The Malicious Witness

“Word of the Day: GOSSIP

The other day I heard the first somewhat unflattering description of the behavior of some — some — of our students. It wasn’t that they got drunk, or fornicated, or cheated on papers, or did drugs, or got into fights, as is par for the course everywhere else. It’s that some of the girls engaged in GOSSIP. The trouble is that the walls and floors in the dormitory are rather thin, so that two girls talking about a third girl would be overheard by ten others.

Men GOSSIP too, but it isn’t so much fraught with emotion. Consider it to be another case of a gift gone awry. Women do use words more often than men do, and women are in fact more keenly attuned to the feelings of others. You want that sort of thing in the sex that is to take care of babies and small children. You do not want that sort of thing in the sex that is to hunt buffalo. You want, in the buffalo-hunting sex, a different gift, one that can also be abused or that can harden into something bad: the capacity to bracket your feelings and put them in the closet marked “Inconsequential,” because what counts are not feelings but getting the particular job done. And if the job is complex and risky, like bringing down the buffalo, or building the cathedral, or digging the canal, most expressions of personal feeling are quite simply in the way.

Anyhow, there is the GOSSIP. I was actually a bit surprised by it, because I hadn’t detected a trace of it over a whole year. But then, I wouldn’t. I’m not interested enough in the particular dynamics of any social group to notice. Or — something else: I sense sometimes that I MIGHT notice the swirls and eddies of strong feeling, grudges, hurt, envy, and maneuvering, if I tried really hard, but that I prefer not to notice, because noticing them spoils what’s more important. They might as well not exist.

The sex that is sensitive to the emotional needs of others may use that sensitivity to make the lives of their rivals, namely other girls, just a little more troublesome, a little more blue, a little more lonely. Boys fight, and the fights are sometimes pretty bloody. Yet sometimes the fights conclude in fast friendships. Girls themselves tell me that their fights are not like that at all. Six of one, half dozen of the other.

The Church considers GOSSIP to verge upon a serious sin, one that I must confess to have committed often enough in life — and one that we tend to overlook, because it does not exactly involve lying. It is the sin of DETRACTION. It means that you run down the character of somebody else by telling bad TRUTHS about him, and if DETRACTION is not a LIE, it is in a real sense more harmful to the victim, who has no defense against it. I have had to guard against this sin ever since I was made conscious of it. In general. ALL use of the tongue (or the pen) that violates the commandment of charity against the legitimate secrets of individual persons violates the commandment: Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

The word GOSSIP originally denoted a person, not an action: your GOD-SIBB, that is, your SPONSOR at Baptism or Confirmation: your GOD-KINSMAN. The SIBB part of it suggests somebody who is intimately related to you — to your SELF: it is related to the hundreds of words in Indo-European languages having to do with your SELF or your OWN; cf. the Latin reflexive SE; Greek IDIOS, one’s OWN; German SEIN, HIS. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath talks a lot to her GOSSIP, that is, her female neighbor, and already the suggestion is that the talk isn’t very nice.” – Tony Esolen

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