Overweening Generalist

Friday, March 14, 2014

On Gossip

I once worked in a music store that was owned by a good Christian family man who had been arrested for molesting children (or so the allegations held). His name appeared in the paper but he never went to prison. This was a long time ago, and I remember finding this out, thinking of my previous moments with the guy (who seemed pent-up but like a decent guy), and wondering how to know more without appearing that I knew more: what Robert Anton Wilson calls the Burden Of Nescience in a hierarchical social system. I was merely one of many music teachers in the guy's store; I made enough to pay my bills and eat, and buy my girlfriend (and myself) drinks. I couldn't afford to know too much.

However, over the years, I certainly heard a lot. I had soon decided to just doubt everything I heard about him. Why? Well, he was never going to get near any of the kids I taught, but the area I lived in was filled with middle-class christian right wingers and I'd read books like Satanic Panic: rumormongering can really get out of hand. In the end I guess I sorta thought, "If he really is doing this and he keeps doing this he'll get caught and won't be able to buy his way out of it and he'll go to jail and the store will either be run by the family or it'll close down and I'll be out of a job. I won't worry about it until then. And besides: what if he's not guilty?  What if there's something else going on and he has enemies who are trying to ruin him? I'd rather give him a part of the benefit of a doubt and remember no jury heard the evidence and convicted. Imagine what it would be like to be unfairly charged."

That's sorta how I feel about Woody Allen right now: he has a very well-known enemy. I, unlike the normally decent Katie McDonough of Salon, will not convict Woody based on what appears to be hearsay.

I've been thumbing through a bunch of books on gossip: Joseph Epstein's Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit (appeared pre-Snowden Era), philosopher Emrys Westacott's The Virtue Of Our Vices: A Modest Defense of Gossip, Rudeness and Other Bad Habits (also appeared pre-Snowden), and a few others.

Two Alleged Etymologies For "Gossip"
1. It comes from "god-sibling" and originally pertained to the talk between two god-parents of a child, the talk having to do with the child's well-being.

2. George Washington told his spies to "go-sip" by infiltrating Brit troops and drinking with them, trying to learn of military maneuvers.

                                          Anthropologist Robin Dunbar

Problems With Semantics
The Bible has some line about how "Gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy person keeps a secret." It's somewhere in the prequel to The New Testament. How many of us have had unpleasant moments when we found out a friend said something that arrived back at us, thinking our secret was held in confidence? Two years ago I said something that I either didn't know was supposed to have been in confidence, or had forgotten because it seemed trivial, or I was drunk on red zinfandel when hearing that which was supposed to have been confidential. And I later heard about it; I got an earful. I felt like an asshole. The information I had conveyed to a third party was gossipy about the good news of a friend's love life. I could go into why I thought it shouldn't be a secret anyway, but all of this feels catty.

In 5th century BCE Athens, once a year, the citizens could vote to not only ostracize but send into exile anyone who seemed to have too much dirt on others, or anyone who seemed potentially too tyrannical or possessed with the idea of power over others. We don't do this anymore, but should we? (Or do we still do the exile trip, but in other ways? We shall see...)

Eleanor Roosevelt is usually credited with saying that great minds talk about ideas, average minds events, and small minds talk about other people. How can gossip occur if it's about ideas? I can see certain events having gossipy possibilities. Many of the sections of books and articles I've read on gossip attest to how it's not only unavoidable, but FUN!

Okay, in what sense is it "fun"? At Staffordshire University a study suggests that gossip can be good for our self-esteem, but we need to be nice. Here's how to test it: Say positive things about a fictional person to someone else. Or - but be careful - say nothing but good stuff about a real person. Then note how you feel. Then say a bunch of unsavory things about another fictional person and note how you feel.

In studies about gossip conducted at Berkeley and Stanford, it's suggested that spreading true info about bad actors prevents exploitation, maintains social order, and even lowers stress levels of the gossipers. The researchers emphasize that the content of the gossip in the controlled studies be about "reputational information sharing" and not about petty nitpicking, hearsay unverified, or malicious rumors. The gossip must be reliable. Participants in the study were tested beforehand to determine their relative levels of altruism or selfishness, then they played an online game having to do with economic trust. When it was learned that players can spread gossip (or "knowledge"?) about how another player tends to cheat, the games became more fair, and the most-impacted players were the ones who had scored low on altruism and high on selfishness: knowing that other players know about you and can easily spread info (gossip) about you tended to put you on the straight and narrow.

How does gossip lower stress levels in the gossiper? Answer: Witnessing cheating raised the heart rate; telling someone else about the cheater lowered it.

I read a few articles on the Berkeley-Stanford gossip studies and found them interesting but from what I gathered about the assumptions behind the methodology, it all seems far too artificial and overly-rational. I mean: only "reputational information sharing" was considered gossip (actually: "prosocial" gossip) in the studies? Okay. But in real life, in situ: school, workplace, etc: gossip in more traditional semantic senses can seem fairly malicious. Picking on a kid because he's "weird." Or not beautiful. Or too smart. Or let's all make fun of Helen in Accounting because of that dress. And kids and adults seem perfectly happy to be rumormongers and spread all sorts of malicious hearsay. 'Cuz it's fun! And we're still fairly tribal beings...

