What kind of ethics should mental health professionals follow when commenting on the personalities of public figures -- if they ought to comment at all? A look at the dark side of commenting on public figures can inform such practices (more background here).
Commenting on public figures is not relevant to the working life of most mental health professionals, and so the ethical codes for psychologists, psychiatrists, and others have been brief and restrictive in this regard. Although restrictive, those ethics codes say little about the negative outcomes that public commentary might cause.
The ethical guidelines do prohibit a psychologist or psychiatrist from revealing confidential information about a public figure who has been or is in treatment, but such revelations represent relatively rare occurrences. A patient's information is confidential by law, with few exceptions (see here). There also are prohibitions in regard to slander and libel that limit a professional from making an intentionally false statement or a statement with an intent to harm. Most self-respecting professionals would avoid such behavior, I believe. Conveying accurate information and doing so without intentional malice are basic ethical premises that most commentators would be likely to follow.
So what is the negative side of such commentary when it is well-intentioned? To address that issue it helps to turn to a distinct, but related kind of commentary — to understand the problems caused by gossip, about which much has been written. There are cases both for and against gossip, but here I will focus on the case against in the hope that it will inform us about potential negative outcomes of public commentary.
Professor Aaron Ben-Ze'ev of the University of Haifa distinguishes between gossip and professional analysis of behavior. In his highly regarded essay, "The vindication of gossip," he notes:
"People indulging in gossip do not do want to ponder deeply the content of consequences of what they say. Sometimes gossip seems to be talk for the sake of talking. When people are involved in serious, practical, and purposive talk, they are not gossiping. Thus, when two psychiatrists analyze the love affair of my neighbor, their discussion is not gossip; however, when my wife and I consider the same information, gossip it is. The psychiatrists' discussion is not idle talk (or so they claim)."
Although gossip is different from professionally-informed conversation about a public figure, there are some key similarities. The most essential of these is that both gossip and professional commentary involve two or more people conversing and speaking about a third person who is not immediately present. In the case of gossip, the person is not present and may never find out what is said. In the case of commentary about a public figure, the public figure typically has no input into the commentary. Although the public figure may have access to the commentary after it is made, in practice, he or she may never see it owing to the sheer mass of media. With both gossip and public commentary on personalities, either positive or negative information may be shared and discussed.
Some groups believe that gossip is morally bad and ought to be eliminated to the degree humanly possible. An example includes the strictly-orthdox Jewish communities who refer to themselves as Charedi or Haredi. Members of those communities are influenced by the spiritual leader Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan (1838-1933), also known as the Chofetz Chaim, who wrote his best-known work on the ethics of speech. That work envisions gossip as an important cause of community failings and strife. Chofetz Chaim translates literally as "desires life," and the phrase echoes the Psalm, "Which person desires life and loves days...? Guard your tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile" (Psalm 34: 13-14).
The Chofetz Chaim's critique of speech draws on many sources including an earlier Talmudic idea that gossiping (or talebearing) hurts three people: The gossip, the listener, and the person who is gossiped about. The person who gossips runs the risk of spreading untrue or hurtful information and may be looked down upon as a consequence. Moreover, what is said can be difficult or impossible to take back if the gossiper later regrets it. The listener may become, in turn, a talebearer him or herself, and the person gossiped about may suffer hurt feelings and have her or his reputation damaged.
The strictly-orthodox Haredi strongly discourage Loshon Hora ("evil talk") including talebearing. These include most forms of gossip, especially bad things said about another, true or not. According to a 2003 study by Gilnert, Loewenthal & Goldblatt, members of such communities regard Loshon Hora (transcribed in various spellings) as a seriously sinful matter, and strive not to say unkind or critical things about people not present. Although perfect adherence may not be possible, people are mutually watchful and remind one another not to begin to provide such information. According to the research authors, voluntary "...verbal monitoring has achieved enormous popularity in the strictly-orthodox Jewish community, particularly among women and adolescent girls."
There is much to admire about these ethics. Prohibiting negative comments about others promotes respect among members of a community for one another, as well as kindness and a good attitude toward others. Furthermore, we can learn from such ethics about the potential collateral damage of commentary: that it can injure someone's reputation, hurt a person's feelings, and even hurt a community more generally by undermining leaders and their authority.
It is possible to respect the impulses behind these ethics (and similar ethics in other religions) and the positive outcomes they promote, while at the same time respectfully disagreeing with their absolute prohibitions. Although suppressing negative speech about others may bring about some benefits, freer speech in this area has such values as satisfying our curiosity about one another, educating people about one another and how they behave, and providing warnings to stay away from particular malefactors (the ethics of Chofetz Chaim do allow for exceptions in court and to protect others).
In Buddhism, as in Judaism and other religions, there are cautions against judging others, yet Siddhartha (the Buddha) spreads the burden of judgments on both the judger and the judged. He says, yes, those who judge must be thoughtful when doing so, but also those who are the target of judgment need to be stoic in the face of such judgments, for everyone is judged by those around them. Buddhist thought provides an interesting approach to this universal issue.
Now, let me return to the ethics of public commentary on the personalities of public figures. These ethics can be informed by the idea that such commentaries, like gossip, have the potential to harm the commentator, the reader (or viewer), and the person discussed. The more negative and inaccurate the commentary is, the more likely such harm may be. The reminder that gossip can hurt three people is a helpful caution to commentators and yet there also may be positive reasons for public commentary. In the aforementioned, "the Vindication of Gossip," Ben-Ze'ev concludes that gossip is neither necessarily virtuous nor vicious, it is merely focused on the interesting aspects of others' lives. So commentaries may be neither intrinsically good or bad, but can be either depending upon how they are crafted.
"People indulging in gossip..." from p. 13 of Ben-Ze'ev, A. (1994). The vindication of gossip. In R. F. Goodman & A. Ben-Ze'ev. Good Gossip (pp. 11-24). Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press.
"...the study of laws of verbal monitoring..." p. 515 from Gilnert, L., Loewenthal, K. M., & Goldblatt, V. (2003). Guarding the tongue: A thematic analysis of gossip control strategies among orthodox Jewish women in London. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 24, 513-524.
The Talmudic idea that gossip hurts three people is from the Babylonian Talmud, Arachin 15b: "'Why is gossip like a three-pronged tongue', ask the rabbis. "Because it kills three people at once: the person who says it, the person who listens to it, and the person about whom it is said."
Some attitudes toward judging in Buddhism and other religious and wisdom traditions are discussed in Mayer, J. D., Lin, S. C., & Korogodsky, M. (forthcoming in March, 2011). Exploring the Universality of Personality Judgments: Evidence from the Great Transformation (1000 BCE-200 BCE). Review of General Psychology.
Copyright © 2011 by John D. Mayer