In defense of gossip

Dear S,

Jonathan Haidt argues in his article Why the Past 10 Years Have Been Uniquely Stupid that
Social media has both magnified and weaponized the frivolous. Is our democracy any healthier now that we’ve had Twitter brawls over Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s tax the rich dress at the annual Met Gala, and Melania Trump’s dress at a 9/11 memorial event, which had stitching that kind of looked like a skyscraper? How about Senator Ted Cruz’s tweet criticizing Big Bird for tweeting about getting his COVID vaccine?

I would counter-argue that he should lower his expectations.  Democracy in the extreme (which I don't believe in) means not that the best of us should direct public affairs, but that all of us should -- including the least of us.  And this effectively means the worst of us.  The question isn't whether our concerns as a society are petty.  The question is how far you want to include the worst of us in fashioning society.     
But beyond this I believe the things Haidt calls "frivolous" are pregnant with meaning, even if they appear petty.  Ocasio-Cortez's dress was "only a dress" -- but it said "tax the rich" when she's one of the richest people in America, and her nana was dirt poor.  This raised the question, should people put their money where their mouth is? -- a teaching of every great self-styled spiritual leader, from Jesus Christ to Michael Jackson.  Ted Cruz may have criticized Big Bird, but this raised several questions, chief of which was are children's shows also propaganda?  The question of Melania's dress may have been paranoid speculation -- but still raised the question of, do clothes mean thingsEven without words on them?

You can call these things petty, but each of these is actually meaty, and gives lots of ammunition to philosophers and pundits, even if they end up asking shouldn't you be paying attention to more important things?*  

This leads me to believe that gossip at bottom is philosophy, even if the common prejudice is that it's mainly "for women."  Both gossip and philosophy cover more or less the same ground: what people do, whether it's right or wrong, how we're supposed to deal with life, and what we can and can't accept.  Gossip has few rules other than the conversation has to be interesting -- which makes the average woman more fun than the average ivory tower philosopher.  It's also highly practical, which makes many women more useful than the typical theorist.  But most of all it's subtle, taking many little things we ignore and digging out the meaning in them. Thus we introduced women, the matriarchs of the gossip world, into politics, and were surprised (as only men could be) that women kept talking like women.      

What makes gossip so different from "philosophy proper" is that it's so close to life that it tends to be vicious.  The philosopher argues about the meaning of life.  The gossip talks about a local affair.  One questions whether love is all you need.  The other is about someone who needs love.  They're two sides of the same question, really, but one of them feels far away, and the other one is right up close and personal, because it involves an actual person.  Then the media took the things that were far away and put them up close.  Pictures were infused between the words, and suddenly the most perceptive among us were reading between the lines.  Suddenly we became aware of things the Vice President said -- and didn't say, on the clock and off it, and what she wore.  We were just as capable of studying her laugh as we were of studying her speeches.  And one of them was just as interesting as the other.    

It's true that much of our gossip is actually speculation and slander, and when it crosses that line -- when it's spread without any consideration of truth, without any consideration for a few shreds of decency, or without any intention of fighting off bad behavior -- gossip loses most of its value.  At this point it becomes more about "us versus her," or bald entertainment -- still useful, in some cases, and still human, but diabolical.  This is why Downton Abbey and Mad Men are popular, and why people still love Jane Austen: both direct our talk somewhere other than our neighbors, letting us color life with our opinions without having to actually destroy anybody.  A novel is the difference between paintball and the Vietnam War.

But this leads us to ask why gossip is known as a "women's" sport.  My theory is that for millennia, men were trying to work outside the home, and oftentimes beyond the neighborhood.  There was a division of labor between home and beyond, and this clear-cut line between men and women and what they did gave rise to a division of mindsets.  

Put simply, we've always needed men to watch the horizon.  For as long as we can remember, women were left home and didn't have a newspaper.  If they had lots of kids they were too busy to cause too much damage, but the dinks and stay-at-home one-childers and nanny-buyers had more time to discuss the lives of others and the happenings in the neighborhood, and thus women took the helm.  They've been gossiping expertly ever since, probably way more since the rise of the middle class; and their reputation, even in an age where both sexes are working the office, has stuck.  (Even Paul tells the early Christians, who were mostly poor, that widows need to shut up and get to work so they won't sleep around or tattle on neighbors). 

Men were on the job and holding office, and were the only ones who could vote (when voting was possible), so their minds were fixed on "bigger" things -- not actually above life, but delegated to much longer ranges.  To catch a man whispering about Sally too much made him seem petty and silly, like a king who was really good at playing the flute when he was supposed to be dealing with currencies, and laws, and nations, and armies, and churches, and tariffs.  Thus women got a reputation for talking about people, and men got a reputation for talking about things -- both philosophy, and both important.  Both about people, too, and both oftentimes vicious, but one of them seemed grander, and less personal.

Then there were the "philosophers."  The philosopher believed in his own superiority, and he needed a way to prove it.  So instead of going the distance sideways, like the man "beyond" the woman, he stuck his neck above the herd and into the heavens, pondering things like whether justice was better than injustice in a king, or whether man had a soul, or whether we can know reality -- not a removal of dross, but an exclusion of many things closest to us.  He was even prejudiced against business, which was in many countries considered beneath the nobility, and thus he went many times into poverty -- a lack of know-how and self-sufficiency which he relabeled asceticism, which fed his pride even more needlessly.

