Pat: We need the chance to gossip about people and what they get up to – especially the shenanigans of the high and mighty. How else would we have found out about say the serial sexual seductions of Dominique Straus-Khan, managing director of the IMF? This is someone who was heading for high political office. These acts were covered up and apparently regarded as uncontroversial in elite French society.
Chris: But to gossip about such celebrities as Ryan Giggs, the Manchester United footballer, and his widely reported affair with Big Brother star Imogen Thomas, doesn’t help his family. Surely their right to a private life is more important than the mass media’s freedom of expression?
Pat: People should be interested in the real character of those people who act as important role models. They should have public exposure.
Chris: Don’t you think that we all need to keep back something secret about our inner lives in order to function as human beings? Unless we each retain a degree of privacy we lose a sense of who we are. What only I know about myself gives me a sense of my individual self. It is an important way that makes me a feel like a different person from other people. Don’t public figures also have this need?
Pat: Maybe, but the private lives of politicians and faith leaders who are shaping views and making laws should be open to scrutiny. Their personal integrity is a model for the kind of society they wish to lead us towards – one involving trust in relationships, keeping promises, telling the truth and so on. This doesn’t work unless there is consistency between what such leaders publicly say and privately do.
Chris: You’re confusing what the public are interested in as opposed to what is in the ‘public interest.’ There is a difference between what society wants to know and gossip about and what it needs to know and examine.
Pat: Gossip is fun. What’s so bad about getting a kick from bringing the mighty down to size? It is a way of pricking the oversized celebrity ego.
Chris: No, gossip is not fun. It is actually a mean spirited disagreeable attitude towards those with power or privilege. Such gossip is simply fed by disappointment in a fallen hero or envy of the rich and famous.
Pat: People don’t only gossip about the rich and famous. There is no shortage of chat down the pub and on the street corner about what other people in one’s social network get up to in their private lives.
Chris: Looking at the British prurient press one can’t help thinking that hearing about private affairs of others whether or not they are public figures arouses a universal voyeurism in everyone, titillating baser interests. And that applies as much to private individuals as public figures.
Pat: Okay, perhaps the simplistic opinions of the tabloid newspapers attract those readers who do not wish to think through complex issues. It is easy enough to jump to conclusions about somebody. But, just because it is difficult to make an overall judgment about anyone, it doesn’t mean one we should be satisfied with part of the story. I’m mindful of what Christ once said.
“Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.” (John 7:24)
We need to get at the whole truth about the person.
Chris: Hang on. In the public world how can this happen? For example, Twitter is full of unsubstantiated allegations upon which moral judgements are made. This scandal mongering is disreputable and damaging. It seems obvious to me that gossip can only involve Chinese whispers where opinions get passed on from one to another and the original information inevitably suffers distortion.
Pat: Hasn’t shame a potentially important role in the way politician’s behaviour is monitored and corrected. Isn’t this why we have a justice system that punishes wrongdoing like fraudulent expense claims?
Chris: Yes, but only in a court of law can you have any chance of getting at the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Not the kangaroo court that is the typical tabloid newspaper. These publications expose individuals and mask information to sell entertaining copy. Even juries cannot be expected to judge an accused inner character – only the likelihood that he or she is guilty of committing the offence. This means judging and discriminating fairly rather than jumping to conclusions and showing prejudice.
When some sections of the press make moral judgments in very black and white terms, a previously admired person becomes the object of contempt. Perhaps the judgmental tone appeals because it is so much easier for the reader to play the blame game — to condemn fallibilities in others rather than criticise one’s own foibles.
Don’t you think this is also true for all of us to some extent? Don’t you sometimes hold onto a grievance? Are you not as forgiving as you might want to be? We can exaggerate small frailties. Going round judging others can lead to a hypocritical or sanctimonious society where people fail to examine their own souls. This links in with another thing Christ said
‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged’. (Matt 7:1-3)
I could be wrong but I can’t get rid of a suspicion that a lot of social gossip is negative. I rather like a well-known saying ‘If you can’t say anything good then don’t say anything at all.’ It reminds me of what Emanuel Swedenborg described as a heavenly disposition. He said angels look for the good in others.
“Those among them who are like angels …intend nothing but good towards their neighbour; and if they notice anything bad in someone they make allowances for it.”
(Swedenborg. Arcana Coelestia section 6655)
Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems