THE PITFALLS OF GOSSIP

OnGossip.ColorProps

Have you ever been surprised or horrified when you catch yourself publicly saying something completely out of character for yourself and wonder: Why did I fall for the obvious bait and get trapped into a political argument? Why did I brag and show off so obnoxiously to friends all night? Why did I reveal so much personal, private stuff to a stranger, or worse, someone from my own social network? Why did I say something so catty about so-and-so, when I really do not harbor any negative feelings towards that person? Why did I help pass around a rumor, though I quite consciously and as a matter of principle detest gossiping?

Sure, alcohol comes to mind, but let us not focus on it because it is a catalyst, not the cause of the phenomenon. It is true that the more relaxed and “loosened up” people are by alcohol, the more they tend to lower their filters and yak with wild abandon. But drunkenness is not a necessary condition for gossip and other TMI blunders: I would wager that people gossip just as much over tea!

The true culprit is the social climate created by the awkward combination of fun and anxiety. Even though we all like to think we are in complete control of ourselves, social contexts dramatically shape our behavior how we express ourselves.

Socio-economic necessities force us into unwanted interactions (having to talk to bosses, associates, family members) and social pressures dictate the topics we end up discussing publicly. One moment you’re having innocent lunchtime banter with a coworker, next thing you know, you’re talking about Johnson’s outfit and speculating about her sexuality….

I have always considered myself a keeper of secrets and not a passer-arounder of confidential information. Likewise, I have always felt uncomfortable around people talking negatively about others behind their backs and avoided fueling the fire.

And yet, on a number of occasions, I have caught myself saying something suggestive about people – with remarks that felt innocuous and funny and a propos at the time – but seem questionable or straight-up inappropriate in retrospect. I meant no harm, I swear, but this fact neither excuses the behavior nor lessens the resulting shadow of doubt cast upon another person’s character.

This problematic tendency to get carried away with unintentional mudslinging emerges when we get swept up in the group dynamic: everyone is “on a roll” of discussing others and one is instinctively drawn in, compelled to contribute something funny / interesting / intriguing to the lively conversation. If the tone of the gathering is to badmouth someone, badmouthing becomes easy and natural. These little acts of slander happen under the guise of humorous, friendly, playful chatter and seem to especially thrive in certain groupings, like those of colleagues, relatives, teammates and super-closely-knit friend cliques.

Certainly, some people are quite purposefully vindictive and actively stir up “drama” as a means of self-validation. But most gossipers are not being harsh or acting as a saboteur intentionally: they are simply in the habit of mindlessly recanting other people’s secrets and thoughtlessly criticizing and ridiculing others – to keep boredom at bay and to find something light-hearted to connect over with people.

Unfortunately, when you get enough gossip instigators together, it creates enough momentum to suck in the rest of us who, under other social circumstances, would not think to say something inflammatory about a peer. But when inside the rumor mill, we suddenly find ourselves blabbing away, surrendering to the impulse to fit in, to go with the flow. You really don’t have to be a mean-spirited person to gossip but it becomes a slippery slope, if you go there. The potential social fallout from publicly maligning a friend, colleague or relative can have unintended harmful consequences for the target of gossip as well as people who started and passed it around.

There are myriad explanations in the social sciences for why people gossip. For instance, we have an evolutionarily developed psychological propensity to crave social acceptance – and gossiping offers a temptingly fast ticket to popularity. Gossiping and sharing secrets also strengthen camaraderie and increase a sense of belonging to an exclusive club or community when we share intimate knowledge with the select few individuals. It makes us feel special to be a part of a “circle of trust”.  

Another major component of universal human psychology engaged in gossip is the rule of reciprocity: that magnetic sense of obligation we feel when people say or do “nice” things for us. Symmetrical, ritualistic exchanges of favors keeps the power dynamic balanced, which is why most of us do not like to feel indebted to someone, not for too long. So, when people around us are sharing bits of gossip, they entrap us into feeling that we, too, must now “contribute” some sort of insider information, in kind. We respond by sharing more gossip.

If one willingly surrounds oneself with thieves, thievery will eventually become the “new normal” and the person runs a pretty high risk of succumbing to it. Likewise, gossiping and other social vices, like casually throwing around sexist and racist language, can seep into our behaviors inconspicuously and organically. We see people we love, admire or fear saying and doing all kinds of things and we can’t help but want to emulate them.

