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The Evolution of Gossip

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By Drago Nuić, BA International Relations

‘If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all’, but who can say they have never done a little bit of gossiping?  

Gossip is generally understood as informal talk about other people’s private lives. To some, the definition ends there, but to many others, it is synonymous with the exposure of secrets, the revealing of thoughts that are unkind, and malicious lies. Gossip gets a bad rep, deservedly so in some cases, but gossiping is far more complex and nuanced than it is generally thought of. Only after knowing the full story of gossip can we properly judge it. Ironic, isn’t it?

Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, pioneered the theory that gossip is a form of ‘social grooming’, a major social activity that can create bonds and reinforce social relations – a key element for groups to cooperate and survive. Primates do this by picking dirt and fleas off of each other, and humans gossip. In this view, gossiping creates an intimate but casual atmosphere, you implicitly signal to the other person that you are willing to open the door to your social circles, that you wish to entertain them, and that you trust them by sharing secrets. It turns out spilling the tea is a useful evolutionary icebreaker. Today this process has been magnified, with mass media we are constantly exposing ourselves to talk of celebrities’ lives. Whole online communities form around following a celebrity’s life, and these celebrities become a common touch-point for many people. You can meet a stranger from the other side of the world and bond over gossiping about Prince Harry’s life.

“Like a double-edged sword, gossip can cut both ways, and it cuts deep”

As society developed from its earlier, more small-scale group forms, gossiping evolved as more complex social structures and hierarchies of power started to coalesce. It is here that gossiping was identified as a serious social tool, in particular to feminist scholars, who argue that it became a way for the disadvantaged and marginalised to level an otherwise systematically asymmetric social field. Journalist, Christina Scott, stated that ‘gossip gives us a fighting chance to decode the motives and intentions of people who affect the quality of our lives’. Lisa Tessman, professor of philosophy at Binghamton University, describes gossip as a ‘burdened virtue’, an act that becomes virtuous and necessary in the context of oppression.  Unable to turn to public channels, institutions, or figures of authority when suffering under the consequences of an oppressive patriarchal system, gossiping became a way to resist. In this way gossiping was a subversive act, it was a way of defining one’s own experiences in a system that won’t consider it; a safer means to jointly ostracize oppressors, exploiters, and abusers in otherwise more dominant positions; and warning others of them. Gossiping is often denigrated, deeply tied with misogynistic implications as feminist scholar and activist Silvia Federici points out. However, as put by Scott, this hostility to gossip is indicative of fear, and angst at the inability to control what subverts domination.

A darker side to gossip, however, does exist. Commodification goes hand-in-hand with gossip in this era of mass media and the internet, gossip is gold for professional tabloids and a whole network of forums, social media accounts, and internet personalities driven by delivering the latest gossip – the more controversial it is the more attention it garners, the more attention there is the greater the potential for profit. Images of legions of paparazzi hounding celebrities, hidden photographers voyeuristically invading people’s privacy for salacious photographs, and insultingly audacious front-page titles about people in their most vulnerable state are embedded in pop culture memory. Amy Winehouse, Britney Spears, Meghan Markle, and Princess Diana are a few famous examples in which the lives of people, with all their complexities, difficulties, and ambiguities, were reduced and re-shaped at their expense into a product to be peddled by rumour mills. This situation is not limited to the lives of the famous, but also in more intimate settings such as workplaces, schools, and friend groups. There is an edge to gossip, one that reveals the ugly side of curiosity, where the callous and malicious use of gossip can cause a great deal of unjust and dangerous harm.   

Gossip may be likened to a tragic figure – both loved and despised. Fun, cruel, intriguing, vacuous, empowering, suffocating, many words could describe gossiping. What is clear however is that the value of gossiping, or its potential for harm, depends on whose hands it’s in. For the disempowered, it is a way to punch up at their oppressor, for those in positions of power it can be twisted into a source of harm to others. Gossip is certainly important and cannot be dismissed as mere idle talk. Like a double-edged sword, gossip can cut both ways, and it cuts deep.


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