So, here I’ll write about something where I won’t pretend that I meet my own ideal, because I definitely don’t. But I will write about it, because the point of ideals is to have perfect targets to aim at.
And the topic — gossip. I’ve never felt great about gossip. There’s the obvious reality that whatever you say will likely get to the person you’re gossiping about, but even if it doesn’t, once you move past the cheap thrill, you feel pretty gross. I don’t think I’ve ever left a gossip-filled conversation and felt good about it.
There is of course a line between gossip and sharing information. Some conversations that we have to genuinely have require the present parties to talk about an absent third party, and those conversations can happen in a respectful way that doesn’t aim toward gossip. The line that distinguishes gossip from a necessary conversation may be unclear and easily crossed, but I think it can be drawn by acknowledging that gossip usually aims at making someone look bad or finding an opportunity to talk bad about them. (Information sharing could be to brainstorm how to help a third party, share details about what happened with someone else, or to vent with someone we’re close to.)
Gossip also distracts us from the heart of matters. There could be issues worth solving, or conversations worth having — like Rand Paul’s Pennies Plan for a balanced budget or our tensions with Iran — but instead, focus goes toward unnecessary conversations, like what Donald Trump says about Meghan Markle.
I’m not sure why the West has its fascination with tabloids and dissecting the interpersonal details of people’s lives. It’s nearly impossible to watch sports, news, or any form of late-night television without gossip. And of course, making it so common makes it easier for us to do it every day.
Recently I read a Hasidic tale from Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism that gave me a clearer illustration of what gossiping does. To paraphrase from the book’s telling, the tale goes something like this.
A man goes throughout his community slandering his Rabbi. He starts to feel bad. He wants to do anything that he can to make up his wrongdoing to the Rabbi. The Rabbi tells the man that he can get feathered pillows, cut them open, and let the wind take the feathers. The man goes back to the Rabbi, pleased that he did as he was told. Then, a direct quote from the book, the Rabbi says, “Now go and gather all the feathers. Though you may be sincerely remorseful and truly desire to correct the evil which you have done, it is about as possible to repair the damage done by your words as it will be to recover the feathers.”
Like we can gather from the lesson, the damage of gossip is usually irreparable. Anyone who’s paid attention to the news cycle knows that once a false story hits a large channel, it’s near impossible for it to go away or for anyone to realize it’s false. (And I’m talking about fake news without any irony here. I think no matter where your politics land — left, right, center, libertarian, other — you can point to a story from your segment of the political world that was reported inaccurately but wouldn’t go away.)
I don’t have a permanent fix here. I know that I’ve gossiped. I know that in the future I will gossip. And I know that this blog post on one corner of the internet is not going to replace the gossip machines that are on the internet, television, and in human brains. Gossiping is something we just like to do. I’m sure a psychoanalyst would give an endless list of reasons why we do it, but I’m not concerned with reasons. My concern is that we improve as much as we can.
I know talking about religion, especially Judaism, opens the door for people to troll and criticize. But one interesting aim of Judaism is that the mission of its practitioners isn’t to convert people to the religion, but to convert them to ethical monotheism. So, along those lines, let’s say that on the smallest scale with this blog post, my aim isn’t to convert people to non-gossipism, but to less-gossipism.
Like I said to start the post, non-gossipism is the ideal. I doubt anyone among us can hit that target. But to be more aware that there’s a target to aim toward is a start, and that start is what we’ll call less-gossipism.
And all of this effort is for secular reasons. One need not be religious, Jewish, or believe in any sort of monotheism to think that a world with less gossip would be a good world to live in. It would imply that people liked each other more, treated each other better, and it’d be a more uplifting world to navigate. (That world would also spare the unfortunate victims of gossip.)
On the flip-side, it’s only a matter of time until us ourselves are on the other end — the ones being gossiped about. And maybe if our gossipers had only been coached in the school of less-gossipism, we too would have been spared from their feathers in the wind.