10 November 2009

Gossip as the Dark Side of Community

 Exodus 20:16
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

Matthew 12:36
But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.

Ephesians 4:29;31
Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers... Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.

I've had my interest picqued to the discussions online about gossip lately (http://emergingquaker.blogspot.com/2009/11/gossip-and-quakers.html, http://www.quakerranter.org/gossip_and_ownward_spirals.php).  It's an issue that has alternately plagued and perturbed me, so I'd like to throw in my lot, including a bit of perspective I've learned from 12 step programs:

The attraction of gossip, as I see it, is that when I am involved in talking about someone else, I am able to avoid a host of other things, like taking responsibility for myself and my actions, saying uncomfortable things to people (like, "stop talking about others, please!").  Then there's the entertainment value of gossip, which, while occupying an extremely low rung in the intelligence/entertainment scale, I'll admit, does seem to be what gets people started.

Something in human nature has us crave information about others.  On a certain level, it is a part of what being community is, caring about your neighbors, thinking of others, etc.  However, almost as soon as a word is uttered, the dark side of community is out.  Here all of human nature turns on itself, and we are drawn to the colorful, the curious, and most certainly the weakest.
It's a little like the wounded cat in a den of lions; even though they know it to be one of their own, they cannot resist picking at it, sometimes even killing it and eating it!  It is a short route from caring for ones' own to destroying the weak link.  Is this a part of humans too?

I've seen it even in little children as they pick on the weakest in their lot.  This morning I was involved in a discussion with some friends about how we handled being bullied as children, and how we taught our own children. Even though I frequently felt defenseless as a child, something in me gave me the courage to line up my neighbor friends against the baseball backstop and rail at them when I felt they had hurt my little brother.   I raised my children to be non-violent, to be thoughtful of even the smallest or weakest in the group, to show mercy to all, and to have compassion as they would want.  Never, I told them, was there a reason to strike another, and the route to dealing with bullies was to ignore them.  I know for a fact they sometimes suffered at the hands of bullies as a result, but I know as well that they remain committed to non-violence, as I do.

Another friend told of her mom teaching her how to make a fist, and to hit once and as hard as possible, to deter bullies.  Another said her mother fought her battles for her.  We were trying to look at how these philosophies stood us as adults, when our neighbors or co-workers seemed determined to dog us.

I still maintain that my strongest offense is being prepared, and that planned ignorance gets me a long way.  What always comes to mind is Ghandi's refusal to respond to violence with violence, and how ultimately those perpetrators came to look foolish or weak in the eyes of others.  I have seen that same thing happen when one refuses to accept gossip about another.

This seems, however, like the hardest issue to make any headway with people about:  When people start to gossip, tell them you would rather not have this information, I say.  Even if it's about you, trust me, you don't want to know it.  In AA they have a saying, "what other people think about me is none of my business."  It's true, and it is good advice.  What I don't know can't hurt me, and when you tell me, trust me, it is going to hurt me, and you can't possibly know how much.  So while I can't stop you from gossiping, I can certainly try to keep you from giving me the information.

I have to be compassionate towards myself as well as others.  If I allow another person to pass gossip, I am as responsible as the other person for the results, which will inevitably be more far-reaching than I could ever have seen.  Try as I may, I can't guarantee (nor can you, I'd reckon)  that I won't pass information on, particularly if I think it could serve some "good purpose."   I can't predict what effect the information is going to have on me either, as far as coloring my otherwise good relationship with a person.  Try as I may, I am pitifully poor at remembering that this information is only one opinion about the person, and the more juicy the information it is, the more amnesiac my brain becomes.

I hate that part of myself, and I hate it in others.  So there seems to be only one solution, which is to never let myself hear the information.  I can't stop the harm that others might be bent on doing me, but I can certainly refuse to take notice of it.  I can refuse to lower my standards of living my beliefs, by not letting slander into my frame of reference.

I have been the victim of this kind of gossip, in my own meeting, so I speak from a place of knowledge of both sides of the street.  I know that the people who passed information about me that was hurtful were convinced that they spoke "the truth."  If it was, it was their own truth, not mine.  What they interpreted as ignorance or blindness on my part was in fact an attempt to be compassionate, in a way that did not fit those individuals; definitions.  The result was that we all felt separated and alone, wounded, in the midst of our community.

In our meeting, we have since tried to address this kind of behavior by teaching each other that if a friend comes to us with information, we reply, "Let us go together to this person to see if this information is true or has any merit," or "Let us seek out the help of elders together, so that we can see our way clear of this."  We do not want to "accidentally" pass on erroneous  information, nor do we want to fail to address a situation that might be cause for alarm.  By going to the individual to seek clarity, or by seeking the help of wise others, we will hopefully avoid unnecessary hurt.

Over and over we have heard that this path of ours as Friends is one of attraction not of promotion.  How can we claim this and not see that the most powerful lesson we teach is the power of example.

Practicing refusal to lay claim to negative information about another, whether it be false information about a friend or the president, is one of the simplest forms of speaking truth to power.   I say, simply, "Please do not give me this information."   I ask, "What is your purpose in giving me this information?"  If I hear a cause for alarm, I say, "Let us seek the help of others."
I love my community, and I will go to any lengths to protect it.  Keeping secrets from others is never a safe or healthy form of protection.

1 comment:

  1. Friends, I felt so moved when I read the following blog, also on gossip and the community's response to it, that I felt called to cite the link to it here : http://friend-in-need.blogspot.com/2007/10/call-to-joy.html
    What struck me in this post by Heather Madrone,and in Marshall Massey's thoughtful comment, is the importance corporate worship in love played in the resolution of the issue.
    Blessings to you all! Linda