So far, my conclusion is: if you don’t want to be a gossiper, avoid social scenes in which judgmental or mocking commentary about acquaintances is the main source of entertainment. Otherwise, sooner or later, you’ll likely find yourself caving to human nature and, if you are like me, feeling like a real jackass and kicking yourself for it later.

 JackAssKickingSelf.cc

Our peers carry huge potential in shaping our social habits and setting roles, norms and boundaries. It can be hard to recognize “toxic” environments if the venom is not directed at us personally and when everyone is laughing merrily and having a great time. Complicity in bullying thrives in the same environment, by the way. Gossip can certainly become an indirect tactic of bullying. It can even seem that we are all “getting away” with it. But, no, we are not. There is a golden tenet in social interaction and it goes as follows:

The way a person talks about others with you is the way this person will talk about you with others.

Period. No exceptions. And because this rule seems so elegantly fair, a small, idealistically moronic part of me keeps hoping that, by the same logic of justice, some social grief in life can be avoided by being a decent person. If I keep my karma cache clear by refraining from saying “iffy” things about others, I may be spared being put through the ringer when it is my name’s turn in the grapevine spotlight. Right?

AsDontBeAHater if!..

The pragmatic realist in me who has been alive (and actively so!) a number of decades among fellow humans knows this to be an unreasonable expectation, to put it mildly. No measure of cosmic justice will prevent haters from hating. The nectar of meanness is just too sweet for some to give up 🙂 The rest of us should try really hard to not feed the trolls.

MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT THE UNREST IN FERGUSON, PART 3: PRIORITIZING PROPERTY OVER HUMAN LIFE

In this several-part series of posts, I address a few of recurring misconceptions that serve as the foundation for much of the mouth-foaming going on out there. These are the false assumptions people take for granted as “real” and “true” when they insist that the problem with Ferguson is not with the misappropriation of law enforcement but with the residents of Ferguson themselves. This is a response to popular “reasonings” used by Caucasian police apologists that I have come across browsing Facebook and online news articles’ comments sections. I focus on white people because I am “white” and it is not up to me to lecture people of color about racism. Also, white people in general, seem to have a weaker grasp on the notions of racism or socio-economic privilege than people who are not considered white, so they need this conversation more than others.

FALSE ASSUMPTION: Property damage caused by arson and looting is the worst thing happening in Ferguson, MO.

REALITY CHECK: When did the concern for damaged property trump the care for the wellness of fellow human beings? Have capitalist aims and consumerist desires eclipsed our ability to care about anything other than material stuff???

Again and again, I come across angry rants about private property being destroyed in the riots, as if this, somehow, justifies inhumane measures against the protesters. Property destruction is wrong and disturbing, to be sure and NOBODY IS ARGUING WITH THAT! But the outrage about loss and defacement of property seems disproportionately high comparing to how little the same individuals are regretting the loss of Michael Brown’s young life that has taken place in Ferguson. As I recall, in the Ten Commandments, “thou shalt not kill” comes before “thou shalt not steal”.

Nonetheless, “If someone came looting at me, God help them” seems to be a popular sentiment. Fair enough! And if someone shot your unarmed child and let his corpse lie in the street for four-and-a-half hours and did not have to go to trial that would at least give your child’s death some kind of due process – what would you do then?

Personally, I am very impressed with how few people in Ferguson let their anger guide their public behavior – they deserve a lot of credit and respect for being so orderly and in control of their tempers as they, once again, find themselves dodging tear gas and cruel public judgment for peacefully speaking up. I am always awe-struck and humbled seeing black people maintain patience, calm and poise, in the face of belligerent whites urging them to “get over it” and accept that we are all living in a purely equal, meritocratic, post-racial society.

Have you ever been in horrific pain, while everyone around you is telling you that it is all in your head and you should just get over it and stop making something out of nothing? If you have, you know what this does to the human spirit. If you haven’t – lucky you – but try not to take it for granted as if it is the only reality that exists.

I cannot express the bitterness, fury and incredulity I feel about this – and other displays of obliviousness and indifference towards social abuses of this nature. It is hard to fathom how otherwise seemingly decent people can so flippantly dismiss and devalue the cries of sorrow and frustration of tens of thousands of their own brethren but raise hell over theft and arson committed by a handful of loose cannons and saboteurs. Injustice and indignity scar us socially and psychologically – how can we allow this to keep happening in plain sight to whole populations and not only turn a blind eye but agitatedly defend it with the air of moral indignation and socio-economic superiority? Don’t you have children of your own? But you must think that you raised them better than getting shot by the police, right? Therefore, none of this applies to you whatsoever?

