G.K. Chesterton on "The Gossip of History"

The modern innovation which has substituted journalism for history, or for that tradition that is the gossip of history, has had at least one definite effect. It has ensured that everybody should only hear the end of every story. - G.K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi 

The end of the story: it's an attractional plot device in any film, play, or book intended to capture the audience's attention. Whether it's Lost or Fight Club or Titanic (of course, we know what happened to the ship so that's no surprise!), flash-forwards and the conversely applicable flashbacks from the initial opening are built to create suspense and a hook to keep the audience intrigued. And it works most of the time! You want to know more. You want to unravel the mystery of why things are the way they are now. 

But this device also has another intended or unintended effect on the part of the viewer. It pushes you to create a conclusion at the very outset of the story before any context is given or any broader story is told. Your emotions are aroused: anger, sadness, contempt, fear. You may decide that you already know how the story ends so the narrative is only there to confirm what you already know.

But when we make these assumptions, what does the storyteller often do? He bursts your bubble of assumptions. Things are not the way you thought they were.

Life operates in a similar way at times. We see the end of a story or a situation and make a determination regarding its genesis and factors. This is extremely popular in the news. Headlines. If you've ever spent much time on Facebook or Reddit (and most of the developed world has one or the other) you know that people tend to react purely based on a headline or title of a story without spending time reading the story, digging behind it, and knowing much about what really lies at its essence.

Through whatever limited vantage point we are afforded, there is something that is deeply human about the desire, need, or even confidence to conclude that our present analysis of a situation is all that is needed to make a fair judgment. And yet a moments reflection will clearly reveal that to judge a story from its ending is about as silly a decision as to claim one has a good handle on the world because one has lived a good handful of years on it. 

Reality, like the storyteller, often bursts this bubble when we finally find ourselves exposed to its complexities, its failures, its nuances. Our vantage point is so limited that, indeed, we may find ourselves sermonizing at the simplicity and beauty of a setting sun yet, all the while, our back is turned to the burning of Rome and the darkness that overshadows it.

Of course, we have plenty of cultural maxims that are supposed to remind us of our need to turn around:

You know what assuming does, right? It makes an ass out of you and me. 

The Devil is in the details.

Do not judge lest ye be judged.

 

Assumptions are extremely dangerous in their own right for what they can do to the souls of individuals. But assumptions also pave the way for gossip, slander, and labeling which, in effect, can harm the souls of others. And this is why it is dangerous for they don't merely have an inimical effect on your own soul; they can destroy lives, relationships, faith. 

Chesterton was right (anyone who thinks Chesterton is just talking about journalism needs to read more Chesterton): if we start at the end of the story and arbitrate the entire story from the end, we are sure to get it wrong. And that is what gossip is: it is, by definition, antithetical to history for its essence prefers present simplification over historical nuance.

We all do it. We all assume and we are made asses. We all start from the ends of stories and assume that what we hear now is sufficient to make determinations regarding the past. But this is a dangerous game and one that we should collectively choose to resist.

As Jesus himself stated (in the words of Eugene Peterson), 

Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor. - Matt 7.1-5

G.K. Chesterton

 The Drinklings G.K. Chesterton Mug

 

 


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