The People & The Book: The consequences of gossip

For better or worse, gossip is an eternal feature of human society.

Can gossip be in any way “good” in the moral sense of “good”? (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Can gossip be in any way “good” in the moral sense of “good”?
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
EVERYONE, EXCEPT the saintly, enjoys a good gossip now and again. But can gossip be in any way “good” in the moral sense of “good”? Some say yes. Engaging in gossip possesses advantages such as the promotion of group cohesion, the enabling of passive resistance to power and the channeling of hostility into a non-physically violent medium.
Others disagree, noting that a major moral difficulty with gossip is that it unjustly invades the privacy of others and their lives.
Resh Lakish in the Talmud (Arakhin 15b) suggests that the title of the Torah portion Metzora is a contraction of the term motzi shem ra, one who spreads false and derogatory gossip about another. Closely related to, though importantly different from, the category of motzi shem ra is that of lashon hara, negative though factually accurate talk about another.
The person who is a metzora – literally, a sufferer from the disease of tzara’at, a skin disease, understood by the sages as divine punishment for motzi shem ra or lashon hara – must be isolated while afflicted with the disease: “He shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
Why does the Torah prescribe segregation from society as the punishment for derogatory gossip? In the continuation of the extended Talmudic discussion just cited, the sages suggest that the punishment fits the crime. Just as the harmful gossiping of the metzora caused division and dissension between husband and wife or between friends, so the sinner is now separated from others and isolated, sensitized to the suffering of loneliness. This is an instance of the famous rabbinic idea of mida keneged mida, punishment “measure for measure.”
The measure for measure nature of the sanction of isolation is underscored by those rabbinic perspectives articulated in the debate in Arakhin, which view the commission of the sin of gossip as essentially quasi-private. “The School of Rabbi Ishmael taught: For what does the incense [offered in the Temple] achieve atonement? For lashon hara. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘Let that [the incense] which is [offered] in secret come and atone for an act committed in secret.’” Further reasons can be offered for the penalty of social ostracism. Gossip, as unfair invasion of the privacy of the person gossiped about, is punished, measure for measure, by the enforced radical privacy of the gossiper. Such a sanction is far more productive than a simply retributive invasion of the privacy of the gossiper; the imposed solitude may serve a rehabilitative function by enabling the gossiper to reflect, while experiencing loneliness, on the damage caused by his or her conduct.
The lonely circumstances of the gossiper and the time at his or her disposal, together with the lack of the distractions of normal life in society, allows him or her the opportunity to ponder the family of concepts that includes privacy and solitude, their positive and negative aspects, and then to reenter society with greater sensitivity and understanding.
For better or worse, gossip is an eternal feature of human society, and a live issue for contemporary moral philosophers. The British philosopher and ethicist Gabriele Taylor points out that it does not follow from a given activity’s possessing moral merit that those participating in that activity are necessarily morally praiseworthy for doing so. Even if gossip in certain contexts is in some ways beneficial or at least morally neutral, an otherwise ethically sensitive gossiper may feel morally compromised by his or her own gossip.
The Israeli-American philosopher Robert F. Goodman refers to Taylor’s observation and draws on his own experience with great courage and candor. “Certain instances when I have spoken badly of a friend behind his or her back and felt guilty afterwards remain etched in my memory. Even if the person was not hurt by my gossiping, the act itself left a bad taste in my mouth.”
However minimal the damage done by any particular act of lashon hara or motzi shem ra, the solitude of the metzora enables the gossiper to recalibrate him- or herself morally and to recall that while gossip may be “good” in one sense, there is another, more important, sense of “good” which it rarely lives up to.
Rabbi Dr. Michael J. Harris is rabbi of the Hampstead Synagogue, London, lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge and the author of ‘Faith Without Fear: Unresolved Issues in Modern Orthodoxy’