The cultural worship of the American Dream is, in very large part, to blame for this element of self-delusion. It is hammered into everyone’s brains from an early age that one is the end-all master of one’s fate and there is nothing else to it. For many in positions of relative social privilege, the illusion of perfectly independent self-sufficiency does not dissipate through life, but sticks and becomes more reinforced by examples of their own success. “Success” in this country traditionally translates into accumulation of material goods. Hence, having our earthly possessions attacked means more to us than just property damage — it is a symbolic assault on our core values, on our sense of self-identity and esteem and it feels so personal and sacrilegious, it can overshadow all other concerns and considerations.

It may be hard, but we must work on recovering our empathy for others from under the thick layers of self-interest and unhealthy preoccupation with “stuff” as a marker of our self- and social worth. The myth of all-reaching meritocracy makes it easy to think that the misfortunes that befall others could never happen to ourselves because we have done nothing to deserve them. It makes it challenging to comprehend that many others have done nothing to deserve it either, yet, terrible social injustices happen to them all the same. To grasp this would lead to having to admit that we are not in complete control of our lives and that is an unsettling and jarring revelation for an individualistic nation. It would also mean that we have to give a hoot about each other a little more…

If you are white and you are, somehow, not deeply upset about the dehumanization of your black compatriots, you have got to cut through the noise of loudmouth media talking heads, friends and family and get in touch with your own, unique humanity. Feel kinship – not hate – for all the hard-working, law-abiding, morally concerned individuals – just like yourself – that are being routinely ignorantly mistaken for criminals and treated as such by the police force that has no understanding or empathy for the population it has been hired to serve and protect.

Does it look like the police of Ferguson, Missouri are serving or protecting anybody other than themselves? There is a huge difference in attitude and, hence, outcome between a police force that walks around flexing its muscles and lording its authority over others – as opposed to public servants who are honestly and passionately committed to doing what they must to shield the populace from harm.

A fair, caring law enforcement agency would be beloved and admired by the people it serves but, unfortunately, it is too often the above-the-law bullies with badges that roam and rule our city streets. We must do away with the insular fraternal culture of the police – they owe loyalty to the public, not each other. Again, it goes without saying that not all cops are abusive or corrupt but the system of fraternity-above-fairness encourages – nay, forces – officers of the law to indiscriminately protect “their own”, regardless of the quality and integrity of each other’s character and actions.

You know what people want and need even more than justice for the past? Dignity for the present and hope for the future! It is that simple but those values are truly in the shortest supply. The wounds of the past history of ugliness and injustice will only begin to heal after the echoes of those eras are no longer felt in the Today. So, when people are raging like this and in such numbers, it is not because they have nothing better to do. It is because they are still kicked in the teeth by powers that be while we, the majority, stand by and watch our brothers and sisters being demeaned and vilified – and refuse to acknowledge that it is happening and it is wrong and it must stop.

For more MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT FERGUSON posts, see:

PART 1: CONFUSING PROTESTERS WITH RIOTERS

PART 2: CLAIMING THE POLICE ARE “COLORBLIND”

MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT THE UNREST IN FERGUSON, PART 2: CLAIMING THE POLICE ARE “COLORBLIND”

In this several-part series of posts, I address a few of recurring misconceptions that serve as the foundation for much of the mouth-foaming going on out there. These are the false assumptions people take for granted as “real” and “true” when they insist that the problem with Ferguson is not with the misappropriation of law enforcement but with the residents of Ferguson themselves. This is a response to popular “reasonings” used by Caucasian police apologists that I have come across browsing Facebook and online news articles’ comments sections. I focus on white people because I am “white” and it is not up to me to lecture people of color about racism. Also, white people in general, seem to have a weaker grasp on the notions of racism or socio-economic privilege than people who are not considered white, so they need this conversation more than others.

FALSE ASSUMPTION: Justice is colorblind but the police have no choice but to go after blacks, many of whom are criminals.

REALITY CHECK: What nobody wants to admit is that the police are afraid of black people, black men in particular. Very, very afraid.

Many people siding with the Ferguson police are saying that it is a tough job and that the officer who shot Michael Brown had a hard decision on his hands and will have to live with this burden for the rest of his life. This is a very reasonable argument and does apply to countless officers who put their lives on the line and have to live with all the psychological trauma of the consequences of having to make these impossibly difficult judgment calls on the spot. Those officers deserve our support and appreciation because they go through private hell most of us know nothing about.

