Peter Berger, in his classic essay “On the Obsolescence of the Concept of Honor,” demonstrates how societies where honor matters have a thick sociology, while those with a thin social sphere are dominated by ideas of human “dignity.” We typically take things to be an affront to our dignity, generally understood as those moments where choices are denied us, so that our dignity consists in our nature as autonomous choosers, but we are unlikely to see events as insults to our honor, for honor only operates when we see ourselves not as self-defining but as defined by given patterns of human excellence.
As regnant as the concept of dignity is in our liberal society, vestiges of honor remain. In Addison’s Cato Syphax dismisses honor as “a fine, imaginary notion” only to be rebuffed by Juba’s insistence that “Honor’s Sacred Tie/The law of kings/The noble mind’s distinguishing perfection/That aids and strengthens virtue, where it meets her/And imitates her actions, where she is not/It ought not to be sported with.” Washington, who was enamored with the play and took Cato as a model, had it performed frequently for his troops. Try as he might, Bill Clinton’s efforts to redefine the roles of father and husband, not to mention the Presidency, to include the full services of interns, largely failed.
We can’t meaningfully discuss virtue without recourse to ideas of honor, for honor itself is grounded in the recognition of performed excellence. Achilles took the idea so seriously that he was willing to let the Achaeans be slaughtered rather than bear the offense. He was not unjustified in doing so, for Agamemnon’s actions overturned the whole social order. The destruction of the interconnection between virtue as a public excellence and honor as its rightful recognition exacts enormous social costs.
Where honor perfects virtue, it creates deep ties between the participants in a mutual social order. Honoring one’s parents is, after all, the only one of the 10 Commandments that carries with it a promise – in this case, the maintenance of a stable and enduring social order. It need not be thought of in patrician terms, and becomes inordinately difficult to sustain as the size of the social order expands.
The more impersonal society is, the more individuals become obsessed with their personal dignity. As social life becomes thinner and more impersonal, human beings retain their need to strengthen those “sacred” ties. They do this by figuring out ways to locate themselves socially, and in the process reinforce social norms. I’ve recently become impressed by two ways in which we might accomplish this.
The first is endemic to the Dutch immigrant community in which I was raised and in which I live. I suspect a similar phenomenon will exist in other subcultures. It goes by the name of “Dutch Bingo.” Whenever we find ourselves in conversation with someone with an obviously Dutch last name, we immediately attempt to seek out persons with whom we are mutually connected or, barring that, to discuss known public figures of the community and start tracing their various connections through birth and marriage. It is a fun game and fairly innocent. I am not without skill at it, but I recently spent a riveting afternoon in the company of two true virtuosos. One of these virtuosi, a keen observer of human behavior, smartly pointed out to me that such games become more important as group identity becomes more fragile or threatened through assimilation. It holds off anonymity, and perhaps even anomie. The benefits of the game are obvious, and the costs seem low. No one is really harmed by such conversations.
The same cannot be said of gossip, whose virtue I want to defend. In this, definition is everything. The Christian scripture harshly condemns loose tongues. Throughout the Christian centuries the damaging of another’s reputation and the loss of their good name by the sin of “detraction” is consistently condemned. The reasons for this seem fairly obvious and fall into four basic categories. First, such detraction is a violation of the rule of charity, grounded as detraction is in our malicious desire to destroy someone else. St. Jerome as well as St. Thomas compared it to an act of murder. Second, behind-the-back conversations involve a kind of judging that easily lends itself to hypocrisy and also prevents us from engaging in the sorts of spiritual introspection required of a pious life. Third, detraction creates discord within the community. Gregory the Great preached that “Hence are sown pricking thorns, quarrels arise, the torches of enmity are kindled, the peace of hearts is extinguished.”
Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, detraction is a species of acedia, a spiritual disease that prevents human beings from fulfilling God’s glorious plan for them (and thus can manifest itself in sloth). Thus we often refer to such talk as “idle,” for it not only detracts from another’s reputation, but also from time and labor, both the backbiter’s and whomever they are with. So it is not only a diminishing of one’s own potential for glory, but it is an attempt, grounded in envy, to destroy the potential of another. Such efforts can create great pleasure for those who make them: we like destruction, and we like to satisfy the itch of the tongue and to tingle the ears.
St. Thomas assessed the issue with great clarity. He treats the issue in the Second Part of the Second Part of the Summa in the section on justice. The reason for this becomes apparent if we remember that gossip is an affront to honor. For justice renders to each his due, while honor determines what is due. Detraction (from detrimentum – damage or loss) creates confusion as to what is our due, and thus Thomas treats it as analogous to theft. It destroys the reputation of another by various means: spreading falsehoods; exaggerating the other’s shortcomings; revealing private matters; ascribing good deeds to bad intentions; or indirectly by denying the other person has done some good, or by otherwise concealing or diminishing that good.
Clearly such backbiting can have serious consequences – for the victim, for the person engaged in it, and for the persons listening to it. When it is born of malicious intent and gives voice to envy or hatred, it is genuinely destructive of human comity, all the more so because it usually operates only in the shadows.
Gregory the Great believed that to speak was almost always to sin, and thus we are admonished to bridle our tongues; “For indeed every word is idle that lacks either a reason of just necessity or an intention of pious usefulness. If then an account is required of idle discourse, let us weigh well what punishment awaits much speaking.” A high bar indeed. Still, Aquinas took backbiting as a lesser form of evil than other sins of the tongue.
The sin of backbiting is mitigated by certain factors. First, as St. Ambrose wrote, truth is not detraction. It is not, properly speaking, backbiting if what is being said is true, for speaking the truth can never be wrong.
