Passover, Idle Gossip and Competitive Altruism

This is the season of germination, liberation and rebirth in cultures all around the globe. My personal tradition, the Jewish tradition, celebrates the season as a confluence of the spring festival, the festival of Passover (Pesach) which is a festival of liberation, and the festival of matzah, the unleavened bread eaten by the Jewish people as they left Egypt on their journey to their homeland. It reminds me of the layered complexity of our lives, celebrating events of history or legend that are grounded in practical reality or philosophical concerns. As time passes we often conflate different historical events and social needs to create a new synthetic experience that works for a time before new change is again necessary.

Last week the drash (sermon) in my synagogue was about lashon ha'ra, translated as "evil tongue" and meaning "derogatory things spoken about another." The problem is that it may mean, in a more expansive sense, anything negative spoken about another. Today we often call this "gossip," though in recent years there has been discussion in sociology circles that gossip is both positive and negative and, regardless, serves an essential purpose in human societies. This is a far cry from the perspective of the rabbis, some of whom found all negative speech to be a violation so severe that it was the equivalent of denying God's existence (Rabbi Yochanan, Babylonian Talmud, Arachin 15b).

Here's the modern-day take on gossip, or what academics call "reputational information sharing." Gossip encourages cooperation and minimizes bullying because of fear of future ostracism, and it allows a group to maintain an amicable state without laws or control from an outside force. Selfishness is discouraged, and "competitive altruism" can occur where the flourishing of the group, rather than that of any particular individual, becomes the priority. A great example is the recent success at CERN, where a team of over 3000 physicists worked together to build the largest machine in human history, to find the elusive Higgs boson, the fundamental force-carrying particle that is the source of all mass (and often called in the media the "God particle").

Like most human traits, this tool developed because, as highly social animals, we lived for millions of years in small tribes that rarely numbered over 150, by the best estimates. In order to survive attacks from neighboring tribes, the group had to be cohesive and trusting of one another. Today we live in nation-states with hundreds of millions, do "flyovers" and drive though neighborhoods without meeting even a tiny fraction of our neighbors and fellow citizens. We live under an economic system that is the most productive in human history but depends on self-interest at its best, and greed and avarice at its worst. Competitive altruism has not yet taken hold in the global community; rather, we see the inability to unite to save the planet from ecological catastrophe, and failure to thwart civil wars and military takeovers, as has been the norm in the past. And today social media has amplified the problem, with cyberbullying being commonplace amongst young people, and "revenge porn" being used to punish and seek advantage during ugly divorces.

One of the ancient rabbis, Rabbah, thought it was fine if you gossiped in the presence of the target of the gossip. Today's efforts at mediation, to deter people from heading straight to court, would be an effort to use Rabbah's technique to mitigate more destructive behavior. Other rabbis believed that gossip was acceptable after all efforts at directly trying to reason with or restrain the behavior of the person in question were exhausted. That seems to be an accepted course in many communities, except that most people seem afraid to directly confront, however gently, the person who has caused them offense. Lack of self-confidence prevents such discussion and seems to create situations where bullies sense the inability to confront and ramp up their activities.

The reality is that human beings are selfish as well as altruistic, and we live not only with saints but with sociopaths. Nowhere is this more evident than in politics, and while representative "democracy may be the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried," as Churchill said, it still can get very ugly. When elected officials have little confidence in their record, they quickly revert to vitriol and innuendo, the shadow campaigns that permeate the culture of even the most seemingly genteel districts. Intimidation comes into full force, working to embarrass and humiliate, to cut off funding sources. Arms are twisted and access threatened, and thuggish behavior that's more conducive to comic book characters becomes the norm. People project their own failings on their opponents and will do whatever it takes to protect a position or a friend. The personal really becomes the political, as family feuds fuel insider maneuvering and nothing seems out of bounds. Sexism often permeates the process, along with other forms of prejudice and bigotry.

There is a flip side, however. To quote Mr. Churchill again: "You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life."

And hope still springs eternal, particularly this time of year, and armed with Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt's "rhinoceros skin," I leave each morning to do my part in the "competitive altruism" campaign, to hit the streets and meet my neighbors -- not flying over them or driving by them but actually walking the streets where they live and meeting them, one by one. It's very fulfilling, and not only is it the best means to get elected; it is also the best way to reconnect with that very ancient human need to be a part of community and to look out for one another. It takes a lot longer in a district of over 120,000 people than in a village of 150, but it can be done, and it provides a great deal of satisfaction along the way.

And when it gets really depressing inside the bubble, I watch a rerun of Veep and I'm raring to go -- after I stop laughing.