Is Gossip Destructive or Productive?
We live in a world where gossip can quickly go viral. In the past, true and untrue stories told about others might spread over days or even weeks. Now they can spread in minutes. I don’t know Miley Cyrus, Anthony Wiener, or Paula Deen, but I find gossip about them in the media competing for my attention. I’m struck with how much of my time can be potentially taken up by news about people I don’t know or have little interest in knowing about. Of course, I can always stop reading, watching, or listening—but that’s hard to do when I want to keep up on the news that affects me.
Much gossip takes place because people find satisfaction in bringing other people “down to size,” even if the rumors they’re spreading aren’t true or are unfair distortions of the truth. Even after we idealize certain people, we often are perversely delighted when they fall from grace. Perhaps it makes our own failings more tolerable. We can see our heroes and heroines, with their human frailties, as being just like us. We sometimes feel better about ourselves when we say bad things about other people.
When we gossip about the “fall” of certain people, we may believe that they’re receiving just punishments for their misdeeds. As we go from idealizing to de-idealizing them, we may feel an impulse to forgive and give people second chances. Our desire to forgive others we don’t even know may stem from our desire to be forgiven if our failings were to become publically known.
We may ponder and gossip about what is the appropriate level of contrition for one who has fallen. What does a person have to do to be seen as truly repentant? How much time has to pass for us to believe that the transformation from denial to acceptance of culpability, from minimizing what was done to taking full accountability, is real? In the case of public figures, commentators often debate the sincerity of an apology. Even though apologies matter only between the person who was the offender and those who were offended, we all become spectators to the process and make our own judgments about whether the apology was adequate. Perhaps we do this because we struggle with apologies and acceptance in our own lives. It’s less painful to discuss whether a celebrity or politician should be forgiven for lying to his fans or constituents than whether we should be forgiven for lying to our friends or coworkers—or whether we should forgive them for lying to us.
Is gossip destructive most of the time yet productive sometimes? Gossip can serve a positive purpose if we use it to better understand ourselves. For example, talking about the downfall of a celebrity or politician can help us shed light on issues we need to deal with. However, when the tone of gossip is negative and hurtful, it serves no one. At a metaphysical level, it may even hurt the person who is the subject of the gossip and rebound, bringing negative energy back to you.
When you think about your propensity to gossip and say negative things about others, how often do you remember such admonitions as “Don’t judge other people unless you want to be judged,” “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” and “Don’t worry about the speck in your brother’s eye when there’s a log in your own”? Do you think, “There but for the grace of God go I?” or “Do not judge a man until you have walked in his shoes?” Or do you quickly resort to gossip, projecting your anger, hurt, and failings onto public figures rather than work through them in a healthy way?
In Jody Picoult’s novel The Storyteller, she writes about two unforgiveable sins in Judaism. One is murder, because it’s irrevocable and there can be no chance for the person who was murdered to forgive. The second is ruining a person’s reputation, because once a reputation is ruined, it can never be reclaimed, even if it was ruined falsely. People always remember the scandal but not necessarily the clearing of a person’s name.
The desire to gossip can tell you a lot about yourself. What do you choose to gossip about, and how do you feel when you gossip? What do you gain when you gossip? What do you lose? Are there ways that you can transform the energy of gossip and the feeling of “gotcha!” to one of compassion or reflection? Can you become less vindictive and more accepting? Can you imagining changing your story of your life to make gossip less a part of it?