Thursday, June 7, 2007

Gossip: And your point is...?

So occasionally I find a part of the newspaper in the, uh, throne room, and a headline catches my eye, like this one from the Wall street Journal (June 4, 2007) did: "Gossip: So Much Fun People Once Tried to Make it Illegal."

The author, Cynthia Crossen, writes about quaint people in the distant past (early parts of the 20th Century) who actually thought that gossip was negative and should be curtailed. She mentions Mary Hoppe, of New York City, who in 1816 founded "Don't Gossip" clubs with chapters "in every town in the US. Its motto: 'The tongue is an unruly evil full of deadly poison.'"

Well yes, the concept of controlling one's speech does seem rather antiquated when your slogan conjures images of people's mouths popping and rolling with an "unruly" venomous snake! A Tennessee lawmaker in 1927 proposed that gossip be a misdemeanor, but it fell under the arguments that the law would be unenforcible, and the start of a slippery slope: "After a while we'll have laws making it illegal to eat peas with a knife."

Wisconsin and Kentucky were less sophisticated, passing "statues" against gossip that brought the Kentucky conviction of Maude Basham, who muttered that the local constabulary were "50-50 with the bootleggers." Concludes writer Crossen, "But as the rest of the 20th century demonstrates, no force of man or nature can stop people from tittle-tattling about others. It's just too much fun."

OK, so I read this pointless piece in the latrine and carried it out in incredulity not because of what it said, but because of what it didn't. It didn't mention that lushon ha ra, passing along gossip that is true (as opposed to motzi sheym ra, gossip that isn't) is one of the foremost personal battles Jews who take the Torah seriously face--every day. It didn't mention that the life's work, and books by the Chofetz Chaim
(Rabbi Israel Meir HaCohen Kagan, 1838-1933), like the little two-volume A Lesson a Day adaptation on my shelf, are studied by Jews in an effort to improve their observance of the crucial commandment to guard one's tongue--and that success with this task can hasten the coming of the Messiah. It surely didn't mention that words are SO elemental and powerful that God created the world using words, and the instructions for living adopted by countless millions--the Ten Commandments--are better translated as "The Ten Statements." Words are not just sounds in the Hebrew language, words are things, as the same Hebrew word means both.

OK, enough basic Judaism--everybody knows all this, except, it seems, Cynthia Crossen, who suggests we throw up our hands and open our unruly mouths because it's just so much fun! That's like saying we should, pardon me, give up on monogamy, since everybody ignores it, and promiscuity is just so much fun!

On a personal level, great. But as I tell my 14-year-old son, one of the things that allowed the Jews to last so long (contrary to nations in this week's parsha--like the Jebusites, the Hittites, the Amorites) was and is our ability to defer gratification. What feels good now, might be "poison" to you later, as well as to the larger community and society. Once you've got people airing negative opinions, you've soon got suspicion and competition and jealousy. Which lead to dishonesty, sabotage, and conflict. Too quickly, you've got New York before Mayor Giuliani
. Some might say Sodom before the brimstone.

I found Teen People magazine in my daughter's room. I wasn't snooping; it was left right out there. Reminded me that before that rag existed, Hollywood stars felt it important to project a wholesome image. They hid their flaws, and even more, their misdeeds. Now, the brightest badge of accomplishment is to enter rehab. That tells the world you're not ashamed of your addiction, and, by the way, you're not responsible for your actions, because a medical condition--like cancer or the flu--made you do whatever horrid thing made Teen People last week.

So, with Teen People in my house, a spouse steeped in media, and the Wall Street Journal insisting "no force of man or nature" can combat this inbred inclination, why not at least go with the flow? Well, as my media-soaked spouse often says, the only religions that are gaining adherents are the ones who
demand a lot of their members.

I think we're hardwired to require a project, something to do, something to strive toward. We want to work on something that can produce a desirable outcome. We take jobs to bring in money, yes, but many of us go beyond that, eschewing big bucks to earn a more meaningful reward. In that vein, working to refine our speech, to focus on the ethereal rather than the earthly, is a project with an intellectual and grander payoff. And it's invigoratingly challenging, in this billboard-crammed culture where you can't buy a bell pepper without the Enquirer feeding the "minds who want to know." It gives us something to do, with the kicker of a historical and traditional context. And it's a battle, with its accompanying potential for the reward of success, that's staring us in the face, every time we answer the phone or purchase our parsley.

If we just give up and legitimize the use of words for "too much fun," we drop a rung on the long ladder between earth and heaven.

Come to think of it, it's time to clear the old newspaper out of the bathroom.


  1. I loved this post. Gossip is a funny thing in that it does not really provide any physical pleasure. Rather, on a psychological level one feels some degree of pleasure when gossiping. This could be due to an insecurity the gossiper has -- and by talking badly about another he feels better about himself.
    Indeed, I believe that gossip and Teen People - while both a waste of time - cater to a person's insecurity. They allow one to forget about himself and instead focus on another, for good or for bad. People are obsessed with the so-called celebrities because it provides a relief from their own lives. It gives them an outlet. They can scrutinize and analyze the lives of others...instead of perfecting their own.
    Don't get me wrong. I too an often tempted to look at the Post's Page Six or at the NY Times story on the most recent rehabbing celebrity. There's a strange temptation to read about other people who play no role in our lives. However, that's when I am reading a particular paper in which a story is presented about a certain celebrity. I don't understand those who go out of their and spend time and money on magazines such as People. Are you really affected by the twist in the love triangle of X, Y, and Z??

  2. Thanks for your insights, Moshe. I agree that people are motivated to gossip because of their own insecurities, and wanting to feel superior to those about whom they speak. I'm saddened, however, that our culture has elevated this to something desirable. Our threshold for titillation keeps escalating, and as that goes up, our connection to heaven declines.