The blight of gossip has been with us for a long time. Is it a part of human nature? Do we all have the gossip gene?
The Bible inveighs and warns against it: from Exodus: “You shall not utter a false report.” From Leviticus: “Do not go about as a tale bearer among your people.” The Talmud cautions: “Your friend has a friend, and your friend’s friend has a friend: be discreet.”
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur repentant Jews will attend synagogues to confess their sins and wrongdoing. Prominent among them will be the sin of lashon hara – the evil tongue.
As many as 31 of the 613 mitzvot are concerned, one way or another, with gossip and slander. It is sinful to initiate gossip and equally sinful to repeat it – and it is even a sin to listen to it.
Gossip has many faces and voices. There are some for whom gossip is innocent, casual and entertaining party talk. What better vehicle for easy banter, for laugh-inciting chatter, for time-passing conversation than a choice item of gossip? It adds zest and sparkle to any gathering. No harm is really meant. It comes spontaneously and irrepressibly because it is just too “good” to overlook or stifle. Who was it that said, “I never repeat gossip, so listen carefully.”
In his recent book titled Gossip, Joseph Epstein maintains that the Internet is a destructive, if effective force, in the ruination of reputation and the invasion of privacy. He refers to an 18-year-old university student who took his own life after two classmates photographed him during a sexual encounter and then put the results on Twitter. He wonders, “Who knew such things, at the service of gossip, could be deadly instruments?
Politicians, celebrities, financiers, entertainers, devotees of glitterati society are especially vulnerable. What joy there is in pulling down the icons and statues. What fun to malign the mighty.
The American presidential campaign now underway will expend untold millions of dollars on advertising and propaganda. Half-truths and distortions will abound. TV channels, radio stations and newspapers will benefit as bewildered voters make their uncertain way to the polls.
Epstein wonders whether widespread gossip leads to the dumbing down of cultural and intellectual life. We all suffer from intellectual impatience, and it may be that after decades of television watching, photo ops, quotable quotes and the rest, we suffer from a much-reduced attention span.
He asserts that gossip, after all, doesn’t call for much in the way of attention or patience. Quite the reverse: its penchant is for the bottom line, going for the groin – who is stealing and how much – who is hiding the most bestial private behaviour. Gossip serves it up straight; leave your subtlety or taste for complex reality at the door.
Gossip often starts quite innocently, gradually descends into belittlement, then calumny – and finally slander.
The cautious words of Will Rogers should be heeded: “So live your life that you wouldn’t be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town gossip.”