Recently, I opened my mailbox to find a letter from a concerned reader in Duluth, Minnesota. 'Dear Sir: I just finished reading your book Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life and wanted to send you a word of warning.'
I steeled myself to be reprimanded for some factual error or political incorrectness, but this thirty-four-year-old attorney (and mother of two) had another agenda. 'There's a saying in AA that understanding is the booby prize,' she wrote.
'While I learned a lot from your book about what makes us moral, I knew zilch about how to put this stuff into practice. It's great to know that mirror neurons cause empathy—that blew my mind—but how does that help me make better choices? What difference does this knowledge make? If you ever write a book called 'Ethical Wisdom for Internet Dating,' or something like that, be sure to keep me on your list.'
The lawyer from Minnesota was right. I had wanted to give lay readers like myself, a memoir writer by trade, an entertaining, un-PC map of how and why humans are hardwired for moral awareness, a bird's-eye view from a variety of sources: neuroscience, psychology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, philosophy, and behavioral economics. Thanks to breakthroughs with the fMRI machine, we are reaching a level of self-transparency beyond our wildest imaginings. We now understand that the brain is hardwired with a kind of moral organ—a matrix of faculties—that gear us toward ethical intelligence.
Researching the book, I learned things that permanently changed how I understood myself and the world. But I had not permitted myself to be prescriptive. I had not drawn conclusions or addressed specific groups of people with specific complications in their lives. Internet dating. Parents. Business. Office life. Lovers. My aerial view of the human condition had never quite put readers on the ground in any accessible, practical way. Ethical Wisdom was addressed at humans. But human beings were people, too, with complicated lives to sort out.
I've put together this collection of people stories from a variety of sources. Personal experience, student testimonials, interviews, and letters from readers provided a reservoir rich in wisdom about friendship, commitment, honesty, greed, jealousy, loyalty, competition, imitation, abandonment, and reconciliation. My hope is that these stories become good companions to you on your journey.
To Gossip Is Human
The most painful breakup of my life came when my four best friends dumped me, simultaneously, over an incident involving gossip. I meant no harm by my slip of the tongue to this mutual friend who, I assumed, knew this tidbit already. Still, I became persona non grata, the not-to-be-trusted, the blabbermouth, and, finally, the exile. They shut me out of their lives overnight, sending me into a year of therapy where I questioned my worth as a human being and someone to whom others might risk telling secrets.
The hardest part of this situation was the certainty that I meant no harm. The second-hardest part was knowing what gossip hounds each of these ex-friends was, too, and how much we'd enjoyed comparing notes, every single one of us, for years with one another. How had this suddenly become such a sin? In fact, it was the nature of the gossip—our mutual friend's infidelity—and the guilt she felt over it that had been sidetracked as blame onto me. But knowing this didn't give me my friends back.
'They shot the messenger,' said my therapist. He explained that when guilt exists in a group, somebody's head's got to roll in order to ease the collective conscience. Consumed by the need for justice—accepted or not—I decided to try to understand gossip: what it is, where it comes from, and why human beings enjoy it so much. According to anthropologists, gossip has been integral to the survival of our species. In fact, human language developed specifically to enable us to gossip. Since the time of early man, our ancestors have used gossip as a social controlling device to keep each other in line. At first, language had evolved as a replacement for physical grooming. The leap from picking each others' lice to biting each others' backs seems to have come naturally to our nosy species. Since then, gossip has been an indispensable method for policing one another, helping us to monitor good and evil as well as prevent physical conflict. That's because gossip is our first line of defense before violence in the exertion of social control. Before we punch someone in the face, or torch his house, we can always ruin his reputation.
Humans use language primarily to talk about other people, to find out who's doing what, who's sleeping with so-and-so's husband, who cheated whom, who behaved heroically, or who caved in. By definition, gossip tends to be overwhelmingly critical, concerned primarily with moral and social violations. This is because individuals who were able to share information had an advantage in human evolution. Our ancestors surmised that, in a gossipy world, what we do matters less than what people think we do, so we'd better be able to frame our actions in a positive light.
'As ultrasocial creatures, we're also ultra-manipulators, fabricators, and competitors for the driver's seat,' I wrote in Ethical Wisdom. Gossip created 'a runaway competition in who could be master of the art of social manipulation, relationship aggression, and reputation management' in human society, as E. O. Wilson tells us. We also learned to prepare ourselves for other people's attempts to deceive, compete against, and manipulate us. A good reputation is social collateral, and gossip is key to how we protect it. As a moral controlling device, it allows us to save face and cast aspersions on others. We are not autonomously moral beings, after all. The more closely people live together, the more they care; the more they care, the more they gossip; and the more they gossip, the more language can serve its ethical function. 'Gossip paired with reciprocity allows karma to work here on earth, not in the next life,' psychologist Jonathan Haidt has quipped. In other words, gossip is natural, human, and indispensable. The important thing is to be aware of when, how, and with whom you gossip. Information is power, after all. We say things innocently that have a potential to wreck people's lives. Gossip should not be indulged in every time we feel like it any more than other natural functions are carried out indiscriminately. It means simply that gossip is natural, and that our urge to share personal information (particularly regarding those who matter to us most) has a long historic precedent and a positive social value when exercised skillfully. In the teachings of the Buddha, there are three helpful criteria for determining when to open our mouths. Before spilling the beans, or airing a grievance, Buddhism teaches us to ask ourselves these three questions in testing personal motivation. First, is the information true? Second, is sharing the information necessary? Finally, is the act of revelation kind? For friends, kindness is the bottom line; if information does not serve a caring function, we're wise to keep it to ourselves.
©2013. Mark Matousek. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Ethical Wisdom for Friends: How to Navigate Life's Most Complicated, Curious, and Common Relationship Dilemmas. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.