In Defense of Gossip

Maybe there should be another word for it, but I don’t believe “gossip” is necessarily a negative thing – and I know I’m the subject of it often enough.   That’s okay.   I think gossip is necessary in today’s society.

Humans are tribal animals, and today we have not only lost our tribal campfire, where we used to know the significant facts of each others’ lives, but we’ve also lost the “commons,” which used to be central in every community – where we’d meet, share news, and trade.

Social networking on the Internet promises to fill this gap, but it poses more problems than solutions (which I’ll not address today).

The best place for sharing personal information today might be the local cafe or bar, but there’s only so much restaurant food I want to eat, and coffee, beer and wine I want to drink, and only so much I can afford.

Thank goodness for small downtown shops where I really need to go spend money anyway, where I have chance meetings that send me home with a smile on my face and story to tell – someone’s sick or broken up from a partner, someone’s healing and happy again, someone’s moving, someone’s helping someone else lay a brick floor, someone has tomato plants to share, someone learned how to make sausage and says I should try it, or someone inspired me to get my water harvesting tanks in place.

Often these interactions include information about other people – and sometimes what others would call negative information – but I still wouldn’t call this gossip, in the old sense of the word, but rather an essential human effort to replace the lost campfire; it’s almost the only way we have of being known and knowing one other (short of telling the entirety of our stories every time we see each other).

So I say:  if you’re my friend or reader of my writings, you have every right to talk about me when you think it’s of interest, whether I’m in crisis or on top of things.  I trust you’ll do your best to speak the truth, and if you get it wrong, I hope the other person, if it’s a serious thing they heard, will pick up the phone or come visit and ask.  Then I can correct it or add context I think important.

Even the errors are okay:  they’re human.  And they teach us a little about each other and ourselves, when we’re the ones who got something wrong.  And they can always be corrected – but only if people talk.

Today, because many people have been so well taught to “never pass on anything negative,” the few doing that include the most unconscious, sometimes malicious types – and that’s what’s dangerous – letting them control the information flow.

The best solution, it seems to me, is for each person to accept personal responsibility for our part in the community’s social information flow – both passing on and checking the information – so we can evolve beyond the networks of bland pleasantries and Internet-mediated “sharing.”

As it is, gossip of the worst sort happens already; so if good people will allow themselves to repeat the “negative” stuff they might hear, there’s a chance for it to be corrected and rebalance what already exists.

Our lost tribal campfire and commons probably is affecting more than just our individual sense of isolation.  I’m sure it plays a role in racism, ageism, classism, and overall social justice, or lack of it – not to mention our political ineffectiveness.

So, I’m urging people to rethink our platitudes about not passing on negative information.  Consider checking it out instead and sending it back through its channels and forward.

“Gossip” as we know it is not the answer, but – done properly – it could be a small step out of our collective social isolation (whether we recognize we suffer from it, or not), toward something new, something healthier, something more human and real.

Face to face is getting too rare.  Let’s not be afraid of common speech; let’s reclaim it.  Other social mores respected, of course.

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