If we think of speaking of others as an expression of concern, a form of charity, then what we choose to say can be, like any virtue, defined by excess or deficiency of its essential quality. A deficiency of good words about an other would be backbiting, while an excess would be flattery. In that, the two are related to each other, and both have detrimental effects on the effort of the other to attain heavenly glory, for in backbiting their natural glory as creatures of God is denied, but in flattery they are incited to vainglory. In both cases the ability to attain genuine glory is eclipsed.
Speaking the truth can have a salutary effect. St. Augustine recognized this in his reflections on the matter by stating that “when I hear that life of mine abused, in whatever spirit he may be acting who abuses it, I am not so thankless as to be grieved. However much he finds fault with any vice of mine, I praise him in the same degree as my physician.” If the person who is speaking about me, even if they are doing so maliciously, is telling the truth, then I am happily corrected. If they speak lies, that is no concern of mine, Augustine thought. “For if one should not give credence to the panegyrics of a friend, neither should one believe the detraction of an enemy.”
St. Thomas agreed that backbiting could be beneficial to those who are backbitten (assuming at some point it is revealed to us). For one thing, it can lead to the improvement of one’s character through correction. Secondly, it teaches us patience when we deal with those who mean us harm. So while “it is a very grave matter to blacken a man’s good name, because of all temporal things a man’s good name seems the most precious,” we do good when we “reveal a man’s hidden sin in order that he may mend.” Then too, Aquinas makes an allowance for the normal “lightness of heart” from which we often speak that may lead to a slip of the tongue that might cause a slight injury to the other. This is hardly a mortal matter, Aquinas avers, and demonstrates that some of the “sins of word” have about them “a certain levity.”
If we witness someone detract another, we have an obligation to correct them if they are in error, and must not allow an unjust injury to be done to the reputation of another. Justice requires we protect another’s name from detraction just as we would protect their property from theft. Although the damaging of our name is serious, there is little role for external or political authority in these matters, for Thomas argues that one can profit from backbiting, and it should in general be tolerated even as it is discouraged.
Such nuance seems out of place with the harshly negative way we typically view gossip. Is there any activity whose universal condemnation matches the breadth of its practice? The modern English word has no equivalent (that I have found) in the medieval world, in part because of the diminishment of the role of honor. According to the OED, the English word “gossip” derives from “God” and “Sibbas” denoting someone who has a spiritual affinity with another by acting as a sponsor at their baptism. The word gradually came to mean an intimate acquaintance, then an acquaintance, and then a person of “trifling character,” and finally the idle talk produced by such a person. At its core, then, we see that gossip in some way connects to the deep sociality of human beings, even their spirituality, and is a way of reinforcing social norms while expressing personal concern.
Certainly gossip can easily become destructive. Anyone who has spent any time in the academic world knows that nothing good gets said behind closed doors, and that academic backbiting can often involve malicious falsehoods designed to undo someone’s career or undermine their authority. The motive for engaging in such behavior might simply be prurient, and thus not an appeal to the better angels of our nature.
Given the right sorts of motivations, however, gossip can be an example of, indeed, even a renewal of, intimacy, if not spiritual affinity. Gossip testifies to the deep human need to be socially connected, and to share a world where we are engaged in common projects and to have the capacity to judge one another’s contributions to those projects. It both articulates and deepens accepted codes of behavior, and measures each of us accordingly. It enables us to process the otherwise inchoate sense we have of one another’s lives, and makes them areas of our concern. It helps us to navigate the difficulties and confusions of interpersonal relationships by soliciting the advice of others.
Imagine, for example, that a close mutual acquaintance seems to be drinking too much, which causes increased levels of concern among that person’s intimates. It would not only be natural but also right for those persons to discuss it. Are we perceiving this correctly? What kind of problem is this person facing, and how significant a problem is it? How ought we address it? That it becomes a matter of mutual concern is due to the fact that we are thickly embedded in social relations which sustain us, and upon which we are dependent. That we do not confront directly or immediately is due to, on the one hand, the normal human capacity for self-deception. On the other hand, we might not want to confront someone unless we are confident we have assessed the situation correctly. Gossip, then, is a kind of risk-management strategy within tightly knit communities by which we figure out how to navigate complicated relationships.
The issue then, is not whether people ought to talk about us behind our backs, but whether we have lived our lives in such a way that we’ve given them nothing bad to say behind our backs. If we have lived rightly, we have nothing to fear; if our behavior is wayward, such talking can be beneficial to us. Obviously there will still be genuine backbiting, where those who don’t care for us talk behind our backs and mean us harm, but here we simply follow Aquinas’ advice, bear them patiently, and in faith believe that God will bring some good from their evil.
Our obsession with privacy, coupled with our generally anonymous social life, has turned gossip into something either negative or inconsequential. In replacing honor with dignity, we have retreated into an unassailable solitude that has no room for solicitous voices. In broadening our communities beyond any sensible spatial range, we have created a community of strangers who share only a faux intimacy, so that gossip has degenerated into little more than a puerile interest in the lives of the celebrities with whom we have only the falsest of relationships.
Heaven help a society where people can no longer gossip, where they no longer have the sorts of thick social ties by which they wittingly engage in shared world-building and by which they can assess their own performance as well as that of others. Forgive us if we no longer have the fortitude to express the right sorts of concern for others, sometimes behind their backs, as a kind of love.
It may be presented as a criticism of the Porch’s longing for more intimate communities that such communities oppressed through constantly “knowing one another’s business” and engaging in gossip thereof. Well, yeah. It’s a damned sight better than living in a world where people don’t share any business, and don’t genuinely care about what their neighbors are engaged in, where they are not mutually interested in how each person can fully develop. Eventually we no longer understand our own business and have little idea of what we’re engaged in. Gossip can serve to deepen such engagements. Perhaps the Porch ought to have a gossip fence.