to gossip than cheap thrills. Like maybe it serves some irrepressible human need, one more intense than the need for social approval. I thought maybe it had to do with a need to connect with community, to be assured that one’s joys and pains are not all that unique, na kumbaga hindi ka nag-iisa.

Besides, as a student of human behavior, I could never help delighting in the rich sociological and psychological data that showbiz gossip provides. Trailblazer kasi ang tingin ko sa showbiz artists; they dare break rules and attempt new ways of being and relating. It’s like they’re testing the waters for us, the better maybe to show us which way to go or not go, particularly when it comes to sex, marriage, and family.

Well, the good news is, I’ve just been lent a book that confirms my gut feel that gossip is as ineradicable as sex. In The Moral Animal (1994) Robin Wright explains why we gossip (among other things) in terms of the new science of evolutionary psychology, which school of thought traces the roots of human nature to the workings of natural selection in the environment in which the minds of our ancestors evolved. According to Wright, “people’s minds were designed to maximize fitness in the ancestral environment” and trading gossip, for one, was in aid of survival.

“To judge by many hunter-gatherer societies where most behavior is public, and gossip travels fast,” Wright writes, “. . . the most common commodity of exchange, almost surely, was information. Knowing where a great stock of food has been found, or where someone encountered a poisonous snake, can be a matter of life or death. And knowing who is sleeping with whom, who is angry at whom, who cheated whom, and so on, can inform social maneuvering for sex and other vital resources.”

Darwinian anthropologists studying the world’s peoples have been finding not only surface differences among cultures but also “deep unities.” Not only Pinoys, but “. . . people in all cultures not only gossip, but gossip about the same kinds of things.” Apparently, people have an inherent thirst for tales of triumph, tragedy, bonanza, misfortune, extraordinary fidelity, wretched betrayal, and so on, which are said to “match up well with the sorts of information conducive to fitness.”

In other words, gossip has always had a place in the human scheme of things. Then as now gossip about failed marriages (especially Sharon’s, Dina’s, Princess Diana’s) and unconventional relationships (like that of Nora, Vilma, Kris) informs the way we maneuver in our own marriages and relationships.

The problem is not that we’re gossiping too much about Jenny and Gabby. I agree with Patrick D. Flores (Isyu 18 Jan), the problem is that media have failed to give the people “an intelligent perspective on what is going on, it has forfeited the chance to imbue the controversy with really useful knowledge about society and people,” in particular, about the politics of marriage and gender.

I disagree, however, with his statement (wishful thought?) that from hereon, “heterosexual couples would have to reckon with the idea that matrimony is from the outset dysfunctional.” That’s a sweeping generalization if I ever heard one. If it were so, then monogamy would not still be with us. Besides, Jenny’s and Gabby’s marriage is / was far from typical and therefore not an appropriate gauge of either the efficacy or inefficacy of marriage.

I think it’s young unmarried women who have the most to learn from Jenny’s exposé. The facts of life are not all about sex; the facts of life are also about men like Gabby and how marriage changes them. Take it from Jenny, girls, look before you leap, especially if the guy’s promising “to court you forever” (what a line!).

(Editor Iskho Lopez: We asked Gabby what his plans for the more immediate future was. His candid reply: “I guess . . . to remain single.” We took it as a joke. Gabby? Single? Instead we presented an alternative. What about an affair with a gay lover? He took it as a joke. But it seems so logical in this day and age that only a gay lover would take all that alleged abuse that Jenny turned into a public issue—and in the end, shoulder the expense and the humiliation as well—all for the love of Gabby Concepcion, that is.)