The more abstract his subjects, the further off from "menial" life, he thought, the better -- and as he became more abstract, he became less concerned with (and usually less good at) real life.  He contributed many great things and many more stupid things and argued over them both.  Not less petty, just generally more abstract.  Angels on pinheads and such.  Eleanor Roosevelt says, Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people -- a statement that would be true if great ideas weren't constantly practiced by little people in everyday life, and "men with great ideas" weren't so boring, especially to the opposite sex.

I think many women's disinterest in "great" ideas is half our fault and half theirs.  It's their fault because most gossip is malicious -- an interest in seeing someone else fail, probably to make sub-par women feel better about themselves, and to better cement alliances between them.  But their reputation as gossips is also men's fault, because women are more practical in philosophy than we are, and if we can't see the "public utility" in something, many times we avoid it.  We forget that the public is made up of individuals, and that the common man, what he says, and does, and feels, and thinks, and loves, and hates, and means, and even wears, eventually becomes public.  My theory is that if men have traditionally been guardians of the laws, women have traditionally been guardians of the norms.  Their jurisdiction is thus much more extensive than ours, but ours gets more fanfare.      

But men these days aren't supposed to talk about politics and religion at work or play anyway, and what they're left with are cars and guns and shop, or (God forbid) one-liners from Adam Sandler movies, or (Lord help us) sports: things that many times represent man's logical, tactical, eyes-on-the-horizon side**, but are too far from actual life -- and subjects most interesting to halfwits.  Thus I believe women on average are better philosophers than men, even if they rarely impress men with their philosophy.  Most men are either beneath it out of fear, or try to style themselves too far above it.  And most men don't have the brains for the latter.

I would say to Haidt that times have changed anyway, and we changed alongside them.  Pettiness, the mass obsession with a slap at the Oscars, or a slur, isn't actually petty, as maybe we used to think.  It's big things put in small ways***, and these days everyone has more leisure to discuss them.  We're almost all capable of voting now.  If the quality of the news means anything, we're certainly all gossiping now.  We believe that because we're gossiping that we can't be good at voting.  But I don't believe this is true.  We aren't more petty because we gossip more.  We're more petty because we don't know how to gossip well -- and we believe too deeply in the extremities of democracy.     


*In Haidt's defense, the tendency has been for men to join in on the "petty" issues without women joining in on the "grand" ones.  We joined their sphere without them ever getting competent in ours.    What this means is that the superstructure of our society, the rule of law, what little fair play existed, the abstract, "cold," principled notions that may not be the life-blood, but serve as the bones of our society, and which were hard-won after centuries of struggle, have been overthrown almost entirely -- leaving little recourse to political opponents but scandal and violence.  

Thus contrary to the prevailing opinion -- that men are responsible for dragging us to war -- it is women, and their disinterest in political theory, who lead us into fights we don't need, which we could have avoided, and can't win.  We gave them the keys to the Chevy and never asked if they knew how to drive.  And they are driving us off a cliff.

MSNBC reports that during the last two years, when cities became swamped in violence, when people were forced to take bogus meds that hurt them, when the border was left wide open, when children were being groomed by perverts and concerned parents were getting followed by the FBI, when World War 3 threw shadows grimly over the horizon, and fiscal policies directly strangled the middle and lower classes, college-educated women are the only group that has swung left.           

**Even sports stats and drafts and such, the bane of most intelligent men, are long-range and tactical.  They involve knowing who's who and what they're good for, and signifies our need to get a team up and running.  Whether the team is literally running is beside the point, but only slightly.  The goal of a game may be to just run a ball beyond a line.  But even this is pregnant with meaning, and if we spend lots of energy organizing a team, it means we still have the germs of manhood inside us, however small: we were just excluded from the squad and the board room and the cabinet.  We always dream that someday we'll be running either -- and thus we practice on football.    
***Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is probably the most perfect fusion between gossip and philosophy -- a book in which no action, thought, lifestyle, decision, mannerism, philosophy, or failure is too small for a big idea -- where Tolstoy goes into detail not about a man's face, but about the state of a man's mind -- where personality clashes against ideals -- where desire breaks through religion -- where the noblest ideas backfire, and the so-called "pettiest" touches spur serious thought.  He reminds us that there are interesting people and boring people, and that the difference between them is that one is interested in life, and sees the meaning in it, and others judge most of it as "petty."  

Thus I believe Tolstoy was one of the fullest men who ever lived.  He knew that philosophy isn't a formula, but a story, full of passion, interest, heartbreak, and drama, and that to really understand how a man works, how a woman works, to really perceive what makes them tick, to dig into varying types of minds and really get a feel for them -- that this is the work of a real philosopher -- and a novelist.  David Horovitch's rendition of Anna Karenina on Audible is perfect.  I can't recommend any novel more than this one, and, with all sincerity, I worry I'll never read a better one. 

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