Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

Some of my former students may remember me saying in class that Ethnography is like “chismis”, just more intense and immersive.

Ethnography is the main method cultural anthropologists use to learn about culture and social life. Its substantial part entails living with the community one wants to understand, observing and participating in daily goings-on, for extended periods of time (several months to even a year or more).

I liken Ethnography to chismis for two reasons. First is to help assuage any apprehensions budding anthropologists may have before they go to the field. Fieldwork can be tough, and likening it to something as familiar as chismis is a way of saying “you got this”.

That chismis is familiar (and this is the second reason) is because it is an integral feature in all human societies. Ethnographers will almost certainly encounter it, and so they must be ready. If handled with abundant circumspection, chismis can greatly facilitate the work that Ethnography does. (Some anthropologists distinguish between “rumours” and “gossip” but in the Philippine context they tend to both be subsumed under the term “chismis,” which I will continue to use here).

Chismis as a cultural universal may be rooted in our primate evolution, as primatologist Robin Dunbar argued. All social animals, including our primate ancestors, engage in some form of grooming, such as monkeys removing lice off of fellow troop members. But such ways of grooming require close physical proximity that is only tenable up to a certain group size. With larger groups, such as those formed by humans, language takes the place of physical grooming to be the more significant channel to create friendly relationships: gossiping is bonding.

In this way, Dunbar touches upon perhaps one fundamental reason why chismis persists and why we all do it. It helps form social ties—especially the cozy, trusted circles we now call our BFFs (best friends forever) or ride-or-dies. It also makes one feel connected through the flow of information and the sharing of experiences, which is crucial in navigating ever wider circles of people who may be friends, strangers, potential allies, or potential enemies. Thus, it is no wonder that up to 60% of casual conversations could be classified as gossip.

Chismis rides on the back of two universal human compulsions: to tell stories and to find meaning. Add this to its capacity to firm up groups and chismis is able to play more diverse social roles and have more far-reaching effects.

The anthropologist Max Gluckman early on pointed out how chismis could be an effective political tool to sanction inappropriate behavior and enforce accepted norms. At the same time, chismis as “hidden transcripts” could be used to resist those norms and their associated unequal social arrangements, according to political scientist James C. Scott.

From hunter-gatherers maintaining their egalitarian ethos, to the historically-repeated, global occurrence of “witch-hunts,” to the “whisper networks” of the Me Too Movement, chismis can both reinforce the status-quo, and subvert it. It is a crucial field where tensions between social structures and personal agency play out to impact society at large.

As an anthropologist, these are the thoughts that occurred to me in the midst of the recent debate triggered by actress Ella Cruz’s saying that “history is like chismis.” What struck me was that for all their antagonism, both sides were in agreement that chismis is of little social value, if any at all.

Cruz sought to belittle history by putting it on the same footing as chismis, while criticism against her remark sought to position chismis as the diametric opposite of history and truth.

Certainly we have to push back against revising history, especially without the necessary rigour, which is what Cruz’s statement—as a superficial, spontaneous utterance—seeks to do. But what if, instead of refuting that statement (and thus remaining at the surface of this utterance), we fully take it on and affirm it? Yes, history is chismis! Or at least, it should be: deeply affecting, spreads like wildfire, and gives the people participating in it a sense of beneficial community, empowerment, and urgency to act.

Given the complex, multi-faceted—and at times reasonable—roles that chismis plays, would this not be a thought worth considering? Besides, as the studies above argue, even if embellishment and exaggeration are consistent features of chismis, these are not what gives it traction. More important is, and to borrow from James C. Scott, chismis “serves as a vehicle for anxieties and aspirations that may not be openly acknowledged”.

What gives chismis, as a social phenomenon, its potency is not mostly its play with “untruths”, but because it facilitates, in a refracted manner, the expression of the often inexpressible framing of things held by many in a given community. These are the drives and desires, and partialities and motivations that mostly go unarticulated when we are focused solely on whether information is “right/wrong” or “correct/incorrect”.

Chismis ventures into discursive territory that is just out of reach of simply laying down facts but is no less effective in spurring people towards certain decisions and actions. And this is something that we need to fully confront at this time when facts and education seem to have fallen frustratingly short in preventing the restoration of the Marcoses to power. Rigorous historical knowledge is important, yes, and yet there are other human validities operating here that chismis taps into. We would do well not to think that it is inconsequential.

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