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Heard About the Anti-Gossip?

IT takes some gall to start a campaign against gossip. Like the weather, it's everywhere. But can you really do anything about it?

Yes, says a group of religious leaders, celebrities, and politicians launching an advertising campaign against dirt-dishing small talk. (See story, page 2.) They hope to start a grass-roots movement that will make tittle-tattlers think twice before wagging their tongues and hurting others.

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From cave fires to office water coolers to the Internet, humans have for too long taken malicious gossip for granted. One prominent Washington socialite so reveled in political gossip that she had a sofa pillow that read: "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."

Gossip has become a media industry, sustaining supermarket tabloids, TV shows about Hollywood stars, and websites devoted to spreading unsubstantiated rumors. So strong is the public appetite for gossip about celebrities that it forced a chauffeur for Princess Diana to drive too fast in order to avoid the paparazzi.

The new anti-gossip group, with the same name as its website, WordsCanHeal.org, may be the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, but with gossip flying at the click of a mouse these days, something must be done.

In fact, in a poll commissioned by the group, some 70 to 80 percent of Americans say that gossip is a problem. Obviously, people are waiting for someone to lead.

Speaking ill of others behind their backs is a signal that the gossiper could use a lesson in self-respect. Loose lips sink ships, and ruining reputations with cruel rumors only sinks the perpetrator into a moral morass.

At its best, gossip is a sign of love and joy for others, a way to feel close. But when gossip becomes slander, it's a denial of truth.

Many companies now try to stop rumors in the workplace before they start. The best ways are to keep up a regular flow of information and to keep workers from being bored. Chronic rumormongers who defame others are thus quickly found out.

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Backbiting gossip only coarsens society. But if enough people use words to heal rather than hurt, gossip may no longer be taken for granted.