I cannot say I believe this is the case here because, instead of treating it as a tragedy, the police are arrogantly defending their right-ness with zero regard to the personal and social fall-out. Even if Officer Wilson had every reason to fear for his life and shot Michael Brown in absolute self-defense (though that does not at all look to be the case here), he could still be really, really sorry about it, he could be human about it and appeal to the community by sharing their grief, by acknowledging how unfortunate and heartbreaking the event had been – even if he had no other recourse but to use lethal measures.

But that is the thing: neither Officer Wilson, nor any of his colleagues seem remotely broken up over taking the life of the boy. They don’t seem to perceive him as a human child whose life ended too early. They appear to think of him as street vermin that had to be put down. This could have been an opportunity for all of us to open a dialog about how to better handle “suspicious” individuals, especially teens, and, more importantly, take an honest hard look at what constitutes “suspiciousness” in the first place. The fact that race is a factor (a very complex one) must be acknowledged in no uncertain terms, before actual progress can be made. Instead, the Ferguson Police Department is sticking to their guns, so to speak. They show no remorse or intention to build bridges with the people of Ferguson, only hyper-defensive hostility, backed up by demonstrated willingness to use more violence and do more damage to the already suffering community.

Officer Wilson may sincerely believe he acted out of duty by killing Michael Brown because he genuinely felt THAT MUCH threatened by him. And if you don’t think that race was a defining element in this, well, you are, unfortunately, a part of the problem, no matter how “good” a person you may be otherwise. The jarringly sad truth is: the American police are TERRIFIED of black men in a way they are not threatened by any other social demographic.

Unarmed white people do not get weapons discharged into them nowhere nearly as frequently (and without consequences) because “white people” as a category are not deemed an unequivocally intimidating, unpredictable bunch. Likewise, white people congregating in large groups, no matter how drunken, obnoxious and violent, are not perceived as inevitable trouble the way a gathering of black people, especially black male youths, is interpreted.

When we look at the psychology behind what happens in white police vs. black men stand-offs, a hellish catch-22 emerges. By and large, the American police are afraid of black men and those who are the weaker-willed of the crop, compensate for their cowardice with pronounced abuse of power.

Now, personally, I have never seen anyone take racist disrespect and belligerence more stoically and gracefully than black Americans. I’ve seen white people swarm a person of color like a pack of rabid possums, foaming at the mouth, hissing something hateful, finger-in-face — and this person just stands there with this zen calm, speaking in a very restrained, measured way — or completely keeping silent, as if engaged in meditation or internal dialogue, impervious to indignity. Dissociation is the defense mechanism nature “gifts” to those who have been violated again and again…

But yes, okay, not all young people have yet mastered hiding their contempt towards arrogant and pushy police officers (patience and proper etiquette with cops is something expected a lot more of black teens than their white counterparts who get away with taunting the police all the time…) Having grown up under the suspicious and hostile gaze of the law enforcement, feeling increasingly  fed up with being singled out, some young black men will act provocatively towards the police. Or just not be terribly “cooperative”, which is enough to infuriate the bullies among their interrogators. The negativity escalates, resulting in every kind of misinterpretation of motive, which can lead to rash, reactive behaviors, with lethal consequences for the non-uniformed party. (If you ask me, the messed-up cultural conditioning known as “toxic masculinity” is another major culprit here, but that’s a can of worms best left to be opened in a separate post.)

Enough with justifying police brutality already: the endless loop of fear and damning stereotyping must end – and the ball is in the court of the police!! They must, to begin with, acknowledge their preconceived biases — and those deeply ingrained attitudes as a problem to solve, not a “whoops” to deny. The responsibility with mending public trust and initiating the healing process rests with the police.

Unfortunately, this would require a massive paradigm shift in how law enforcement is done in this country. We would have to overhaul the entire police training system for an entirely new set of priorities, attitudes and boundaries. It is time to put the Wild West behind us already and cultivate a whole new generation of public servants sincerely invested into the well-being of their people, and rid the system of state-sanctioned goons with guns harassing the poorest and most powerless members of society.