Lines from Stephen Burt's poem, "Rue", in which he seems to be replaying his own high school years about The Ramones, what kids wore, how they wrote on every surface, what we all saw going on in the back of the bus between him and her, etc:

Gossip in school makes a kind of electrical storm,
or else
             a medium of exchange:
once you share what you know, then you learn what you can.
-p.42, Belmont

This rings true on a certain anthropological level, and indeed Robin Dunbar's 1997 book Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language made quite the splash, the ripples still visible.

Good gossip: spreading true information about actors in a situation
Bad gossip: everything else thought of as "gossip"?

"It is perfectly monstrous the way people go about, nowadays, saying things against one behind one's own back that are absolutely and entirely true." - Oscar Wilde, from The Picture of Dorian Gray

Other Possible Goods From Gossip
My sources allege that a mild slamming of one's friends and loved ones is understood as "normal" and not egregious. Snobbery has its own occult rules for propriety, to be found out with experience. Snobbery seems related to gossip, but I'm not sure how to delineate it. Rudeness likewise. But: many sources seem to stick up for the salutary aspects alleged by researchers at Berkeley: it could lessen bullying, counteract secrecy, strengthen human relationships, be emotionally cathartic, infuse justice in power structures, and even be a part of Socrates's "examined life."

Or at least that's the buzz around here, lately. This is strictly on the down-low, but the scuttlebutt on gossip is that, if you're relaying true information about good and bad behavior of others in the local environment, it's a socially powerful thing.

I do wonder about the epistemology problems. How does someone know they're relaying something true? It may be called "reputational information sharing" by scholars, but how does a gossiper actually know what they're perceiving is the truth? Perhaps that's beyond the scope of both the researchers' and my own inquiries, but I tend to assume I'm probably missing some information when I engage in this sort of behavior, so I tend to hedge.

Finally here: this business about relaying information that results in salutary outcomes: what of Assange, Snowden, Kiriakou, et.al? If the sort of research results coming out of Berkeley are correct, how does it reflect on The Whistleblowers? Just a thought...

Dishin' It
So...you know the great playwright Arthur Miller? He had a child who was disabled so he dumped the kid in an institution for life, yea. Oh yea. And not long ago I read the wild memoirs of some guy who ran around 1940s-60s Hollywood, and Spencer Tracy? I'd never heard he was gay! (I forget the name of the book, but I could dig it up for you...) Fidel Castro fucked Kenneth Tynan's wife, wow. What do you make of that?

Really: how do you feel when you read that stuff, to whatever degree of truth was there? I feel oddly childish just typing it. And yet: it sort of...seems...kinda...fun. Stanford neurobiologist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky enjoys talking about People magazine's 100 Most Beautiful People issue, because he says it shows how we're just like the baboons he's spent decades studying in the wilds of Africa: they are intensely social, like us. They have status hierarchies, like us. And they like hanging with their friends, like us. But when two baboons get into a fight? It's just like the rubberneck session on the freeway: everyone must slow down to gawk at the carnage, the primate-drama of it all.

I Hear This Site Is Really Something To Look At
Hell, I have looked at it. And you probably have too. Frank Warren calls his PostSecret.com  site the "largest advertisement-free blog in the world."

Internet Trolls and Malice of Forethought
Much of the latest "gossip can be good for us" research points out that the scads of heinous, vicious, stupid and downright disturbing comments on the Net are due to anonymity. When there's no price to be paid - from gossip? - viral hatred has free reign. Point well-taken. It's a problem and we're working on it.

Ian Leslie's piece in Aeon
It's here. Why do we overshare online? Because this Net thing caught us evolutionarily off-guard. For most of our existence as hominids we had no walls. Although our saner minds on this issue say we have an instinct for privacy, the evidence shows we have almost no sense of how privacy works on the Net. "Every day, embarrassments are endured, jobs lost and individuals endangered because of unforeseen consequences triggered by a tweet or a status update." Indeed, when I read Leslie's piece it reminded me of a haunting and criminally underrated (so far!) book called Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors, that does a fairly thorough job on this phenomena. I found it a page-turner of a non-fiction book, but like a real-life horror-story, seeing as how Niedzviecki wrote it before the Snowden Era and I read it while the Era was giving birth to itself. Sobering as all get the fuck out...Indeed, Leslie in his Aeon piece has a line about the type of person at the NSA who's supposed to be monitoring us that fits in with Niedzviecki's thesis that we're all already spying on each other anyway.

