A review of Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit, by Joseph Epstein

Gossip is the latest in Joseph Epstein's send-ups of America's venial sins, coming after Ambition (1980),Snobbery (2002), and Envy (2003). No longer receptive to sermons condemning such un-neighborly behavior, we have fallen into insipid platitudes rebuking vice while preserving self-esteem. But who can heed these schoolmarmish warnings when the pleasure of gossiping, backbiting, and otherwise diminishing our enemies is so greatand the only remaining reward for continence is the flaccid honor of being thought "nice"? Epstein offers an antidote to this vapidity by writing entire books praising our baser motives as the grease in the machinery of American social life.

Epstein is only perfunctorily ashamed of the baseness of his subject. "A man or woman without any interest in gossip may be impressive in his or her restraint, but also wanting in curiosity, uninterested in the variousness of human nature, dead to the wildly abundant oddity of life, and thereby, in some central way, deficient." The question is why gossip persists and we persist in delighting in it in spite of our moralistic finger-shaking. For the most part, the answer is self-evident: "Other people is the world's most fascinating subject." Epstein ventures various sociological explanations: gossip is a means of showcasing our wit, establishing intimacy, transmitting unpublishable truths, demonstrating our insider-ness, and, of course, expressing sheer delicious spite. But a literary man at heart, Epstain finds that gossip and our greatest fiction share a common root-curiosity about the social world and its exotic life forms:

[G]ossip…is ready to betray secrets, circulate slander, and violate privacy, all to satisfy the beast of curiosity. At any sophisticated level, curiosity operates under the assumption that appearances and reality are usually very different, and gossip, often with the aid of daring speculation, sets out to fill in the discrepancy between the two.


The greatest reconciler of appearance and reality according to Epstein is the Duc de Saint-Simon, one of Louis XIV's courtiers at Versailles and a prolific diarist who wrote a vast, gossip-filled memoir of life at court (reviewed in the Spring 2009 CRB). Here, Epstein's account shies away from politics, treating Saint-Simon as a merely curious observer of human nature, rather than an interested party with a political agenda. Throughout the book, Epstein is surprisingly silent about the political nature of gossip and its particular connection to public opinion in a democracy.

Especially in the city-state and the monarchy, where rule is personal and limited to a few, gossip rises to the level of politics. For at least three centuries, the life of European courts formed the basis for an entire genre of political writing—the so-called mirrors of princes—that taught how this discrepancy between appearance and reality might be exploited to advance the political agendas of would-be royal advisors and princes themselves. Machiavelli famously suggested cooking up accusations against political leaders for the sake of executing them in ways that would instill sufficient "terror and fear" in republican citizens to reverse corruption. But in instructing princes to conceal the truth, treatises like The Prince inevitably taught princes' rivals—both for the throne and for the regime—the usefulness of unmasking hypocrisy.

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Our situation is of course different, but the political force of gossip has hardly diminished. Our public executions—more like character assassinations—demonstrate how much appearances matter, even and perhaps particularly in democracies. Anticipating Epstein's book 270 years ago, Benjamin Franklin published a similarly tongue-in-cheek encomium on gossip in his Pennsylvania Gazette, proclaiming that, "however ill People may load [gossip] with the opprobrious Names of Calumny, Scandal, and Detraction, and I know not what; will still remain a Virtue, a bright, shining, solid Virtue, of more real Use to Mankind than all the other Virtues put together."

In an open, mobile society such as Franklin's Philadelphia was quickly becoming, the self-made man is a real possibility, with all its promise and danger. The low-born meritorious can rise to the top, prompting us to wonder how they got there, and to buy their self-help books to find out. But the worthless can also "endeavour to shine with false or borrow'd Merit, and carefully conceal their real Demerit." Against such men, we have "CENSURE, [who] with her hundred Eyes and her thousand Tongues, soon discovers and as speedily divulges in all Quarters, every the least Crime or Foible that is a part of their true Character." Democracy's conspiratorial court is the indefinite "public sphere," where misbehaving politicians can be dethroned in public restrooms and through text messages.

* * *

Gossip does more than plague the administration of government by publicizing the sordid activities of politicians. It reminds us that the impersonal State is not really devoid of personalities, and that, in a regime where self-fashioning is the norm, but egalitarian leveling brings excellence under suspicion, minding the gap between appearance and reality becomes a popular undertaking. For those "democracies founded on commerce," as Montesquieu called them, gossip is one relatively innocuous way of ensuring that "the spirit offrugality, economy, moderation, work, wisdom, tranquility, order, and rule" is kept alive.

Epstein points out that "Gossip about people judged to be acting badly can also be gossip that, as the social scientists have it, enforces a community's norms." Faced with a difficult or questionable moral choice, some ask "What would Jesus do?" Should we fail to live up to that rather high standard, as Franklin predicted we would, we may settle for a more consequentialist approach: "What will the World say of me, if I act thus? is often a Reflection strong enough to enable us to resist the most powerful Temptation to Vice or Folly," he observed.

This preserves the Integrity of the Wavering, the Honesty of the Covetous, the Sanctity of some of the Religious, and the Chastity of all Virgins. And, indeed, when People once become regardless ofCensure, they are arrived to a Pitch of Impudence little inferior to the Contempt of all Laws humane and divine.


Franklin is joking, of course—the fear of gossip is not decisive. Americans persist in behaving badly or simply unconventionally in spite of what may happen. And so they should, since some expectation-bucking activity is surely worth a few raised eyebrows. Unlike the cameras and wiretaps with which the law confronts the more intractable transgressors, gossip is soft surveillance, replacing the Machiavellian public execution as a means of maintaining the mores of a commercial democracy.

