My wife believes that gossip, far from being venal rumormongering, is not only ethical but an important form of social work. Gossip is a basic form of communal self-understanding, she would claim, and a necessary and humane form of social control. She suggests that gossip is the interpersonal equivalent of earthquake preparedness--that the daily group analysis that she and her friends perform readies them to step in and help during an actual crisis.

That all sounds very noble, but I have my doubts. The story of Harry and Eleana is a good case in point. He is a somewhat glamorous (big fancy job, good-looking, smart, fun, single) newcomer to our group, she of longer standing, with all the same glam qualities. After Laurie set them up at a dinner party, I figured they were on their own. But when Eleana let my wife know that Harry had traduced various dating arcana (he didn't call until 6:40!! he talked about keeping their relationship private--what relationship?!), a firestorm of gossip erupted on the phone lines and dinner-party circuit. "That is so horrible!" one woman told us both. "I'm sorry I ever introduced him to you."

Now, it may be that this poor bastard is a rascal who indeed needs coercing into more "adult" forms of behavior and better treatment of women, but how would we know? He was tried and convicted without benefit of basic rights like cross-examination or calling his own witnesses. Eleana's version of events may not be entirely accurate, I suggested, but I was shushed, since saying so was prima facie proof I didn't know how to gossip.

It may be that this poor bastard is a rascal who indeed needs coercing into more "adult" forms of behavior and better treatment of women, but how would we know?

No one was interested in examining the assumptions that compounded the presumption of Harry's guilt--that he is over 40 and single and therefore in all probability a rogue, for instance, or that men exactly like him have conspired to leave the beautiful Eleana single at 40, too.

And this only scratches the surface of the projections and resentments that energize such gossip. These are very attractive, successful people, after all, and the rest of us are already married. We may in fact enjoy seeing the glamorous singles facing their minor setbacks and disgraces. We may be relieved to find that they don't live lives as charmed as their charming appearance might suggest. We can count our blessings and tsk-tsk.

Like doomsayers who believe in each new promised day of Armageddon despite its repeated non-appearance, gossips throw themselves into these festivals of Schadenfreudish speculation with abandon. Everyone knows the awkwardness of going to Billy and Suzy's wedding on the heels of the big breakup six months earlier--a meltdown that Suzy had explained as the result of finding out that Billy (a) was having an affair, (b) was mean to the kitten, or (c) was gay, and that Billy had explained as sexual incompatibility, pointedly pretending to accuse no one.

We can gossip about their mutual lack of judgment in blithely going through with the wedding, but what do we know? We are often asked to pretend that we never heard either side's complaints, and since gossip is by its very nature unstable and untrustworthy, this we can usually manage. When the marriage hits its first gossip-worthy bad patch, however, the earlier rumors will surface again, adding credence to Suzy's or Billy's new tale of woe.

Gossip is entertaining and engrossing. I understand that. Far be it from me, then, to argue that it should be abolished, even if it could be. I only want to object to the ethical claims and assumptions of social efficacy.

Are we going to modify Harry's behavior? No, since he is expressly cut out of the loop--Eleana, we were all told in preface, did not want this to be general knowledge. (Code: Spread carefully, don't let it get back to Harry.) Gossip has more to do with the controlled dissemination of information than with the sharing of it, and more to do with what sociologists call impression management than with social control. That is, the gossips are more concerned with managing their own reputations than the behavior of the gossipees.

If Harry becomes one of us, he'll be safer from slander. And then he can join in the fun, helping to scapegoat the next scapegrace.

Eleana has ensured that the failure of the romance with Harry is Harry's fault, even before the first date. If the romance succeeds, well, then who cares? Laurie claims that gossip will help her step in if Eleana needs her help, armed with knowledge of Eleana's heart. But it's more likely that Eleana is disguising her desires with this preemptive strike than keeping her friends apprised of them.

And Harry? If he becomes one of us, he'll be safer from slander, or at least develop some defenders. And then he can join in the fun, helping to scapegoat the next scapegrace. We may help form and maintain our communities with our talk, but that doesn't necessarily make it ethical.

And only some of the talk we use to forge our bonds is gossip, thank goodness. To gossip is to be human, indeed. Or as Nietzsche the great theorist of scapegoating, would say, all too human.

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