Back in college, if I found a guy interesting, I asked around until I found someone who knew him well. (This was back before social media enabled anonymous stalking, youngsters. Back then, we had to have actual conversations.) Once I found a reference, they usually enjoyed sharing their expert opinions on my potential love interest.
“Well, if you like D&D, you might have a shot.”
“If you like open relationships, you might have a shot.”
“If you have a yacht, you might have a shot.”
“Oh, honey, no – he’s way too sexually advanced for you.”
I only got stonewalled once. When I learned my roommate’s friend knew a particular clarinet player, I sat next to her at lunch. After the pleasantries were over, I asked her if she could tell me about Mr. Clarinet.
“What about him?”
“Well, are there any unsavory rumors?”
“Are you…asking me to gossip?”
“It’s really more like helping me with research.”
“I don’t gossip,” she said. “’A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy person keeps a secret.’ Proverbs, 11:13.”
“So…if small animals disappeared into Mr. Clarinet’s dorm room and never came out, you seriously wouldn’t tell anyone? Because Proverbs?”
She left in a sanctimonious huff, proclaiming, “The Bible says that women are to be worthy of respect, and not malicious talkers.”
I called after her, “Does this mean it’s okay for men to be malicious talkers?”
She never answered.
But society did. Or at least Patricia Spacks did in her study Gossip. In history, literature, and the media, gossips are overwhelmingly portrayed as females. Religious men have attempted to silence women for centuries, with sermons, scripture, and shame.
There was even one medieval torture device created just to punish gossiping women called a Scold’s Bridle.
There’s no male equivalent.
Men even made rules in the U.S. Congress about how a Senator cannot insult another Senator. Yet the ONLY time the rule was invoked was to silence a female Senator. Male Senators that called each other “cancerous” and “idiots” and liars were not silenced; Senator Elizabeth Warren’s reading of a letter from Coretta Scott King was.
And a lot of women – like Little Miss Proverbs in college – have bought into the “gossip is bad” mindset. My Most Religious Stepmother told me repeatedly how Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”
To which I will now say, “bullshit.” First of all, Eleanor never said that. (If she had, it might have been because she was sick of people telling her about her husband’s affair with his cousin, though.)
Second, gossip is useful — possibly even critical – for social groups. It prevents people from getting away with all kinds of antisocial acts. (Including a few of my ex-boyfriends.) Had more women at Fox News shared all their information about the abusive behavior of Bill O’Reilly, he — and the network — might have been discredited before helping elect a groping orange pustule president. But since the Scold’s bridle is now illegal and the First Amendment protects everyone except female Senators, Fox used another tactic. They bribed the women not to gossip, and O’Reilly stayed.
Trump himself used a similar tactic to silence his first wife’s accusations of abuse — a gag order. (There may also have been a little bribery, or at least the threats of withholding alimony.)
So you know what gossip made a bigger impact during the election cycle instead? Fake gossip – or, as it has come to be called, “Fake News.” Russian trolls, possibly paid by the Russian government, infiltrated social media and spread fictitious stories about Hillary Clinton murdering her rivals and arming ISIS. Men lapped it up – especially white men – and voted for Trump.
Silly men. The first rule of gossip collection is to find multiple sources and their agendas. If your source is a former friend still bearing a grudge, don’t swallow their negativity whole. If your source is an Internet Provider in Veles, Macedonia, maybe ask yourself how a random dude found out Hillary funded ISIS when all Republicans got after 11 hearings and thousands of hacked emails was a risotto recipe.
It’s too bad white Americans weren’t more discerning with their cyber gossip. Because, as Jonathan Haidt explains in The Happiness Hypothesis, gossiping about a person is a method of policing — and teaching — others in our ultra social society. Those who are kind and honest in their dealings will get kindness in return, plus more work as word spreads and their positive reputation grows. Those who are cruel and dishonest will get a poor reputation (and hopefully starve).
Although, sadly, that is not what happened to the dishonest Donald Trump. But there’s still hope. So keep talking, beleaguered White House Staffers. Keep leaking Pentagon, State Department, EPA, and National Parks. And if you’re not sure how, well, here’s a handy guide from my favorite Congressman, Ted Lieu.
Because as Haidt says, “Gossip paired with reciprocity allows karma to work here on earth, not in the next life.”
Which sounds far better than Proverbs.