* * *

Montesquieu said that France could afford the dissipation of Versailles so long as the rest of the country wasn't capable of imitating it. But, armed with our anti-elitist indignation and our high-limit credit cards, we are somewhat better positioned than 18th-century French peasants to pursue that lifestyle. Social theorists (and Epstein himself) have described the complex forms of snobbery that arise from status-seeking, and, except when these pursuits cause occasional financial collapse, they hardly seem worth censuring. In a society that values self-improvement, everyone is a little bit of a self-fabricator, and it is an indication of American charity and openness that we allow people to make themselves over according to their whims. You can change your address, your name, your spouse, and even your sex, repeatedly and with relative impunity. But there are limits to self-making, and gossip polices these limits.

We have, in addition to our tolerance, a category of crimes—both legal and social—to deal with fraudulent self-fashioning. Fraud is difficult to detect precisely because it so carefully keeps reality out of sight for the sake of a useful appearance, and it is gossip, in its stubborn quest for the truth, that often uncovers it. When Harvard senior Adam Wheeler was discovered in 2010 to have plagiarized his Rhodes Scholarship application, the university investigated and found that he'd forged his original college application as well, setting the gears of gossip in motion. After those who'd had contact with him did a little digging, it was discovered that he'd plagiarized or forged pretty much everything he'd ever written, and fraudulently gained admission to half a dozen other colleges, in addition to securing employment dishonestly.

Most of us are restrained from undertaking such radical self-invention by people who'd quickly notice and flag our reincarnation as graduates of universities we never attended or authors of books we never wrote. Gossip as a mechanism of petty fraud prevention is hardly foolproof, but more thorough surveillance mechanisms make it look humane by comparison. China, for example, has an annual college entrance exam, in which the exam questions are state secrets and cheating is a felony. Faced with such alternatives, perhaps we might find that we can afford a few Adam Wheelers after all.

* * *

The true connoisseur of gossip is not a persecuting zealot but rather a collector of human foibles who knows gossip's limits. To reconcile his own love of gossip with his distaste for the vulgar exposure of celebrities and politicians, Epstein divides gossip into two spheres—the "private," which is to say excusable gossip among and about friends and acquaintances, and the "public"—private information inexcusably disseminated beyond one's social network.

For Epstein, gossip about literature is scintillating, and since the audience for rumors about, say, Lionel Trilling's marriage is reliably narrow and an indiscreet word or two is unlikely to do devastating harm to his reputation, literary gossip, though public, can be all right. But Epstein delights in gossip only when it is exclusive: a rumor is elevated when shared by a few, but is reduced to poor taste when splashed on the cover of People. "[T]he nature of gossip, which, though often false and not less often malicious," he writes, "can also be a species of truth, deliverable in no other way than by word of mouth, personal letter, diaries and journals published posthumously, and not obtainable otherwise."

Public gossip is too easily obtained to be worth obtaining. "It's like if you have a taste for chocolate croissants and now McDonald's has it," Epstein explained to New York Magazine. What he really seems to want to preserve is the personal delight of hearing gossip, together with the relative freedom from consequences that accompanies its private transmission. It was delicious for the few in the know to hear from their colleagues in the White House press corps about Franklin Roosevelt's or John F. Kennedy's affairs; but it diminishes our politics when speculations about John McCain's similar indiscretions appear in the New York Times. We might wonder whether this aristocratic approach to gossip, desirable as it may be, is really possible in a democracy, or whether it requires a democratic citizenry unusually disinclined to scrutinize or criticize the private lives of its rulers.

Although Epstein briefly considers the effect of the newest form of public gossip—internet gossip-mongering—he is interested mainly in sites like TMZ, which practice a fairly established form of celebrity tabloid journalism, though at a faster pace. While dismissing this form of public gossip as a reincarnation of Walter Winchell's mean-spirited society columns, Epstein gives short shrift to the more ominous ways that the internet is making formerly private gossip public by preserving everything that anyone bothers to upload for the foreseeable, keyword-searchable future. In the near-term, the threats to reputation that this poses are self-evident, especially for children and other impetuous types; but there is a longer-term problem with the rise of searchable lives.

Here is a piece of gossip: I once discovered a classmate's blog in which he claimed to be a wolf mistakenly embodied in human form. In another time and place, such misconceptions would be addressed by some local combination of compassion and derision conveying the message that he was pretty clearly a human, and ought to give up his lupine aspirations. But online, he had found a "community" of furries—people who also believed they were misembodied animals, or were attracted to such—who supported this conviction and welcomed him into their digital embrace, diminishing the constraining effect of private disapprobation, but also establishing a permanent record of his youthful delusions. It's amusing to know that one's classmates fancy themselves to be wolves, but does the world need to know that? And what will happen to these classmates when it finds out? The internet manages to simultaneously de-fang gossip's norm-enforcing bite while preserving what would otherwise be transient teeth-marks forever.

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It's possible that, as some opponents of internet regulation claim, privacy itself will become obsolete and unnecessary when so much personal information is available online that the indiscretions of average people will no longer provoke censure. More to the point, when our hypocrisy is instantly detectable in a Google search, will we have attained the perfection of Christian charity-judging not lest we be judged? Maybe so, although Epstein makes a convincing case that gossip is here to stay so long as a gap between reality and appearance remains. And until the internet manages to close that gap and create perfect transparency, gossip will retain its delightful, dangerous, and not entirely reliable functions, satisfying the democratic desires to keep our citizens and office-holders in line, and our insatiable curiosity about the lives of impressive and sometimes deplorable men. Besides, as Franklin points out (no doubt to assuage Epstein's conscience and mine), the most enthusiastic purveyors of gossip have the greatest incentive to live righteously themselves, having made so many enemies that "they cannot be encouraged to offend, from the least Prospect of Favour or Impunity; their Faults or Failings will certainly meet with no Quarter from others."