Sunday, November 27, 2011

When Gossip Is Good, from Scandals to Relationships

Nov 22, 2011 - Allison Yarrow -The Book Beast

The "untrivial pursuit" is a surprising force for good, argues Joseph Epstein in his new book, Gossip. Allison Yarrow on chatter’s upsides, from toppling corrupt presidents to improving health and friendships.

 Elizabeth Taylor needed a minor gynecological procedure that required partial pubic hair shaving. So she hired men, vaginal guardians, to accompany her to the doctor’s office to collect any strands and speed them to the nearest waste basket. She feared hospital employees might sell her hair on eBay—at least according to the lore, which someone told someone that a gynecologist told him. Even in death, gossip chatters on.
While it doesn’t always deal in rumors and degradation, historically, gossip’s gotten a lot of grief. Major religions prohibit it. The Koran warns against “backbiting,” and so does the Torah, which calls it “evil tongue.” Christianity teaches loving one’s brothers and sisters, not dissecting their flaws. Parents and teachers discourage it. And yet, we’ve all been caught in the act.

But maybe that’s not such a bad thing, argues a new book. “Other people is the world’s most fascinating subject,” writes Joseph Epstein in Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit, which is as much a history of the form as it is a book of dirt (like that Liz Taylor bit). The veteran essayist may be onto something: mounds of research in psychology and sociology support the notion that gossip can be a force for good.
Perhaps most obviously, gossip—which Epstein defines as “two people saying something about a third party that they don’t want known” helps to expose wrongdoing. Think Watergate, Abu
Ghraib, and News of the World. All three scandals became scandals because someone inside felt something was wrong and spoke up. On the flip side, at Penn State, more gossip among college and charity employees could have helped to prevent profound suffering. If the two eyewitnesses to Jerry Sandusky’s brutal abuse of young boys had told more people and sooner, the former assistant coach might have been arrested a decade ago. Even bits of suspicion and uncertainty, when woven together, could have removed him from endangering children.
‘Gossip’ by Joseph Epstein. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 256 p. $16.13, Right: Getty Images; Landov
For many public figures (and everyday folks), simply the threat of chatter is enough to prevent bad behavior. “If it wasn’t for fear of gossip, some of us would act worse than we do,” Epstein told The Daily Beast. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine politics without gossip—Epstein says it would be “like a kiss without a squeeze.” Washington may think itself intellectually superior to Hollywood, another rumor mecca, but the volume and type of scuzz (philandering, obscene spending, spotlight mongering) is the same in both worlds. Gossip is like democracy—it helps keeps behavior in check.
Read the full story at The Book Beast.

No comments: