Classic gossip, … telling it entails several … basic motives. … It enables the gossiper “to do dirt to the person he is gossiping about.” It entails “sheer jolly prurience.” It presents the gossiper as “up to the moment, in the know.” By no means least, it reminds us that “part of the delight of gossip, after all, is, to use an old-fashioned word, its naughtiness.”…
“Talk is possible about the great issues and events and questions,” but let’s be honest about it, such talk quickly palls: “So much easier, so much more entertaining, to talk about the decaying marriage of an acquaintance, the extravagant pretensions of in-laws, the sexual braggadocio of a bachelor friend. Most gossip, or most of the best gossip, is about dubious if not downright reprehensible behavior. The best of it is about people with whom one has a direct acquaintance. Served with a dash of humor it can be awfully fine stuff. (more)
Step back and notice the basic puzzle: We are a very social species, and yet we think it illicit to talk about each other. Even when such talk helps to enforce our social norms. Yes we enjoy gossip, but we also accept that it is “naughty.” Well, not naughty enough to make illegal – that would be going “too far.”
Homo hypocritus pretends to support norms of good behavior, but happily coordinates with allies to evade such norms, just out of view of group enforcement. One standard norm is that our group sticks together, and doesn’t break into fighting subgroups. If you see someone violate a norm, you are supposed to accuse them in front of everyone. How are people supposed to defend themselves from accusations they can’t hear? Some of us shouldn’t conspire to take down others of us. But of course we do. Happily. And we don’t want law to stop us.
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