Almost as soon as the new year had passed us by, 2016’s rumor mill began to churn.

It started during the first week of January, after pop megastar Janet Jackson had announced that she would be postponing her “Unbreakable” tour.  Jackson only revealed that she was “recovering,” but refused to specify any illness.

Tabloids and talk shows proceeded to ruminate:  does Janet Jackson have cancer?  Is it a terminal disease?  Is her life about to come to an end?  What other possible explanation could there be for her canceling this much-anticipated concert tour?The jailhouse medics who apparently run these “infotainment” outlets reached the logical conclusion that Jackson, as a singer, must have throat cancer.

Ultimately, Jackson posted a Twitter video where she confirmed for worried fans that it’s not actually throat cancer. But she refused to comment any further on her condition. Whatever the nature of her sickness, Jackson should be entitled to privacy until she’s ready to go public with whatever it is.  She may want enough time to get assurances from her doctors that it isn’t serious or life-threatening.

Or she may just feel it’s no one’s business.  Just because she’s a celebrity doesn’t mean she’s under any obligation to give us constant updates on her health.

This spiraling rumor was not without recent precedent.

Last month, the lead-up to the theatrical release of The Revenant had cinema thrill-seekers chattering about the possibility that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character would be raped by a bear.  Such bestial bluster arose following a colorful review by film critic Roger Friedman.  The Drudge Report picked up the story, speculating that DiCaprio’s portrayal of Nineteenth Century fur trapper Hugh Glass may have undergone some…”creative” reinterpretation.

Mexican director Alejandro Iñárritu publicly laughed off how this absurd rumor about his new film had snowballed to such a ludicrous degree.  He also alluded to how, once the studio (20th Century Fox) was forced to debunk the rumor, that may have actually resulted in greater publicity for The Revenant.  

Ultimately, moviegoers discovered that DiCaprio’s character was mauled (following the historical account of Hugh Glass) on-screen – not raped.  Friedman backpedaled, referring to his words in hindsight as a “turn of phrase” while complimenting Iñárritu on how well the director had adapted the book.

The biggest problem with spreading these types of rumors is the existence of naive people out there who so easily believe them.  Rumor-mongerers may not always be aware of this.

But sometimes they are.  And they simply don’t care.

Even if a rumor is false, it runs the risk of damaging a person’s reputation.  The “slutty” girl who sleeps around with any guy who will buy her a drink.  The somewhat-effeminate metrosexual dude who “probably” has HIV.  A trailer park gal who has gained a little bit of weight…so “obviously” she must be pregnant.  The sugar daddy who has fathered so many children throughout his life, there “must have” been incest involved at some point.

In addition to reinforcing ill repute among the innocent, rumors also can perpetuate stereotypes and cultural biases.  For anyone who claims to be a proponent of diversity, that would seem to be a flawed approach toward achieving one’s ideals. We’d think this should be common sense to most people.  But then again, consider how many Americans have indicated through polling that they believe Judge Judy is an actual U.S. Supreme Court justice.

When I was in high school, I – the fledgling student activist – placed myself in the middle of a school-wide power struggle over whether to implement block scheduling.  I attempted to advocate a reasonable compromise where a mixture of 45-minute classes and 90-minute classes would exist concurrently on the same bell schedule.

Many teachers and students agreed with my position.  But members of the “pro-block” delegation – including our newly-hired principal – were so intent on having everyone make the transition collectively that they portrayed me as some “anti-block” reactionary.  Granted, there were indeed “anti-block” reactionaries amongst our faculty and student body…but I wasn’t one of them.

In the end, the principal got his way – and I ended up switching schools and graduating early.  The humiliation over my reputation becoming mangled was just too painful for me to allow myself to return to that building for what would have been my senior year.  And, unfortunately, some teachers and classmates of mine had let themselves buy into that misbegotten portrayal of me.

Some people couldn’t be bothered with asking me what my blueprint for schedule restructuring would specifically look like.  They were only accustomed to envisioning one desired outcome…so anything that ran counter to that “must be” something radical or unreasonable.

Likewise, Janet Jackson canceling a tour was such an egregious occurrence that it had to mean a hazardous toxin “must be” ripping through her loins. Or that the prospect of Leonard DiCaprio filming a scene with a bear is so extreme and surreal that there “must be” bestiality present in the script.  Right?

The real reason why so many people thrive on rumor-mongering is because they know that ignoring new ideas or stonewalling alternative solutions will further their very narrow agendas.

In the cases of Jackson and DiCaprio, the goal was to use these public figures as a way of fabricating salacious gossip.  If it generates more Internet clicks and advertising dollars – then who cares if it hurts the people involved, huh?

We should also keep in mind the distinction between making well-reasoned assumptions versus drawing conclusions that are based on snap judgments. The former is a natural inclination that can still be tempered by rational thinking.  The latter is akin to inferring that, say, because John Boehner’s skin is strangely pigmented then he must have received a blood transfusion from an Oompa-Loompa.

So, I’m trying to convey this:  those of us who fall prey to getting swept up in a flurry of crazy rumors are only perpetuating a culture of rampant commercialism, materialism, corruption, and yellow journalism.

Doesn’t that just make you proud to be an American?