‘Did you hear about …?’

By | October 26, 2013

When sharing the news is not just sharing the news

Do you gossip?

Most of us probably would have to say yes.

Whether we call it gossip, scuttlebutt or water cooler chat, most of us have shared gossip.

Even Pope Francis admitted to being tempted. In an April 9 homily, he said, “When one prefers gossiping, gossiping about another, it’s like clobbering another. This is normal, it happens to everyone, including me — it is a temptation of the Evil One.”

Originally, gossip was a means of catching up on local and family news. The word “gossip” developed in England about 700 years ago and referred to godparents — from the words “God” and “sib” as in “relative.” Before long, the word was used to refer to women who gathered around a woman giving birth. To pass the time, they caught up on the news.

Today, gossip can mean something just as harmless as that: who got engaged, who’s expecting a baby, who got a new job.

Sometimes, though, gossip isn’t just idle talk or news-sharing. Sometimes it’s nasty — and destructive.

Jewish tradition offers us a look at gossip’s opposite extreme: it’s called lashon hara and means “the evil tongue.” It refers to speech that discredits someone or says negative things about them — even if those things are true.

The best example is the story of Miriam, the sister of Moses. She got fed up with her brother and complained about him to their other brother, Aaron. God punished her for “speaking against my servant” with a skin disease akin to leprosy (see Numbers, chapter 12).

Rabbi Aryeh Citron explains that, even with the example of Miriam, the Jewish people didn’t get the message about negative talk: “Unfortunately, the spies who were sent soon afterwards to Israel … (also) spoke negatively — about the land of Israel. The result was that the Israelites of that generation all died in the desert.”

“In fact,” the rabbi adds, “we find that lashon hara, slanderous talk, is a sin that has caused numerous tragedies for the Jewish people, and indeed the world, since the very beginning of history.”

Judaism 101, an online encyclopedia of Judaism, explains that “the harm done by speech is even worse than the harm done by stealing or by cheating someone financially: money lost can be repaid, but the harm done by speech can never be repaired.”

Catholic tradition doesn’t say as much about “gossip,” specifically, but it does refer to the eighth commandment — “Thou shalt not bear false witness” — when it comes to poor use of words.

Jesuit ethicist Fr. Kenneth Baker, explains, “One of the main reasons why lies are forbidden by the eighth commandment is that they destroy community and healthy social relationships. Since man is a social being he absolutely needs human society in order to grow to full maturity as a man. Consequently, whatever militates against human community is contrary to man’s nature, contrary to the will of God and therefore forbidden by God.”

“But wait,” you say. “That just refers to lies, not to gossip, especially if what I say is true.”

Well, remember the Jewish teaching about “not saying anything negative about someone, even if it’s true.” Catholic teaching says the same thing.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 2477) notes: “Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:

  • “of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
  • “of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
  • “of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.”

So, that’s three things to worry about before we open our mouths. Each of the three can qualify as speaking badly about another:

  • speaking of something you’ve heard, but aren’t sure is true (rash judgment);
  • disclosing someone’s faults to someone else, even if they are true (detraction);
  • lying about someone (calumny).

Given the serious nature of damaging another person’s reputation, each of these three could qualify as a sin. Sometimes they could even be mortal sin, because our words — in their effect — “kill” another person. Or at least, it kills part of them.

In Jewish tradition, there’s a story about a man who spoke wrongly about a rabbi. Afterwards, he regretted his words, apologized to the rabbi and offered to make amends. The rabbi gave him a feather pillow, had him rip it open and scatter the feathers to the winds. Then the rabbi said, “Now, go and gather the feathers; you can no more make amends for the damage your words did than you can collect all those feathers.”

Now, not all gossip is that serious. Sometimes people just need to vent and complain to a trusted friend, rather than blow up at a spouse or colleague. Sometimes, information needs to be shared in order to help someone make a good decision. Sometimes you just want to say something good — not bad — about someone.

Still, it’s might be best to stop and think about what we’re saying — or what you’re listening to — so that we don’t set our tongues — and someone else’s reputation — in an evil path.

Sources: Catholic News Service; The Catechism of the Catholic Church; Judaism 101 at jew.faq.org; etymonline.com; about.com; chabd.org; “Modern Catholic Dictionary.”

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