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May 9, 2009 | by Emuna Braverman

It's in the hardwiring, but does that make gossip good?

We can rationalize anything, especially when it's something we really want to do. That's why I shouldn't have been surprised to read a recent piece entitled "Why It's Good to Gossip."

The goal of the writer seemed to be to relieve us of any guilt we may feel over speaking badly of others, robbing us of those little ‘pricks of conscience' that otherwise might lead us to cease and desist.

Why should we, as the author suggests, just indulge our desire to ‘dish with friends'? Well, after all, it's in the hardwiring and it served some social evolutionary purpose (thereby turning it into a noble and appropriate act in the further growth of mankind!).

Since when did the fact that certain drives and desires are innate make it perfectly acceptable to indulge them? "We are predisposed to gossip," says Alex Mesoudi, Ph.D. We are also predisposed to be aggressive and selfish and to seek to satisfy our seemingly unquenchable desires for food, material possessions and physical relationships. Should these urges be indulged whenever, wherever and with whomever?

As Jews, we believe that there are appropriate parameters for dealing with those hardwired needs, and that self-control is an essential aspect of being human. The essence of an animal is a life run on instinct. The essence of a person is (hopefully) a life run through careful moral thought.

Not everything modern is progress.

The other aspect this clever psychologist misses (you have to be clever to think of such absurd justifications!) is the consequences. He seems to assume that gossip is a harmless pastime, or not care about the potential victims.

Not only has the author chosen to ignore the negative effects on our characters in seeing the world and others through crucial eyes -- and then sharing that information! -- he also neglects the consequences on the subject of the conversation.

Social ostracism, destroyed marriages, business partnerships dissolved. The very fabric of society and of man's place in it are threatened through the injudicious use of language and the spreading of unflattering hearsay.

But it's in the hardwiring...and that's why choosing not to gossip is a meaningful choice. That's why it takes work to think about others. That's why our character is impacted positively when we refrain. That's why we can commit to not gossip for a certain time period every day in the merit of another Jew who needs Divine intervention.

There may be brief fun in the indulgence, but there are lasting beneficial consequences to society and the potential speaker in exercising restraint. In the times of our forefather Abraham, the world was filled with idol worship. Part of the appeal (maybe all of the appeal!) of these idols was that whatever body desires you wanted to satisfy (from the mundane to the unusual), there was an idol that would permit it. Evolutionary sociology and psychology, "it's in the hardwiring," is the idol of our day, permitting us to indulge any desire we wish --and giving it a scientific imprimatur.

Not everything modern is progress.

There's also the other side of the self-interest argument. If I am unavoidably in a room with a group of people who are gossiping about a missing friend or acquaintance, before I open my mouth and jump in (after all I have something important and juicy to add), I stop myself with this thought. If they are so cavalier about talking about our other friend in her absence, then as soon as I leave, I'll be next. That's probably also in the hardwiring.


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