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Insights: Culture—Rumor Has It

Gossip's redeeming qualities make it a cornerstone of democracy
Liz Smith
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00

(continued from page 1)

The early pre-written language tales recited by the blind poet Homer about the Trojan War--The Iliad, The Odyssey--are filled with all the elements of gossip--murder, adultery, war, jealousy, rage, love, death, and the heroic and dastardly behavior of kings, princes and other leaders. Today, the need to know about our heros and villains at the top--the kings and queens of sport, politics, rock and roll, entertainment and, since the '80s, the titans of business--is just as great. Gossip fills the bill.  

Two psychologists, John Sabini of the University of Pennsylvania and Maury Silver of The Johns Hopkins University, have written a thesis titled "The Moralities of Everyday Life." Herein they state what may not be obvious in this regard:  

Gossip brings ethics home by introducing abstract morality to the mundane. Gossip then may also be a means of social control in that it allows individuals to express, articulate and commit themselves to a moral position in the act of talking about somebody else. Thus, it is a way that we come to know what our own evaluations really are. It is a training ground both for self-clarification and public moral action...a common, a cross-cultural universal, a curious pleasure. It highlights the idleness of talk. People gossip to advance their interest. Gossip also makes people more interesting. Gossip freshens the news. Sharing a secret has charm. Socially, one has an obligation to talk, and gossip is a pleasant, easy, universally accepted way to fulfill that obligation. Gossip means taking a stance, dramatizing ourselves, our attitudes, our values, our tastes, our temptations, our inclination, our will. Gossip helps get one to know people. Gossip lets people get things off their chests, get their outrage supported. It allows them to be the hero of a moral drama with a minimum of inconvenience. Gossip is a means we have to externalize, dramatize and embody our moral perceptions. It helps us at times to establish precedents for reasonable solutions.

I believe they are saying that you are more interesting to others when you have something to really tell them than if you just comment on the weather. Therefore, gossip makes you more fascinating and it should boost your self-esteem at having it to relate.  

Gossip has made us more cynical and less innocent in the last two or three decades and rabid gossip on the Internet has made that even more so. But is it necessarily bad? Isn't knowledge power? Isn't sorting out for ourselves what is true and what is false a good exercise? Do we really want the kind of press that covered up for important public figures? Or that had a "gentleman's agreement" with politicians not to report the realities about them? Isn't it better for us to know the truth and shouldn't we examine the feet of clay of our peerless leaders? Wasn't it better for Betty Ford to end speculation about her substance abuse and publicly declare it, thereby becoming a role model?

"Gossip is good. It is that most rare of guilty pleasures--completely democratic and fully participatory. It helps us sort things out." I don't know who said that, but I could kiss his hand and blow a little smoke in his direction. Gossip is the tawdry jewel in democracy's crown, the rhinestone of free speech. We need to set it in platinum.

Liz Smith is the author of a new memoir, Natural Blonde, published by Hyperion. She is the celebrated gossip columnist of Newsday, the New York Post and 60 other newspapers across the country.

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