 

For more MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT FERGUSON posts, see:

PART 1: CONFUSING PROTESTERS WITH RIOTERS

PART 3: THE VALUE OF PROPERTY VS. HUMAN LIFE

 

MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT THE UNREST IN FERGUSON, PART 1: CONFUSING PROTESTERS WITH RIOTERS

In the wake of the announcement that Officer Darren Wilson will not stand trial for the killing of Michael Brown, the city of Ferguson, Missouri, once again, became the hotbed of clashes between the police and civilians. Social media did not fail to explode with forceful opinions, rants and accusations in every which direction. It is as if – as a new popular meme mockingly suggests – “millions of FB users suddenly got their law degrees”. And, whether they arrived at their conclusions through heavy contemplation or by mindlessly repeating soundbites overheard from TV or the Internet or friends or family, everybody takes their own opinions very, very seriously.

In this several-part series of posts, I would like to address a few of recurring misconceptions that serve as the foundation for much of the mouth-foaming going on out there. These are the false assumptions people take for granted as “real” and “true” when they insist that the problem with Ferguson is not with the misappropriation of law enforcement but with the residents of Ferguson themselves. This is a response to popular “reasonings” used by Caucasian police apologists that I have come across browsing Facebook and online news articles’ comments sections. I focus on white people because I am “white” and it is not up to me to lecture people of color about racism. Also, white people in general, seem to have a weaker grasp on the notions of racism or socio-economic privilege than people who are not considered white, so they need this conversation more than others.

FALSE ASSUMPTION: “Those people” are wrong to resort to disorderly conduct and violence to make their point.

REALITY CHECK: Peaceful protesters and rioting looters are not the same crowd!!! (Also, referring to the Ferguson community and other black Americans as “these people” is offensive.)

Throughout the Ferguson social unrest, there are two distinct groups of people who have taken to the streets for entirely different reasons:

The peaceful protesters are expressing their genuine disappointment, sadness and – yes – anger – about systematic police brutality and neglect towards African Americans – but doing so in an organized, civil and constructive manner: by calmly exercising their right to speak freely.

In the country where I was born, people were hauled away in the middle of the night in black vans for not only voicing their dissent but for even “thinking” about it – and still, some refused to stay silent in the face of oppression. One should never take free speech for granted and I am proud of people of Ferguson for swallowing the very natural impulse to lash out in anger or to shut down and withdraw in grief and hopelessness and futility – but, instead, coming out, voicing their hurt and marching together! Considering how much backlash they are facing, that takes wisdom and courage and we should all stand with them for this!

Violent rioters, on the other hand, are driven by a wholly different set of motivations: the promise to possibly make a profit from busting up stores or an opportunity to channel emotional rage into testosterone-fueled, peer-encouraged violence. Personally, I can understand that some of these guys don’t feel too bad about messing up people’s property: they do not get much love or respect from their surrounding environment and, hence, do not have much respect or love for other people or their stuff. Humans are notoriously prone to either live up to the high standards or degenerate to the low expectations the community and society at large sets for them and many kids branded as “thugs” early in life will end up embodying this identity, as a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. This is not a justification but an explanation of origins of lash-outs, such as these.

Also, like it or not, violence can be a form of self-expression and I bet, if you went from person to person, you would find a mix of far-gone, unscrupulous criminals but also decent young men who are misdirecting their legitimate frustration into destructive behavior because they have few means to be heard otherwise.

Nonetheless, rioting and looting and brawling are not the answer and, here is the thing: NOBODY IS ACTUALLY DEFENDING THE RIOTERS AND THE LOOTERS! People may be offering explanations as to what compels rioters, trying to set the context for why people are angry. But has anyone said: “Yes, power to those looters! They should be left alone to do their looting”? No, no one has said this because nobody is on the side of lawlessness.

The thing that the whites who gripe about the street unrest in Ferguson fail to understand is that the normal, regular people of the Ferguson community hate the bad eggs in their midst just as much as anyone else. They don’t enjoy being terrorized and subjected to property crimes and physical violence any more than you. They came to the protest to express grief and frustration and have a peaceful show of solidarity – they cannot be held responsible for the criminals showing up too!

So, let us quit grouping together a small number of rogues with a huge collective of people who came out for an admirable purpose – to seek solace in togetherness and to start a national dialogue. They would happily be rid of the troublemakers too, if they could. If only there was a social organization dedicated to serving and protecting peaceful demonstrators… Oh, right, right – they are over there – firing tear gas into the crowd of unarmed citizens.

For more MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT FERGUSON posts, see:

PART 2: CLAIMING THE POLICE ARE “COLORBLIND”

PART 3: THE VALUE OF PROPERTY VS. HUMAN LIFE