Thursday, December 02, 2010

Entre Nous?: The Merits (and Demerits) of Gossip

Let me begin by illuminating the obvious: we live in a gossip-obsessed culture.

You don't even have to make all that much of an effort to find yourself more intimately familiar with the very personal details of celebrities, politicians, athletes and other real(ity) pop-culture figures' lives than you are with those of your own friends and family. Breakups and makeups, engagements, weddings and affairs, stints in rehabs, arrests, poorly-worded letters and emails and voicemails, and all the minutiae of people's food/music/cinematic/literary (and sexual) preferences are about as easily accessible as the World Wide GossipNet... er, I mean, Web. Most of us, myself included, have willingly subjected ourselves to the vagaries of Big Brotherhood, what with all our blogging and Facebooking and Tweeting. Sure, some folks try to plaster themselves all over the place under the cover of anonymity, but anonymous or pseudonymous identities are neither harmless nor immune to the harm of almost-unrestricted accessibility. (Google yourself much?) The truth is, we looooove to talk about people-- and as much as we might want people in general to be good as a principle, we sooooo prefer to talk about them when they're bad.

The recent Wikileaks scandal has given me pause, and occasion to reflect upon the merits and demerits of gossip. (Btw, "gossip" is not always, necessarily, "untrue." In fact, the very best kind of gossip is almost always either totally true or has enough of a hint of truth to it.) Here's a bit of gossip: I have a friend (who will remain unnamed, but some of you will know who I'm talking about, winkwink) who always prefaces the most salacious stories with the whispered caveat "This is, of course, entre nous." There's no doubt something about the "between-us" framing of a story that makes it more illicit, more cloak-and-dagger, more recondite, more concupiscent and, consequently, more desirable-to-know than your average run-of-the-mill gossip. But, nevertheless, what should bother any recipient of such entre nous disclosures is the suspiciousness of one's warranting the privilege of that disclosure in the first place. As everyone with a blabber-mouth gossipy friend knows, if s/he is talking to you about others, odds are that s/he is talking to others about you. It's kind of like they say about cheaters: if they'll cheat WITH you, they'll cheat ON you.

I wish I could say that I wasn't a gossip... but, to me, that would be like saying I'm some kind of magical-superhero-fairy, utterly immune to the influences of my culture's endemic prejudices and practices, and I'm too much of a Foucaultian to say that. (For the record, that's the same reason I am reluctant to say "I'm not a racist.") There are, of course, some benefits to gossip, even above and beyond finding-out-the-truth-that-you're-being-screwed. Gossip is like a micro-communal glue: it binds together groups by way of monitoring access to whatever is perceived to be privileged information. (Find me a group that doesn't gossip, and I'll show you a bunch of strangers.) For all of the other things that bind communities together-- shared likes and dislikes, agreed-upon procedures, principled commitments, conventional practices, prevailing sentiments-- there is none, in this day and age, that trumps shared information. And, as we all learned in kindergarten, sharing is a good thing. That's how we make friends, that's how we find cheap living arrangements, that's how we get jobs, that's how we find out who our enemies are, that's how we figure out the restaurants to go to and the ones not to go to, that's how we protect our relationships/friends/homes/reputations, that's basically how we insert ourselves into the fabric of otherwise-exclusive information networks.

So what about those things that we're really not meant to know? Like the stuff that Wikileaks leaked? If your're interested in hearing from the horse's mouth, you should check out Julian Assange's (founder of Wikileaks) own stated motives for doing what his site does. Assange basically views the U.S. government as depending upon secrecy and the (secret) integrity of its communications to function. That is, Assange views the entire U.S. governmental infrastructure as a kind of "Mean Girls" clique that keeps secrets from us, not primarily for our own good, but rather for their own protection. So, for Assange et al, gossiping (aka, "leaking") is not so much in the interest of establishing and maintaining a covert community as it is for disrupting the very principle that establishes "communities" as covert. In that sense, Wikileaks (gossipy that it is) is kind of like the Form of an Anti-Gossip site.

Let me just go on the record as supporting Wikileaks' recent disclosures. Of course, I hate that those revelations will ineviatbly stunt U.S. diplomatic relations, but I am inclined to favor truth over diplomacy in this instance. The Wikileaks "scandal," in my view, demonstrates the best of both the merits and demerits of gossip. That is to say, it disrupts the ideal of the "covert community" while at the same time reinforcing the principle that any community is what it is by virtue of shared access to information. As any real connoisseur of gossip will readily attest, the very best gossip is the gossip that is undeniably true, and which makes people reevaluate whatever actions made thems gossip-worthy in the first place.


anotherpanacea said...

It's odd that you defend Wikileaks on principle rather than with reference to specific facts now in evidence that were previously missing. More here.

John said...

You bring up some interesting points about gossip as being at the borderline of shared knowledge (being "in the know"?) and community as partly defined by shared information. Still I wonder whether "leaking" of information is really equivalent to gossip (about friends, neighbors, etc.) Doesn't a leak have its controversial status due to the prohibition against access to information, and the absolute, sometimes chilling reaction to such disclosure, the official disavowal of the information, denial of the legitimacy of the leak?

For this reason I think it is important to distinguish between small and large secrets, secrecy among friends from the secrecy of powers-that-be. I think of Derrida and his concept of the "right of inspection" (in Echographies of Television I believe). One can identify, as Kafka did, a kind of "shyness" to power and official decisions (when they are close to being brought before the scrutiny of the public) and at the same time one can attribute to such power a voracious "need to know". Who possesses the "right of inspection"?