I often asked myself this question when my soul shuddered down the mute corridors of my academic department, where a heavy silence always prevailed. There were no huddles of chatting professors, no voices to be heard except those of cowed students from behind closed office doors, nor did my colleagues ever pause to chat on the sofas of our comfortably furnished faculty lounge.
My University of Wisconsin culture was totally different from Wayne State, where my husband Henry taught. Everywhere in his building you could be distracted by gaggles of fascinating gossip, both personal – “and do you know she said…and then, the gall of it, he said..” and political – an ever-fraught entanglement of academic cliques and territoriality.
Here’s a poem I wrote then:
We are born for a web of words, an embracing patter about baseball plays, whose mother called,
what she said, what you said, who is born and who is dying.
Sometimes in the store when I pass by women talking all together, I feel a terrible hunger – has anyone ever died for lack of gossip?
Well, what do you know? My feeling that gossip is a mortal necessity turns out to correct. According to Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens, his striking new book on human history, around 70,000 years ago (about halfway into our 150,000 year residence on this planet) human beings experienced a “Cognitive Revolution.” As hunter-gatherers, we had communicated with our own bands and a few others nearby, but now we were able to exchange
“larger quantities of information about the world surrounding” us, to have “the ability to transmit large quantities of information about Sapiens social relationships,” and also to “transmit information about things that really do not exist, such as tribal spirits, nations, limited liability companies, and human rights” (p.17).
Harari thinks that It all began with gossip, the passing along of personal, social, and spiritual information garnered from far and wide, an exchange of information that become the covenantal glue binding cities, nations, and civilizations.
We live by legal and social agreements; we are all in covenant, one with the other.
When our social agreements begin to crumble, argues New York Times columnist, David Brooks
“We’re going to have to restore and re-enchant the covenantal relationships that are the foundation for the whole deal.”
The cognitive mind-set of the far right perceives liberal progressives like me as so existentially “other” that they dismiss everything we say as “lying propaganda.” To our shame, from within our similarly obdurate cognitive bubbles we demonize them as deplorably stupid, inexorably evil and unworthy of our conversation.
Our national covenant, the constitution, prescribes a balance of powers within which we can thrash out our differences; it presumes that if citizens exchange ideas it will be possible for us all to reach a compromise. If, in both our personal and civic behavior, we cast aside our national covenant about how to handle disagreement, our democracy is in peril.
So this Thanksgiving, lets try good old gossip for starters, perhaps some give-and-take about baseball scores, whose mother called, what he said, what she said, who was born, and who is dying. Having established our commonality, we might find openings to discuss what else – our economic needs, our fear of fire and flood, our hope for our families – that we have in common and can work together to ameliorate.
(The three bronze women are a sculpture by Rose-Aimee Belanger called “Les Chuchoteuses,” the whsperers)