It's funny to learn that ethics would never have evolved without gossip. In the beginning, anthropologists tell us, "Language evolved as a replacement for physical grooming."1 Our human shift from picking each other's lice to minding each other's business appears to have been a natural progression for our nosy species.
Gossip has been an indispensable method for policing one another ever since, helping us to monitor good and evil as well as prevent physical conflict. In fact, gossip is our first line of defense before violence in the exertion of social control, says psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Before we punch someone in the face, or torch his house, we can always ruin his reputation.
A good reputation is social collateral, and gossip is key to how we protect it. As a moral controlling device, it allows us to save face and cast aspersions on others. We are not autonomously moral beings, after all. The more closely people live together, the more they care; the more they care, the more they gossip; and the more they gossip, the more language can serve its ethical function. "Gossip paired with reciprocity allows karma to work here on earth, not in the next life," Haidt likes to joke.2
People in all societies gossip, and the first rule of life in a dense web of gossip is: Be careful about what you do. Humans use language primarily to talk about other people, to find out who's doing what, who's sleeping with so-and-so's husband, who cheated whom, who behaved heroically or who caved in. Indeed, gossip tends to be overwhelmingly critical, concerned primarily with moral and social violations.
This is because individuals who were able to share information had an advantage in human evolution. Our ancestors surmised that, in a gossipy world, what we do matters less than what people think we do, so we'd better be able to frame our actions in a positive light. As ultra-social creatures, we're also ultra-manipulators, fabricators, and competitors for the driver's seat; gossip created "a runaway competition in who could be master of the art of social manipulation, relationship aggression and reputation management" in human society, as E.O. Wilson tells us.3 We also learned to prepare ourselves for other people's attempts to deceive, compete against and manipulate us.
As a species, we love to gab. From metropolitan centers to the primitive ends of the earth, we are language-drunk, addicted to stories. Gossip and storytelling allow us to pool the wisdom of communal emotion. Our chatter eventually amalgamates into systems of ethical conduct. Moral emotions like gratitude, contempt, and anger can be verbalized to create the shared sense of right and wrong that allows us to live together.
Reciprocity is central to how gossip works. Have you ever noticed how hard it is not to share dishy information? (A friend of mine calls this "emptying the ashtrays," after the irresistible note sharing between friends following a party.) That's because our brains are wired to pay stories forward. Once you've unburdened yourself ("I just can't hold this in!"), it's likely that others will reciprocate in kind, divulging some tidbit of their own.
We may judge indiscretions as a moral liability ("loose lips sink ships"), but indiscreet sharing is also a form of social insurance, as well as a source of intimacy. Being a memoir writer, I've often been surprised by this: I've received hundreds of intimate letters from readers who felt compelled to divulge (sometimes shockingly, once criminally) personal things to me simply because I'd been honest with them in a book. These letters ranged from poignant to obscene, but the content isn't the point. It's the automaticity of the gossip reflex that matters, and the reason for this is central to the cost-benefit side of morality. Communication is a non-zero-sum game where both players stand to win. It costs us nothing to share information and both parties are likely to come out ahead.
We're able to sharpen our ethical nails on gossip and scandal, and to feel contempt, a central moral emotion, as well as superiority, while being asked for nothing in return. Character assassination can also be morally damaging to the gossiper and turn all of us into hypocrites, of course. "In our condemnation of others' hypocrisy we only compound our own," Haidt warns. Hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue, after all.
So the question isn't whether or not to gossip, but how to gossip well. It's not so evil, after all. It helped to save us from ourselves.
1. Jonathan Haidt, "The Happiness Hypothesis," p. 53.
2. Jonathan Haidt, "The Happiness Hypothesis," p. 55.
3. E.O. Wilson, "On Human Nature," p. 85.
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