On Gossip, Back-Talking, and Hypocrisy

Those of you who know me well enough are no doubt aware of my fascination with this topic. Aside from my innate interest in sociological and psychological behavior, I also find it engaging due to it’s ubiquity and pervasiveness: there is not a single human on this planet that hasn’t at one point  been involved in gossip, talking behind someone’s back, or some other form of duplicitous behavior. And yet,  strangely, there is also not a single person on this planet that doesn’t claim not to partake in this act.

In other words, everyone does something that everyone claims they don’t do or don’t approve of. We are all – barring for the sake of certainty  the possibility some very exceptional cases – hypocrites.

Of course, this isn’t just limited to speaking poorly about people when they’re not around. Ask any average person who isn’t mentally suspect in some way, and they’ll claim to be opposed to lying, stealing, infidelity, killing, and any other vice. If pressed on it more, they may even claim never to engage in these things (though most people will do so hesitantly when it comes to more common immoral acts like lying or stealing). If any of this were true, there’d be little to no crime, corruption, or grounds for distrust in our society.

And that is what really intrigues me. Who are we fooling when we claim to be guiltless? How can we take ourselves seriously when we fault others for doing things we do all the time? Does anyone have the legitimacy to call out other people for wrongdoings? If we’re all guilty, who do we trust as a proper judge of morality and character? It’s almost as if everyone is just lying for the sake of some third-party – a hypothetical observer  (much like God, though not omniscient) that is keeping watch on all of us and judging us.

Indeed, that’s basically what we call “society” – the sum of every other individual we know, ourselves included, that is nonetheless basically treated as if it one whole, personified entity. Once we break it down, we may start to realize that ultimately, it doesn’t matter what “society thinks” – it’s nothing more than the aggregate opinion of numerous people more-or-less like you who have probably done at least one of the bad things you’re being judged on.

What about ourselves? We often separate “selfs” into two components: we talk to our own minds and try to justify to it why we did what we did. “It’s okay Romney, you’re just lying this one time for a good reason”  or “I’m not really gossiping, I’m just talking about a concern I have with him while he’s not around, nothing like what other  people do.”  It’s almost like one side of us is trying to get the other side on board, even if we don’t see it that way (I hope this makes sense – I know it’s not easy to articulate, so bear with me).

This isn’t strictly a sociological or psychological phenomenon, however. Some studies suggest that there is a biological – specifically neurological – origin to why we behave in this way. In short, our brains are in fact “modular” in nature, meaning that there are many components within our single “self” that each work in their own way and promote their own thoughts, behaviors, or habits. Sometimes these modules work together, sometimes in conflict, and sometimes completely independently.  So while a part of us engages in a certain behavior, another part may struggle to contain it, or continue to act on it’s own and promote better behavior, thus creating the duplicity we take as being “fake” or dishonest. It’s a bit complex, and still only recently discovered, but it makes a lot of sense.

So how many of us could righteously and un-hypocritically call anyone else out on their dishonesty or double-standards?

Well, while we’re hypocrites to a certain degree, clearly some people are more guilty in this regard than others. Sure, everyone talks about one another behind their backs, and as I’ve demonstrated, I have no delusions about that. But there is a clear difference between speaking about someone’s bad habits or abrasive tendencies, and delighting in discussing their petty personal business or making ad hominen attacks. There is also a difference in intent: to vent or share a concern is one thing, while to to spite, lie, or engage in schadenfreude is a whole other. I’d rather people talk about how loud or obnoxious I tend to be, than spread slanderous rumors or make unfair assumptions about my character. Obviously, I’d rather none of us ever talk about one another in secret at all, but obviously that it is unrealistic expectation (on both ends).

With that said, I will not pretend I am historically guiltless in this regard. As far as I can tell through my own reflections, I no longer take perverse  joy in making fun of other people. Even when I let my petty side get the best of me, which happens to all of us at some point, I at least reflect on it, feel guilty, and know that what I did was wrong. I’ll be sure to make amends and promise myself to avoid conflict with said individual as best as I can.

The problem is more with people who engage in this behavior systematically, without any sense of guilt or empathy for the other person (or other people in general for that matter).What’s most troubling is when this happens between close friends, as I’m sure we’ve all had the displeasure to experience. How we are capable of  simultaneously loving and cherishing one another while indulging in such harsh and judgmental criticism is a remarkable and mind-boggling phenomenon  (though the modular brain notion once again applies).

I think it all comes down to the development and maintenance of two things: empathy and reason. Building up our capacity to relate with and understand other living things is the foundation of integrity and compassion, which in turn dilutes petty inclinations to speak ill of others. If you care about other people, and could sympathetically put yourself in their position when tempted to speak ill of them, you’ll know better.

As for reason,  I believe we’re too quick to make assumptions and draw conclusions, often ad absurdum, about other people. This is the biggest issue in my opinion: a tendency to be visceral, reactionary, and emotional towards one another and our differences. Instead of measuring or reflecting on what we may hear – or are thinking – about others  many of us just lose control of our higher faculties. We should always measure up the claims being made, and reflect on what we feel or think about someone, why we do so, and whether it has any validity. We should also scrutinize our own attitudes and behavior, and determine which course of action is best: is it really justified or right to talk badly? Should we not address the source of conflict directly? What of the consequences to your reputation, or if that person were to find out?

Once again, I find that mixing compassion, empathy, and reason can help address another social ill. One can only hope enough people learn to exercise the better part of their faculties – or that those that do can at least learn to move past such petty and needless habits.