Tuesday, July 10, 2007


as it turns out i've been thinking lately with some very different friends for some very different reasons on meta-level question about gossip and about discression. these questions keep coming up: how much discression do we owe to others, and how much can they expect? why do they? and how bad is it to gossip, anyway, and how admirable is discression, really? everyone's always telling someone else what they know, and then getting angry at someone for having told, in turn, someone else: we admire discression and expect it of our confidantes, but it's really really hard to do it one's self.

i want to start by saying that i think that discression is overrated-- or, rather, over-expected. i don't think that we should expect people to tell absolutely no one something if we ourselves couldn't manage to tell absolutely no one-- and, sadly, one person telling one person telling one person can become everyone knowing in record time-- meaning: the absolute worst case can come about without any one person having done anything worse than anyone else.

one of the strongest theories these days about how and why humans developed language capacities is that it was so we could gossip. the idea is that as the groups our anscestors lived in got larger (as compared to other primate groups), grooming (which is the social glue that holds those other primate groups together) so many others got to be too time consuming. so the evolution of lanuage/language capacities, used to share social information (about birth and love and sex and death and feuds and on and on), was driven by the tension between the need for social adhesive and constraints on time in these new and larger social units. [this is pathetically oversimplified. for the whole story see dunbar's 'grooming, gossip, and the evolution of language'.] but the point is that we may be built to gossip: the itch is in us, like the itch to sneeze, to fuck, to consume. and, like these other human drives, i think that we can and should make moral judgements regarding gossip, but i tend to cut people a lot of slack where any of these things are concerned. i've experienced the inexorable magnetic pull of each, ethical or not.

another reason that i think discression is sometimes overrated is that i think that it can be motivated by different things, some less admirable than others. it seems to me that, like anything else in the world, it can be motivated by love or it can be motivated by fear. withholding information can be just as effective a strategy for posturing and pretense-- two things that i dislike very much-- as the sharing of skewed or exaggerated information.

that being said, there's something so fucking admirable about discression. i know maybe a handful of people who I would single out as particularly discreet, who are often silent when it comes to the personal details of their lives and the lives of others, without ever drawing anyone's attention to the fact. despite all of my qualifications, i find this at minimum seriously intriguing and impressive. i admire it the way i admire anything i imagine requiring restraint, the same way some people admire feats of physical strength. but what i really respect about discression is how/when it secures the necessary conditions for some relationship. this takes me back to my earlier post on the topic of privacy, but the idea is that privacy (a) gives people a space in which they can behave more freely or less self-consciously than they otherwise might and (b) gives people the ability to choose who they will relate to and how by giving them control over how much personal information different individuals have about them (so i can choose you as a friend, you as an acquaintance, you as a business partner, and cement those choices by the sorts of things about myself that i choose to share). so when someone secures the privacy of another person by not gossiping about them, despite strong incentives to do it anyway, i'm impressed. that person has given someone the chance to relieve themselves of information without succumbing to the desire for relief themselves. it seems a lot like taking a hit for someone. they've helped to secure a space for someone in which they can be themselves, and make mistakes, and learn from them, free of certain kinds of harsh scrutiny. it's the foundation for a particular and important sort of trust.

but while discression can play an important role in securing a solid friendship, gossip, as i mentioned, is itself a means of securing meaningful social bonds. and talking about one's own life with someone is an especially big part of what i means to be friends. so to expect someone to keep quiet about the details of their own life and relationships seems wrong to me-- it's isolating, hampering to friendships, and just too much to ask of someone.

but then there's how in this tangled mess of a world, we're never just talking about ourselves. when we talk about ourselves, we necessarily talk about others, and often those others that we're closest to-- who've let us in to those private spaces that i've argued should be protected. so do i tell you the fucked up thing my best friend did, knowing that you won't have all of the rich contextual details that keep me from judging him too harshly or for too long? this shit is hard. i don't think that there's a clear ethical answer. but i do think that human beings need their comforts, and talking is one way that we get it, and we should at least understand, and at best forgive, when people choose the comfort that we're built for gossip to bring us.

this is only the beginning, really, but i'll lay off for awhile.

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