Rumour

Massimo Genghini is the former president of Italy's Supreme Court.

On modern witch-hunts and age-old allegations

"Of all the ills there are, Rumour is the swiftest. She thrives on movement and gathers strength as she goes," so Virgil tells us in the Aeneid. "From small and timorous beginnings she soon lifts herself up into the air, her feet still on the ground and her head hidden in the clouds."

Shakespeare similarly alerts us: "From Rumour's tongues / They [the messengers] bring smooth comforts false, worse than true wrongs." Rumour, the character adorned with tongues in Henry IV, gets people ready for war when there is no threat and makes people feel safe when there is danger and conspiracy. From Shakespeare to Blair the use of rumours has not changed much. What else was the infamous September 2002 dossier (including eleven false stories on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and the 45-minutes-from-attack claim, daringly printed and not only spoken) if not rumour spread in order to justify an imminent crime? The Shakespearian messengers were still at work: "Brits 45 Mins from Doom" screamed The Sun. "Mad Saddam Ready to Attack: 45 Minutes from a Chemical War" roared the Daily Mail.

Rumour is a self-referential phenomenon. Over the course of the centuries, it has been defended as the "vox populi, vox dei". Nothing is more false than this saying. Nobody should be sentenced on the basis of rumours; yet it has happened on a number of occasions. Rumours are never innocent and often responsible for tragic events. It is difficult, for instance, to measure the impact that the gossip about Marie Antoinette purchasing a necklace with a value corresponding to the annual wages of 3,500 workers had in fuelling the popular furore that accompanied the French Revolution. Many other false stories accompanied her to the Guillotine. Her notorious quote "Let them eat cake!" never passed her lips. The words belonged to Maria Theresa of Austria. Similarly, gossip on Rasputin's influence on the Russian Court in 1916 helped to ignite an already exasperated populace. In reality, Rasputin had no magical spell on the royals; it was only the mistaken prescription of aspirin to Czarevich Alexis that created the problem. What Rasputin did was to suspend the cure, giving temporary relief to the Czarevich.

Whispers and rumours were also at the core of the 17th-century trials that sentenced many innocent women to be burned at the stake. Some of those women were brutally executed for having caused hailstorms and other works of the devil. For a cuckolded husband the best form of revenge was to claim that his wife had participated in a witches' sabbath. Plenty of people were ready to serve as witnesses in a trial giving detailed descriptions of the evil ceremony: the kissing of the beast's anus, the riding of the brooms and so on. Historians later discovered – I am thinking of Luisa Muraro – that most of these women were midwifes, practising birth control, which the Church considered God's prerogative. A closer look at the demons the Church was fighting (any demonological manual of the time would do) reveals that the specific devils were nothing but the different sciences which were depriving God of his rights and thus threatening the Church's power: mathematics, war science, herbal cures, medicine, astronomy, physics, chemistry, etc.

Witch-hunts are far from over. The latest one over Iraq's weapon of mass destruction ended in favour of the head of the hunt – the former British Prime Minister. Having almost certainly gone to war on a false pretence (against the law of his own country, the UN, and the international treaty he had signed up to), he should be facing trial in one of the many competent tribunals. Instead, he might be saved by the (orchestrated) voices that see him – for what reason is unclear – "destined" for a top international post.

Perhaps one of the most insidious forms of contemporary rumour is the interview that sees journalists collect information from passers-by. From hundreds of interviews gathered, the reporters select the few that best suit their aims. By presenting this snapshot as a reflection of a dominant idea, it becomes fact to a hypnotized audience.

The power of gossip has a far wider reach than a mere act of deception. While hearsay is an opportune paraphrasing of the truth to create a coherent narrative, science is much more modest: it can only aim at putting together cause and effect, knowing too well that what is true today will not be true tomorrow. Truth is rooted in belief and sustained by rumour. One has only to think about the geocentric view of the universe. The concept was very doubtful from the beginning but, sustained by stories, religious truths, by fear and substantially by what is called a system of beliefs, it survived for centuries among the most illustrious philosophers and scientists.

One of the most bizarre forms of rumour is publicity. The fact that the contents of an advert are blatantly unbelievable seems to work in favour of the product advertised. The advert plays on the viewer's hidden aspirations and desires – nothing to do with the product, for sure. Even more disturbingly, it touches our desire to submit. The ad-makers know this and provide, through the magic of charisma, a narrative that overcomes modest and dubious elements, including all that is empirical or scientific. The narrative is, unavoidably, a tale made of rumour that thrives on movement and gathers strength as it goes.

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