Rehabilitating an ancient vice
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 19 June 2004)

For those addicted to gossip, unlike those addicted to nicotine or fatty foods, the news from the international marketplace of moral values has lately been heartwarming. Not long ago, even the most dedicated gossips shamefully admitted the wickedness of their habit. But recently our sin has been given an ethical upgrade by some unexpected and eminent allies.

It's possible that a pro-gossip underground existed for centuries; a practice so beloved must have had secret defenders. On the surface, however, moral authorities condemned it outright. The Bible spoke harshly in several places (Proverbs: "A gossip goes about telling secrets, but one who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a confidence") and literary people agreed (George Eliot: "Gossip is smoke from the dirty tobacco-pipes of those who diffuse it: It proves nothing but the bad taste of the smoker").

The status of gossip (defined as news involving a morally dubious action) began changing, it seems, with a few sentences in Phyllis Rose's 1984 best-seller, Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages. She defended gossip as no less than a form of moral education by which we discover ourselves through discussing the lives of others. That helped legitimate a previously dodgy subject. In the universities a critical mass of pro-gossip scholarship began to build.

Some will see this as fresh proof that moral relativism is leading us straight to hell, but I won't be joining them. It seems to me a move toward realism and understanding.

Ten years after Parallel Lives, 22 scholars from many disciplines contributed to a book bearing a blatant and provocative title, Good Gossip (University Press of Kansas Press). The editors, Robert F. Goodman and Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, frankly proposed to save gossip from its bad reputation. Their contributors argued it enhances social cohesion, helps individuals understand their lives by reference to others, and subverts power by exchanging knowledge about the flaws of the powerful.

Ben-Ze'ev, a University of Haifa philosophy professor, went so far as to claim in his article, The Vindication Of Gossip, that it's intrinsically valuable. Aside from its use in social bonding, it helps us acquire otherwise unavailable information we need to know (such as the real reason X was fired from the office).

Six years later the International Journal of Applied Philosophy carried an article, The Ethics Of Gossiping, by Emrys Westacott. He didn't deny that gossip can be harmful, but he assembled ideas from some philosophical heavyweights (Aristotle, Hume, Kant, etc.) to support his view that on balance it's more admirable than not. He even decided to refute what many consider a universal rule: Mind your own business. "Why aren't other people's so-called private affairs my business?" he asked. "Why doesn't the simple fact that I am interested in something make it my business?" He joined the earlier writers in arguing for gossip's ability to disseminate information outside formal channels and its value in resisting entrenched systems of power. The Rt.-Rev Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, has added the interesting point that gossip reinforces a sense of reality; by gossiping, people reveal their feelings about themselves and others.

Meanwhile, evolutionary psychologists have been looking for equivalents to gossip in primate study. As a result, it's now fashionable to equate gossip with monkeys picking lice from each other's fur. Kate Fox, an English social anthropologist who tends to choose lively topics like the meaning of behaviour in pubs, recently claimed: "Gossip is the human equivalent of 'social grooming' among primates," which stimulates production of endorphins, relieves stress and boosts the immune system. She expressed wholehearted enthusiasm for the human connections forged through gossip, especially by cellphone. Since I found her report (published through the Social Issues Research Centre) highly agreeable, I'm not at all disturbed to learn that BT Cellnet sponsored the research.

There remain hold-outs. Three years ago the Brazilian city of Cascavel passed a bylaw making gossip among public servants punishable by reprimand, suspension, or -- oh, the horror! -- sensitivity training. But news from the other side comes in faster. Last winter at a the British Psychological Society meeting a researcher said that her study of 100 nurses in London revealed that "gossiping behind closed doors helps nurses manage their emotions and cope with the demands of working in a pressurized, stressful and sometimes distressing environment."

For the first time in millennia, it appears, we who consider gossip one of life's pleasures need not hide this fact. Some of us, however, will continue to speak in whispers, just for old time's sake.

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