Scandal sells tabloids, fuels the ratings of entertainment news shows, and compels users to click on all those salacious, ‘promoted links’ that litter news websites―’see what this minor celebrity looks like after aging/getting plastic surgery/losing or gaining weight/sunbathing.’ Given that scandal and hearsay hardly feels worthwhile after we engage in it―no one wakes up feeling chipper and filled with self-esteem the morning after babbling an earful about other people; generally a sense of hollowness or even guilt arises.
And yet relating the wrongdoings of others―people we work with, family members, politicians, athletes, the famous―allows one to feel morally superior to others. When we look down on the behavior of others, we feel more secure in our own choices and lifestyles; we can feel permitted to put aside the lingering guilt concerning how we consume the world’s resources, treat others, or waste precious time on empty endeavors (flicking though profiles on dating apps leaping to mind).
So scandal allows us to exercise socializing emotions, such as superiority and contempt, while providing a sense of superiority, not to mention a false connectedness to those we share gossip and hearsay.
Dan Batson of the University of Kansas organized fascinating research on ‘moral hypocrisy’ demonstrated that people who perceive themselves to be exceptionally moral are especially prone to ignoring protocols and pursuing their own self-interest. As has often been said, its easy to see scammers everywhere, but difficult to find such tendencies in oneself. To read more on Dan Batson’s research, click here.
Gossip and hearsay, which the Buddha listed as ‘unskillful speech,’ provides little notable interpersonal benefit; do we really develop any deep connection with those we chatter idly?
As the Buddha noted in his teachings on right speech, hearsay and idle chatter is worthless, as it doesn’t develop the trust and honesty that bonding; in the Mitta Sutta, the Sigolvada and other householder suttas, the recipe for real human bonding is presented as the honest disclosure of our deepest feelings:
A true friend gives what is most meaningful, though hard to share,
they share their secrets with you, listen to yours and keep them safe.
During misfortunes a true friend doesn’t abandon you nor look down on you. When you find someone with whom you can talk honestly cultivate that friendship.
Mitta Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya 7:35
When our emotional activations are expressed, both through words and non-verbal facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, posture, if they are seen by someone who is attuned to our affects, they’ll empathize and ‘mirror back’ the emotions by reflecting back similar expressions (note Peter Fonagy’s research in ‘Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of the Self’). When someone reflects back our feelings, we sync together and achieve what the psychologist Thomas Lewis calls ‘limbic resonance’ which, Lewis maintains, activates the dopamine circuits, promotes empathic harmony, and activates serotonin to regulate emotional states of fear, anxiety and anger. (All of which is expounded on at length in his General Theory of Love.’ for a shorter piece, click here.)
So revealing our emotions and fears is what satisfies our deepest need for emotional understanding and support. Human beings are social beings; pack animals; the need to bond is paramount for our psychological health (note Philip Flores’ research showing the relationship between addiction and lack of secure relationships.)
Today the Buddha’s emphasis on honest disclosure―focusing on expressing our own feelings, not the foibles of others― has been validated in books such as ’Opening Up:The Healing Power of Confiding in Others’ by the psychologist James Pennebaker and ’The Transforming Power of Affect’ by Diane Fosha. As Pennebakbr notes (page 27), talking about suffering is a natural human endeavor: “When this response is blocked or inhibited, stress and illness result. Beyond the potential dangers of long-term inhibition, there is something positive about [acknowledging] upsetting experiences.”
Fosha’s books show, in great detail, how concealing one’s true feelings, and choosing false bonding, such as gossip and idle chatter, leads to feelings of emptiness, isolation, shutting down. Meanwhile the healing of honestly disclosing one’s underlying emotional states she makes clear throughout her work:
A man walks in and he is telling me about some severe illness in a parent, and I ask him how he feels about it, and he says, “I don’t have any feelings.” So my question to him is, “What are you aware of?” And he becomes aware of a kind of subtle sensation in his chest―and that becomes our entry point. So we stay with that and I ask, “What does it feel like?” “Well, it’s tense and it’s sort of a little dense.” “Is it pleasant? Is it unpleasant?”Over the course of a period of time, we really stay with what’s in his chest, which turns out to have all sorts of qualities of heaviness and pain―it’s a painful sensation. So before you know it, here I am with this incredibly intellectualized, supposedly in-his-head patient, talking completely in the language of sensation. We’re no longer talking content. We’re no longer talking narrative. We’re speaking this kind of right-brain language. He’s touching his chest with his hand as he’s palpating the spot where he’s experiencing this, and he’s starting to notice all these shifts and fluctuations, which are very much occurring in the moment. So within a few minutes, we had sort of “dropped down.”
―Diana Fosha Interview, psychotherapy.net
I’d like to suggest that the real danger of gossip and empty babble is that its akin to empty calories of candy; it provides the illusion were consuming something nourishing when in fact we’re running on empty fumes; we humans need to connect to achieve psychological health. Note Dan Lieberman’s research on the kinds of emotional pain that results from disconnection in his book ‘Social’ and in many clinical papers, including Why Rejection Hurts: What Social Neuroscience Has Revealed About the Brain’s Response to Social Rejection); without being truly seen and understood by others we close down, isolate, and become defended and prone to addictions and avoidance coping. This is why the buddha said to his friend Ananda ‘Wise friends are the whole of the spiritual life.’ Let’s listen to another wonderful teaching in the canon:
The people we associate with influence us and our spiritual growth. Someone who wraps rotting fish in a blade of grass makes the grass smelly: that’s what happens when you hang out with foolish people and talk about foolish things. But when you place incense into a large leaf, the leaf takes on a pleasant aroma: and so it goes is if you connect with wise, tolerant friends. So only associate with those you can trust. Those who aren’t good lead you to bad destinations [often through how they speak]. The good will lead you to good destinations.
In sum, we don’t survive, grow and heal wounds without taking the risks to reveal ourselves to others.