Am I Right?

How to live ethically

Gossip Can Be a Good Thing—or Bad

Gossip can help make moral evaluations

Joseph Conrad wrote, “Gossip is what no one claims to like—but everyone enjoys.”

What’s more, not one enjoys being called a gossip, for that often means that you are accused of speaking disrespectfully. But there is something more to gossip than harmful speech. Gossip can be seen more neutrally, as in the idle chatter about trivial things. This is nothing more than chitchat that promotes bonding in small groups. It is a necessary part of human relations, not so different than the mutual picking of nits by chimpanzees.

Gossip can also be viewed more positively. Good friends talk about other people. It is in that discussion that they compare their own standards, their own values and their own behavior to that of others. This is a good thing, when done properly.

Gossip is common talk, a type of news broadcast for small communities. It is a commentary on our own lives, as it reveals how we assess others. And it is a way of sharing information and judgments upon others. It is talk about others—what they do and why they do it. In gossip we set moral boundaries.

However, as with all judgments about others, gossip can go wrong and turn into self-righteousness and cause unwarranted harm. Sometimes the talk is malicious and comes from something less than a clean conscience. The problem arises when gossip smears another’s reputation unfairly. Once the harm is done it is sometimes impossible to set right.

Here is one of my favorite Jewish tales:

Once there was a man who gave no thought to what he said. Anything that came into his mind came out of his mouth. Mostly there was no harm in this, but every once in awhile he said something about another person that wasn’t he said something that was true but wasn’t anyone else’s business.

Many of the man's comments turned into malicious rumors. He lost friend after friend, until no one in town wanted to have anything to do with him. Distraught, he went to the local sage and asked why it was that so many shunned him.

The sage handed him a pillow. “Take this,” he said. “I want you to find the highest hill and when you are there, rip open the case and shake out all the feathers. Tomorrow I want you to come back for your next lesson.”

So the man went to a hilltop. He tore the case open and shook out all the feathers. He watched the wind scatter them in every direction. The next morning he returned to the sage. He said that he had acted as he had been instructed.

“Good,” the sage said. “Now I want you to go back up to the hill with this empty case and refill it with the same feathers.”

“That’s impossible. They have blown everywhere.”

“And your speech is like the feathers scattered on the wind. Once your words have left your lips, they, too, cannot be gathered again. From now on, be careful of what you say.”

 

Arthur Dobrin, D.S.W., teaches applied ethics at Hofstra University. He is the author, coauthor, and editor of more than twenty books.

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