Gossip and the Scapegoat Mechanism

[One of gossip’s functions is] bonding. When you talk about absent others you’re constituting them as an out-group and yourselves as an in-group: if what you’re sharing is sensitive information, like a secret or a negative opinion about someone,that will strengthen the feeling of intimacy among those present. (emphasis mine)

This is a quote from Personally Speaking on how women & men use (and are stereotypically thought to use) language. The entire essay is worth reading, but this is the bit that hit me between the eyes.

In mimetic theory, bonding over against some other person or group is the constitutive characteristic of the scapegoat mechanism, which strengthens the unity of the ingroup at the expense of belittling and ultimately dehumanizing the outgroup. In mimetic theology, the scapegoat mechanism is a sinful and only temporarily effective mechanism for achieving unity and quelling a mimetic crisis, typically a crisis over group identity and norms; and Christ’s saving work is directed at subverting and undoing it — teaching humans that there is a different game they might play, in the words of James Alison.

I’ve always known that gossip was considered sinful — it’s mentioned as such in both the Shared Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures. But it seems such an ordinary, banal, even trivial, even harmless sin.

But a connection with the scapegoat mechanism? Now I get it. Even aside from the objective harm that gossip might do to the gossiped-about, it harms the gossipers by means of the emotional thrill of scandal, the sense of superiority and intimacy based on disparagement and exclusion. It fosters factionalism and divisiveness, against which the Christian scriptures also preach. It accustoms the heart to that extra thrill, and accustoms the spirit to identify over against the other, instead of receiving our identity from Jesus.

When our communities are so deeply divided, when the very identities of “American”, “Catholic”, “Christian” are contested, it is especially tempting to gossip about the people on the other side, to trade witticisms at their expense.

Let’s pray for the strength to resist that temptation, and pray for the people on the other side instead.

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