I received this malicious and hateful letter yesterday. A good sociologist is both a participant in, and an observer of, the human comedy. Yesterday, I was a participant; today, I am an observer.
The letter is a case study in the sociology of gossip. Gossip is a form of social control and contains a moral judgment. It is what Tracy Wilson calls “malice with a purpose”—to destroy a rival’s reputation. Gossip is often motivated by what Max Scheler described as ressentiment, hateful assertions fueled by feelings of social impotence. This “friend” foolishly miscalculated the damage that the letter would do, imagining an outcome conjured up only in the author’s delusional and subservient psyche. How little you know me. I’ve always been, and always will be, impervious to all efforts to break my spirit. Bring it on!
I am contacting you because I have a great deal of respect for you and feel that you have a right to know about a situation that effects [sic] you very much.
I will be blunt and get right to the point. I have heard from several members of the Metro State community that there is a widespread belief that you have faked your illness for these many years. When I was told this by one person she said you had done it for all of the awards and recognition that you got because people thought you were going to die soon. When I asked another person about it, they said that everyone at Metro knew your illness was a lie for a long time.
There was even a friend of mine who told me that they went to a conference and someone from another university asked how you were doing. My friend told them you were doing better, and the other person laughed. When asked why they were laughing, they replied that they had heard from someone else connected to Metro that you were never sick to begin with. These stories are all over the place, and it makes me heartsick to know that people can be so cruel.
I am very sorry to tell you of such a thing, and to have to be anonymous about it. I hope you will understand that there are sometimes important reasons for this. And even though I know this news may hurt deeply, I felt you had a right to know about this.