We all do it: not just talk about other people, but talk about them in a derogatory way. Why? According to recent research, it may be because gossip "not only helps clarify and enforce the rules that keep people working well together, but it circulates crucial information about the behavior of others that cannot be published in an office manual." Gossip also makes us feel connected to the people with whom we share it. Hearing (and speaking) about the failures of others also makes us feel better about ourselves. But gossiping about someone (that is, reporting an accurate version of their failings)—say, that a professor is having an affair with a student—is different from dismissing or even condemning that person's humanity, which amounts, in my view, to slander.
Accurately reporting to others the unethical or immoral behavior of others may indeed be important. But if we aren't careful to contain our judgment—to maintain a compassionate stance toward the person about whom we speak—we risk being slandered ourselves. Here are at least four reasons to tread carefully when criticizing someone to members of our group:
Ultimately, when we denigrate others we denigrate ourselves. We may find it perversely attractive, not just to gossip but to slander. But to give in to the impulse to dismiss the humanity of others because of their crimes, large or small, is to argue that people can't change or improve—in short, to argue that they can't become their better selves. But if they can't, then neither can we.
Dr. Lickerman's new book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self is available now. Please read the sample chapter and visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today!