Comments 2

  1. Reading this, it strikes me that gossip and legitimate critical or political speech are very difficult to differentiate in practice. Internal dialogue of a critical nature seems both inevitable and necessary to human organizations large and small; the question is how to keep it relatively healthy and functional.

    Gossip is regarded as a breach of comity within families, friendships, and circles of relations that do not like to see themselves as political, as focused on negotiation over power and status. Our thinking goes, “Because you can talk to me directly, you should talk to me directly.” No one would ever apply this to clear cut political speech — it’s not “gossip” to criticize one’s Senator, but criticizing the CEO is more of a gray area.

    If we want our social relations defined by bonds of affection it seems we de-emphasize hierarchy and create a culture where leaders are accessible. It’s come to be appropriate in most families for a child to take their grievances to a parent directly, something that can be done to excess or inappropriately, but once it would have been seen as a complete taboo. In the professional domain our society is much more conservative about rank and status. It might be the case that home life is more comfortably egalitarian now than American work life which can remain quite emphatically hierarchical and even paternalistic. Communities and neighborhoods too can go in either direction.

    Within a relatively healthy organization, candid internal discussion will exist but generally can’t (and shouldn’t) involve everyone. Ombudsmen and other intermediaries can play a helpful mediating role. The same can be true of the political domain, but when people are shut out in a position of marginal status and power, the bonds of comity and trust cannot be expected to exist. Whether it is ethnic or religious minority activists asserting themselves from a disadvantaged, subcultural position, when they find civil channels closed or biased against them, they tend to see aggressive criticism as necessary and justified. They are liable to be reacted to for what seems to others as their untoward criticism, slander or gossip. In these cases that is just the surface and the symptoms; what is at the root is the breach of trust and deeper justice issues. When the breach involves people and groups that are alienated and unable to talk to each other directly as human beings, the result is very sad.

    1. Zach,

      Thank you for your insightful comments. You make a good distinction between political speech and speech in families and organizations. What I dislike about much political speech at the present time–besides personal attacks that are public–are the nasty comments made by people who hide behind the screen so we do not know what they are. Rather than complaining, I suggest people either get involved in campaigns or engage in good face-to-face conversation with those who do campaign. Recently, I have had wonderful conversations with people who asked for my vote in the Iowa caucus.

      In organizations, it is important, as you seem to suggest, to work through appropriate channels. One cannot contact the CEO about everything that a member wants changed. On the other hand, water-cooler gossip does very little good.

      The principle I am pushing is full respect for the other person. Consider his or her needs and then determine the best way to help. That principle fits all situations even though it gets worked out differently.

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