From The Paris Review:
It is perfectly monstrous the way people go about, nowadays, saying things against one behind one’s back that are absolutely and entirely true.
—Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Several writers have weighed in recently on this age-old human foible that is gossip, with varying levels of success. In The Virtues of Our Vices: A Modest Defense of Gossip, Rudeness, and Other Bad Habits, philosopher Emrys Westacott examines the ethics of several conventionally frowned-upon social transgressions and “moral failings” like rudeness, snobbery, and, of course, gossip. He begins his examination of the subject by posing the big-picture questions: Should we condemn all gossip? If gossip isn’t an “inherently pejorative” act, can it ever be acceptable or even beneficial? Westacott finds compelling ethical justifications for the innocent pleasure so many of us take in slamming our friends and loved ones. Yes, when it’s malicious and untrue, he allows, gossip can ruin reputations and damage lives. But the right kind of gossip—about, say, unwarranted salary discrepancies, or sketchy undisclosed conflicts of interest—can be a force of good. Behind-the-scenes murmurings build relationships, provide emotional catharsis, counteract secrecy, and upend existing power structures, to name just a few benefits. In the end, Westacott concludes, “a willingness to talk about people—which at times will involve gossiping—may be an integral part of the ‘examined life.’”
Another recent book, Joseph Epstein’s Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit, takes Westacott’s claim that there’s no such thing as “no one else’s business” to new heights—and depths. The extended essay takes as a given that “[o]ther people are the world’s most fascinating subject,” which I for one certainly wouldn’t dispute. From there Epstein veers back and forth between disquisitions on the meaning, importance, and history of gossip to delectable tidbits on everyone from Arthur Miller (who dumped his disabled child in an institution for life!) to Fidel Castro (who did it with Kenneth Tynan’s wife!).