Mark Reidy: Death and life are in gift of the tongue

30 Apr 2008

By The Record

You’ll never believe the scandal that I heard about our local priest…

Mark Reidy

Now, analyse your first reaction to reading those words. Were you horrified, intrigued, or was it a mixture of the two?
We live in a society that is becoming increasingly obsessed with the phenomenon of gossip.
Billions of words are dedicated each day in glossy magazines, workplaces and over back fences to rumours, fact, innuendo and slander about the lives of others. But why is there a fascination in absorbing ourselves in the lives of peers, colleagues or even complete strangers?
There are a number of leading psychologists who attribute this seemingly insatiable desire to the primeval instincts of survival.
At the very core of the need to gather and pass on information about others is the self-serving need to out-survive those around us. If our early cave dwelling ancestors could gather information regarding the strengths and weaknesses of those around them, then they could use that information to enhance their own safety in an often hostile environment.  These innate desires of self-protection and advancement have since adapted themselves to the environs of our twentyfirst century western world to form the foundations of the gossip mania that we see today.
London based professor Nigel Nicholson suggests that there are three essential functions of gossip: networking, influence and social alliances.
As social beings Nicholson believes that we are vigilantly aware of our place in the order of society. The general perception is that higher ranking equates to increased benefits such as health, wealth and happiness.
Nicholson compares gossip with the practice of monkeys picking lice from the fur of another – the weak are usually the ones grooming the strong. In other words, people gather and supply information to those they are attracted to and to whom they wish to align themselves.
They are essentially telling the other that they are valuable enough to receive this information, with the underlying motive of forming an advantageous alliance and ideally enhancing their place in the social hierarchy.
Similarly, if we are able to bring down someone we perceive as being in a superior position to ourselves then we are also able to reduce the gap between us. These theories fit into the context of the celebrity obsession that is driving a multi-billion dollar media business.
Those behind this colossal industry openly acknowledge that it is the scandal and demise of these people that will ultimately draw the most attention.
It is because we consider the attributes of those continually in the spotlight, i.e. money, looks and fame, as advantageous in the context of survival. We do not want another to advance too far ahead of the pack because that will threaten our primal self-serving instincts.
We can also relate such thinking and behaviour to our relationships in the workplace, sporting and social clubs or even in our churches. There is often a tendency to share information about others and this in itself is neither right nor wrong; after all God created us to live communally. However, what is essential as Christians is that we remain constantly vigilant to our motivation for speaking about another person. Is our purpose to build them up or is it to bring them down?
Often our reference to others has become so habitual or socially acceptable that we are not even conscious of our intent… or perhaps we are acutely aware!
Either way, whether we choose to ignore the command of Jesus to always respond in love to one another, we should at least take heed of the ancient wisdom found in Proverbs, “Death and life are in the gift of the tongue, those who indulge it must eat the fruit it yields” (18:21).