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On Rumour Post by :aussiedave Category :Essays Author :A. G. Gardiner Date :October 2011 Read :2841

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On Rumour

I was speaking the other day to a man of cautious mind on a subject of current rumour. "Well," he said, "if I had been asked whether I believed such evidence four months ago I should have said 'Certainly.' But after the great Russian myth I believe nothing that I can't prove. I believed in that army of ghosts that came from Archangel! There are people who say they didn't believe in it. Some of them believe they didn't believe in it. But I say defiantly that I did believe in it. And I say further that there was never a rumour in the world that seemed based upon more various or more convincing evidence. And it wasn't true.... Well, I find I'm a changed man. I find I am no longer a believer: I am a doubter."

This experience, I suppose, is not uncommon. The man who believes as easily to-day as he did six months ago is a man on whom lessons are thrown away. We have lived in a world of gigantic whispers, and most of them have been false whispers. Even the magic word "Official" leaves one cold. It is not what I am "officially" told that interests me: it is what I am "officially" not told that I want to know in order to arrive at the truth.

You remember that famous answer of the plaintiff in an action against a London paper years ago. "What did you tell him?" "I told him to tell the truth." "The whole truth?" "No, selected truths."

What we have to guard against in this matter of rumours is the natural tendency to believe what we want to believe. Take that case of the reported victory in Poland in November 1914. There is strong reason to believe that a large part of Hindenburg's army narrowly escaped being encircled, that had Rennenkampf come up to time the trick would have been done. But it wasn't done. Yet nearly every correspondent in Petrograd sent the most confident news of an overwhelming victory. The Morning Post correspondent spoke of it as something "terrible but sublime. There has been nothing like it since Napoleon left the bones of half a million men behind him in Russia." Even Lord Kitchener, in the House of Lords, said that Russia had accomplished the greatest achievement of the war. And so, just afterwards, with the equally empty rumour of Hindenburg's "victory," which sent Berlin into such a frenzy of rejoicing. It believed without evidence because it wanted to believe.

And another fruitful source of rumour is fear. The famous concrete emplacement at Maubeuge will serve as an instance. We had the most elaborate details of how the property was acquired by German agents, how in secret the concrete platform was laid down, and how the great 42-cm. howitzer shelled Maubeuge from it. And instantly we heard of concrete emplacements in this country--at Willesden, Edinburgh, and elsewhere. We began to suspect every one who had a garage or a machine shop with a concrete foundation of being a German agent. I confess that I shared these suspicions in regard to a certain factory overlooking London, and could not wholly argue myself out of them, though I hadn't an atom of evidence beyond the fact that the building had been owned by Germans and had a commanding position. I was under the hypnotism of Maubeuge and the fears to which it gave birth.

Yet there never was a concrete emplacement at Maubeuge, and no 42-cm. howitzer was used against that fortress. The property belonged, not to German agents, but to respectable Frenchmen, and the apology of the Matin for the libel upon them may be read by anybody who is interested in these myths of the war.

I refer to this subject to-day not to recall these historic fables, but to show what cruel wrong we may do to the innocent by accepting rumours about our neighbours without examining the facts. Was there ever a more pitiful story than that told at the inquest on an elderly woman at Henham in Suffolk? Her husband had been the village schoolmaster for twenty-eight years. The couple had a son whom they sent to Germany to learn the language. The average village schoolmaster has not much money for luxuries, and I can imagine the couple screwing and saving to give their boy a good start in life. When he had finished his training he set out to seek his fortune in South America, and there in far Guatemala he became a teacher of languages. When the war broke out he heard the call of the Motherland to her children and like thousands of others came back to fight.

But in the meantime the lying tongue of rumour had been busy with his name in his native village. It was said that he was an officer in the German Army, and on the strength of that rumour his parents were ordered by the Chief Constable to leave the village and not to dwell on the East Coast. It was a sentence of death on them. The order broke the old man's heart, and he committed suicide. The son arrived to find his father dead and his mother distracted by her bereavement. He took her away to the seaside for a rest, but on their return to the village she, too, committed suicide. And the jury did not say "Killed by Slander": they said "Suicide while of unsound mind." Oh, cautious jurymen!

How do rumours get abroad? There are many ways. Let me illustrate one of them. In his criticism of the war the other week Mr. Belloc said:

"The official German communique which appeared in print last Saturday is a very good example upon which to work. I quote it as it appeared in the Westminster Gazette (which has from the beginning of the war, and even before its outbreak, been remarkable for the volume of its German information), and as it was delivered through the Marconi channel."

Then follows the communique. Now, when I read this I smiled, for I love the subtleties of the ingenious Mr. Belloc. He quotes a document which appeared in every paper in the country, but he says he quotes it from the Westminster Gazette. Why, since it appeared everywhere, does he mention one paper? Obviously in order to make that parenthetical remark which I have italicised.

Now the reputation of the Westminster stands too high to be affected by the suggestion that it is "remarkable"--which it isn't--for its German information. But suppose you, a mere ordinary citizen, were alleged by some one to have special intercourse with Germany at this time. You might be as innocent as that Suffolk schoolmaster, but that would not save you from the suspicions of your neighbours and, perhaps, the attentions of the Chief Constable.

Let me give another little illustration. A friend of mine, who happens to be a Liberal journalist, went to a private dinner recently to meet M. Painleve, the French Academician, Senator Lafontaine, of Brussels, and two other French and Belgian deputies. The next morning he was stated in the Daily Express (edited by Mr. Blumenfeld) to have dined with "three or four foreigners" for the purpose of discussing peace. And in the next issue of the London Mail the question was asked, "Who were the foreigners with whom ------ dined?" You see the insinuation. You see how the idea grows. He did not reply, because there are some papers that one can afford to ignore, no matter what they say. But I mention the thing here to show how a legend is launched.

And the moral of all this? It is that of my friend whom I have quoted. Let us suspect all rumours whether about events or persons. When Napoleon's marshals told him they had won a victory, he said, "Show me your prisoners." When you are told a rumour do not swallow it like a hungry pike. Say "Show me your facts." And before you accept them be sure they are whole facts and not half facts.


(The end)
A. G. Gardiner's essay: On Rumour

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