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Commentary: The Gossip Chart

By Keith Frome

Buffalo, NY – Gossip occurs when we talk about other people in a negative way without their permission. Usually the gossip involves telling about the misfortunes of another person or it is an attempt to reveal their negative characteristics and evil intentions. It is true that we can also gossip about institutions, like schools and sports teams, but chatter about institutions is almost always about the people who work in them. Hence, gossip always concerns other human beings. We don't normally say that when people are talking about animals they are gossiping. I may complain about Fred's barking dog, but I am really complaining about Fred in that instance. This may seem obvious, but when we recognize that gossip is one human (the gossiper) acting on another person (the subject of the gossip), we begin to see the moral consequences of gossip. The interesting thing about gossip is that unlike other forms of immoral behavior, the subject of the assault is not there when s/he actually gets assaulted. The lack of physical proximity makes gossip seem harmless. Some have even regarded gossip as a normal, even biological human function; yet gossip is almost always injurious. Even Iago, perhaps the most evil gossiper in literature, admits: Who steals my purse steals trash. Tis something, nothing;/"Twas mine, tis his, and has been slave to thousands;/But he that filches from me my good name/Robs me of that which not enriches him,/And makes me poor indeed."

Those who gossip must be concerned about two things: truth and intention. Gossip thus involves both ignorance and unethical behavior. A gossip's story fits into three categories of truth: s/he knows all of the facts, some of the facts, or none of the facts. The gossip usually has at least one of three intentions: to demonstrate their superior, inside knowledge (egotism), to destroy the reputation of a person or an institution (malice), or to enlist the aid of another person to help sort through the problems of the subject of the gossip (concern).

If you chart these possibilities, you see that there is only one instance in nine where it is ethical to gossip. Try this experiment. The next time you are tempted to gossip, ask yourself why you are telling this story. Be honest about your intention and then reflect on whether or not you know all of the facts of the story. If accuracy and ethics mean anything to you, you should then only proceed if your intention is to sort through a troubling situation about which you know the whole truth with the intention of at some point helping the subject of your story.

Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher, noted that gossip is and has always been a fundamental aspect of humans being in the world. On the other hand, gossip is not just idle talk. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin tells the following Talmudic story: All of the world's animals came forward one day to confront the snake. They pointed out to the snake that other animals kill in order to eat and survive. They then complained that the snake poisons man for the sheer pleasure of killing. The snake answered: "And what is the pleasure human beings derive in spreading malicious gossip which humiliates and sometimes kills others?"

The most wonderful thing about being a teacher is that each day the students gather to make progress. Hope must dwell at the heart of every school. And yet, progress is sorely difficult because children learn by copying the adults in their lives. We are, indeed, only human and sometimes it seems that cycles of hurt will only continue to revolve and never evolve. Yes, humans are by nature storytellers and narrative weavers. Gossip may be a fundamental phenomenon, but it is not an essential one, and we can do better. And just as we do not tolerate physical violence, let us, in the same way, not tolerate the admixture of ignorance, malice, and egotism that undergirds the powerful, spiritual violence of eight-ninths of the gossip you hear. The children are always listening.

Listener-Commentator Keith Frome has spent this year as executive director of Achieve: the Elmwood-Franklin Center for Tutoring and Enrichment.

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