Daniel Kahneman
In another semantic sense of "gossip" the Nobelist in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow freely uses "gossip" as something he wants to encourage: the vocabulary about unconscious biases and their mechanisms that he and his colleague Tversky found and named? He wanted this vocabulary to worm its way to the "water cooler" at work. He thinks it's all gossip-worthy stuff! (And I agree with him. I just wish it actually played out more than it seems to...) (See index or even just pp.3-4)

Wilson's Jocoserious Use of Gossip
Humans' "instinct to gossip" shows up in Robert Anton Wilson's work in a few places. In one of two footnotes on p.302 of his novel The Widow's Son, the 'patapsychologist and "theo-chemist" de Selby has advocated for the flat earth "on the grounds that nobody has 'encountered and endured' a spherical earth (which is a theory generated by 'the instinct to gossip.')" In a piece titled "The Persistence of False Memory," encountered and endured in Wake Up Down There!: The Excluded Middle Anthology, RAW argues that the "instinct to gossip" is AKA public opinion, and falls under the rubric of Preposterous Perception as found in 'Patapsychology, and seems similar to the role of Nietzsche's "will to power" in his books and "the Id" in Freud's books.

Wilson makes us wonder how much of "reality" - our everyday, taken-for-granted assumptions about what is unquestionably "real" - how much of this was generated by gossip? If we keep talking about stuff we can't see, smell, taste, hear, touch, or even detect with any manmade instruments...how "real" is it?

Last Word: Prof. Carlin
Here's something I never knew. Prof. Carlin simply drops this tantalizing hint on p.57 of Napalm and Silly Putty: "At one time there existed an entire race of people whose knowledge consisted entirely of gossip."

I wish he's elaborated, but he was wily that way, even cryptic. But I want to know more. Heck and golly: Enquiring minds want to know.


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...


Very good, very interesting post.

I don't know whether Woody Allen is guilty of anything or not, but it makes me uncomfortable how many people I respect just assume he is guilty. It's a little scary how the assumption of guilt never leaves, even if you were never charged with anything.

Apparently many people don't grasp that when they post something on Twitter (or blogger, I guess), it's public and everyone can see it.


Roman Tsivkin said...

Enjoyed this, Michael. Gossip plays a major role in Finnegans Wake -- the entire book can be considered as "just" a bunch of gossip. Anna Livia, for example, is "gossipaceous," and there are many direct references to the word. To wit: "...and dormerwindow gossip will cry it from the housetops no surelier than the writing on the wall will hue it to the mod of men that mote in the main street." I love this one: gossipocracy (476.04). Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker is of course also an earwig, and so there's "I tell you a wig in your ear" ("wig in your ear"=gossip), and HCE has "the gossiple so delivered in his epistolear." This "gossiple" is arguably the Wake itself. Another HCE manifestation, Sir Amory Tristram, the first Earl of Howth, is also referred to as "queer Sir Rumoury." And so it goes...


michael said...


Thanks for the bump at RAWIllumination.net.

Aye: the Woody Allen stuff seems absurd to me, and I think Mia Farrow has done something that will probably seen as something like black magick 20 yrs from now. I now see her as a sister of Medea.

The Ian Leslie piece I linked to from Aeon, and the Hal Niedzviecki book both go into detail about the idea that an enormous number of people don't understand the public and enduring nature of their tweets, posts, comments, pics, etc. Indeed, a lot of people don't seem to care. Clearly we're confused: people will insist on their right to privacy but not safeguard it; also people SAY if they want their privacy then others should have it too, but it seems clear many people will take great pains to look in on their neighbor, try to data mine the people down the street or some co-worker, etc.

michael said...


I was aware of various lines of gossip ideas in FW, but not to the level you note here. The idea that the whole book is gossipy is something I find delightful and aye: tenable.

The post was my usual too-long dealio, and I didn't want to haul in Joyce to further alienate any wanderers off the street who simply wanted to get some juicy stuff about gossip.

Great idea for some stand-alone blog for a later day, though.

Thanks for chiming in and classin' up the joint. Roman!

Eric Wagner said...

Great post. I heard a rumor you had gotten a talk show at HBO called "Gossipocracy" (a word coined by Joyce). I heard your first show would deal with Fleetwood Mac's Rumors, and that you would use Adele's "Rumor Has It" as a theme song.

If you deny it, we'll believe all the more. Congratulations. I hear you'll film it in Amsterdam.

michael said...

"Deputising for gossipocracy" (FW 476). Aye!

With plausible deniabiIity I shall neither confirm nor deny nor affirm nor disavow the hot hot rumors of my impending shows in the Lowlands. A little birdie whispered in my ear - now this is strictly on the QT, ya unnerstan - but talk is cheep.

I said a birdie told me so.

The day after I wrote this spiel on gossip I got in the car and the classic rock station was on, but it was some song I'd heard far too much (the very definition of "classic rock"?), so I randomly pushed a button for some other station, and I heard most of a song I hadn't heard in a long time: Carly Simon's "No Secrets." Or I think that's the title.

We have no secrets
We tell each other every thing
About the lovers in our past
And why they didn't last.

The chorus has these lines:

Sometimes I wish
Often I wish
That I never never never knew
Some of the secrets of yours.

Carly had such a gorgeous voice. (Daughter of Simon of Simon and Schuster, btw.) What happened to her? I remember hearing on NPR long long ago that she had such horrific stage fright she couldn't go on...literally.

When I was very young my mom bought the LP that had "You're So Vain" on it. The cover shot is still seared into my neurons: Carly's dark blue sweater and no bra, and it may have been a cold day on the shoot. WoW!