This is my first confession, one of two this article will make:
I love gossip.
I swim in gossip like an otter. I eat it up like alphabet soup. I try to tell it colorfully, and when someone tells it to me, I respond animatedly: “Oh no he didn’t!”; “What kind of person does that?” I dig into analysis, until gossip becomes meta-gossip: a baroque and lavish mixture of armchair-quarterbacking, pop-psychologizing, and literary critique, punctuated by gasps of scandalization or peals of laughter.
I love gossip because I love stories.
And this is why I am going to reclaim gossip for you.
Most spiritual communities have a restriction against gossip, either tacit or overt. In Hebrew tradition, talking about people is called lashon hara, or “evil tongue.” In the book of Numbers, Moses’s sister Miriam asks their brother Aaron why Moses is more qualified to lead than they are, since they both are also prophets. For her sedition/insurgency/free-thinking questioning, G-d smites her with a skin disease that turns her skin white. She has to wait outside the encampment for a week, and gets to return after she has learned her lesson.
I’ve been a member of two spiritual communities with strong admonitions against “gossip”: one small and one large, both of since exploded and schismed, both with hierarchical structures. In each one, the leaders were involved in sketchy behaviors, ego-tripping, abuses of power, and unhealthy demands of their community which were basically an affront to human sense. And although members each had our individual witnessings of weirdnesses, for a while we tried to stay true to the charge of not talking to one another, each bearing our own burden alone, letting it eat into the lining of our stomach, and thinking it was only us with the problem.
Truth eventually builds up pressure until the edifice springs a leak. In the smaller community, my friends and I eventually talked to each other. We saw the patterns, saw that our reservations and impressions were not just our own, that if we stayed we would be going nowhere good. So we left, and saved ourselves. Thank you, gossip.
In the larger spiritual yoga community in which I was a student, when the secrets finally appeared, as though through a chink in a bust valve, so much pressure had built up inside from people keeping their stories to themselves, that the whole structure finally exploded and collapsed into shatters, Barad-dûr style, and then all of a sudden the stories came flying out: ‘Oh, that happened to me, too!”, “Oh, you knew about that?” There was a deep sense of betrayal about what people did not know.
In both cases, gossip might have saved the day a lot earlier.
If you doubt the social usefulness of gossip, please just stop to consider scandals in top-heavy organizations like the Penn State athletic department and the Roman Catholic church. One wonders that if communication flowed more readily, if the situations in those systems would have metastasized for as long as they had, or if they would have been dealt with sooner.
So many years ago that I can’t hunt it up any more, I read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by anthropologist who held that gossip had a positive social function and a helpful value. It helped members of any community share information, determine what behaviors they want to endorse or reject. That made a huge impression on me.
If a community or organization has a particular restriction against gossip, if it has taken the time to address the matter, now I ask, ‘Why? What are you hiding?’ And why would you bridle the mouths, minds and hearts of your membership? As for the story of Miriam: someone in power decided to write that story, and someone decided to include it as a warning not to question, instead of a story which valorizes Miriam’s concern and doubt. This is Miriam, remember: she of jubilant voice, she of the tambourine, she who danced and sang for the liberation for her people.
I would also ask why any community would want to keep its members in the position of children by suggesting that their right to communicate and exchange information with one another was somehow a moral failing. ‘Gossip’ is just a word, but one with a pejorative connotation that makes the sharing of information seem somehow small-minded, catty, and petty. If you can spike someone with guilt and make them doubt their own native impulse and curiosity to know, then they will be that much more likely to restrict themselves.
I think most of us know the difference between people and systems, between things that aren’t our business, and things that are. Most of us on the path know better than to say things that are just downright mean. We are alerted by that yicky small feeling that you get when you say something that is just a spiteful put-down. I would imagine that most of the people who are reading this essay are so far beyond injecting a lie into the communication stream for harmful purposes that I don’t even need to mention it. (I hope so.)
There is a big distinction between planting lies about people, or saying mean things about them for the sake of meanness, and having an honest discussion while you are trying to suss out information that might pertain to your life, or check your reactions against those of others to see if there is something you are missing.
What gossip does do is give you information upon which to exercise your power of discernment, your own free-thinking brain. It allows you to test your perceptions against the perceptions of others and learn what other people feel and believe. It gives you a full set of tools to work with.
What I would ask is that our spiritual traditions and the communities of our belonging treat their members like adults. Even if we are not the leaders of those communities, we are still the leaders of ourselves. And we cannot be properly discerning without full information.
Transparency is a virtue, remember. Those in the outer ranks should never be ‘reduced’ to gossip, but gossip is and always has been an instrument of the people to resist power. In its highest form, it is our living world, rich and rife with stories.
In its best aspect and if we are mindful, we relish gossip because we see ourselves in the people we are telling stories about. Gossip helps us have vicarious experiences, and shares the life-story of the human community which is really a tapestry of many stories. Sometimes gossip has a moral. Sometimes we heed the moral and sometimes we do not. When we do not, we might become gossip ourselves.
It is up to us to handle gossip with care, to be adults, to test and to tell truthfully. We are responsible for narrating things accurately and only to people whom we trust to pass them on accurately. If you can be responsible for the consequences for anything you pass along, then, by all means, gossip! Because it might actually help someone.
Remember when you gossip, to gossip with compassion. Know that the stories that interest you the most are the ones that reflect you, that warn you, that echo mistakes you have made, that prophesy mistakes you are getting ready to make, that you have the most to learn from.
So here is my second confession of this article, my offering, and my adulthood: I have been the subject of gossip, both true and untrue. The true stories that people told about me, I earned, and the people who told those stories had the right to tell them. If they learned anything from my experiences, then good on them. For my own part, I probably should have had the benefit of more gossip. It might have prevented me from making the mistakes I have.
So anti-gossiping deities, strike me down if you want to. I will live outside the village with my free mind and my loose tongue, in my mottled white skin, with a glass of wine and my best girlfriends, a tambourine, and a tentful of stories.
Yours in sedition, insurgency, and experience,
Lead photograph by Jeff Frazier Photography http://jefffrazier.com/
Editor: Kate Bartolotta