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Gossip Can Operate as a Law Enforcement Mechanism

The surprising power of gossip, as an alternative to law.

Key points

  • Shasta County, California, is a unique community where gossip, rather than the legal system, enforces societal norms.
  • Gossip is a much more effective extralegal tool in smaller communities with participants who plan to stay indefinitely.
  • Parallels can be drawn between gossip, as an extralegal tool, and the newer phenomenon of cancel culture.

In 1986, the unassuming Shasta County community in California captured the attention and imagination of a number of law professors and legal scholars, spawning multiple law review articles and books regarding its homegrown dispute resolution system. This dispute resolution system, as studied by Professor Robert Ellickson of Yale Law School, was apparently based, at least primarily, not on the rule of law or a legal enforcement system—but interestingly, largely based on another system altogether: Gossip.

Ellickson’s account of Shasta County emphasized that relationships between neighbors—at least with regard to straying cattle and many other issues—were primarily governed not by law, but by a system of norms. Furthermore, this system of norms was “extralegal,” or outside of the legal system, having no connection or enforcement to lawyers, courts, legislatures, or ordinances. Rather, it was a self-enforcing system in which a rancher who failed to follow the system of norms (for example, by letting his cattle trespass repeatedly on a neighbor’s property, or by failing to remedy damage caused by such trespassing cattle), would be penalized and deterred by the victim’s response of initiating gossip. The gossip would have to be true, and negative, and would help shape the errant rancher’s behavior going forward. This system, grounded on gossip rather than legal enforcement intervention and lawsuits, was found to have formed and shaped the societal expectations of the ranchers of Shasta County.

In a community where many people tend to know each other and value their reputations in the community, where ranching families have lived in the area for multiple generations and plan to stay indefinitely, the impact of negative words is amplified. Thus, the prevailing attitude, at least for long-time ranchers in Shasta County at the time, was to be able to resolve their own disputes (through remedies including gossip) without seeking the help of county officials or the court system.

As one might imagine, gossip would be a much less effective non-legal tool in urban settings, or in settings where community members are largely unknown to each other. For example, if a man in New York City bumps into me on the sidewalk, and I spend the next year telling everyone I know about his poor behavior, it would be unlikely to affect him. Gossip, as a rule-enforcement or behavior-shaping tool, seemed largely limited in smaller community settings.

Interestingly, however, in recent times, it appears that the internet has revived—or at least, transmogrified—this type of extralegal remedy. Specifically, cancel culture rose to prominence in the late 2010s and early 2020s to refer to a form of ostracism in which someone is excluded from social or professional circles, oftentimes based on behavior that has been deemed unacceptable. Rather than a small, rural farming community, the setting is now the internet. Rather than neighbor-to-neighbor gossip over fences, we have Reddit campaigns, Twitter wars, and doxxing. While some subjects of cancel culture have been public figures and celebrities, there have also been private individuals who have caught the attention of the internet masses due to their questionable conduct and have, among other things, lost their jobs or suffered severe mental health consequences.

Can cancel culture be fairly compared to the gossip self-help remedies of Shasta County, reported in the 1980s? Perhaps. They do have some marked similarities—they are extralegal solutions, and enforcement of community norms, based on largely reputational consequences. However, one question that may be raised is whether this newer (internet) version of cancel culture may be too powerful and punitive, without enough checks and balances for accuracy. In Shasta County, it will become apparent (eventually) if a neighbor spreads false gossip, and in any event, the neighbors are somewhat disincentivized from doing so because as members of the community they have a stake in the law and order (or, more accurately, gossip and order) of keeping community norms and expectations.

In contrast, it is unclear that the instigators of internet reputational shaming are constrained by similar checks and balances. In addition, the deterrent effect is questionable. Assuming that long-time residents of Shasta County understand how the gossip mill works and that they can modify their behavior to account for their neighbors’ wagging tongues, they will still be able to, for the most part, determine the consequences that ensue and make informed choices. However, it is less clear whether individuals, at least at this point, understand cancel culture enough to shape their behavior accordingly, or that cancel culture is not too arbitrary of a standard to live with.

References

Ellickson, Robert C. “Of Coase and Cattle: Dispute Resolution among Neighbors in Shasta County.” Stanford Law Review, vol. 38, no. 3, 1986, pp. 623–87. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1228561. Accessed 30 Jun. 2022.

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