Baumgartner: A gossiper’s defense

Post-Modern Love
No caption.
No caption. Photo by A. L. Baumgartner.

On my 13th birthday, my mother told me that men talk about sex in locker rooms. Then she handed me a piece of cake. I ate, thinking of naked men, their bare feet against the tiled floors, their hair wet from the shower, as they snapped towels at one another and talked about breasts. I was horrified, and even though my breasts were not large enough to be the subject of locker room talk, I decided that if they could talk about me, then I could talk about them.

That day, I became a gossip, and I have never since reformed.

If I had nothing nice to say, I repeated it at every opportunity. At college, I decided to major in history because it would allow me to read other people’s mail. I took great pleasure in knowing other people’s business, and I was unrepentant. Gossip concerned itself with decisions made in public, or in the company of another person, and in the words of the Lebanese-American author, Kahil Gibran, “If you reveal your secrets to the wind, you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees.”

No one admits to liking gossip, but no one steps away from the water cooler, either. So let me come to its defense. Kierkegaard disdained gossip for always consisting of “some trivial fact such as that Mr. Marsden is engaged and has given his fiancée a Persian shawl.” Gossip, like literature, exposes human motives and makes us reconsider our own. Who has been offered what job, who is sleeping with whom, who has betrayed a friend? The answers ask us to examine how we would act under similar circumstances.

Gossip comes from a Saxon root: God’s sib — of one kindred under God. It brings us to account, and most importantly, protects us. I knew nothing about Sam, when he asked me out to dinner, except that he was a year older and a consummate liberal. On the first date, he told me about his family; on the second, he took me for tapas at Barcelona and by the third, I found out that he had been sleeping with a freshman all along. Why did he think I wouldn’t find out? Current undergraduate enrollment is 5,247. Bumpass, Vir. (Population: 6,351) is more inhabited. But instead of ending things, I let him pay for my dinner and played it Puritanical — and I had always regretted it.

Two weeks ago, I went on a date with a Republican. He drove a pick-up. It had such a high bed, and I was wearing such a short skirt, that it was impossible not to see my underwear as I stepped into the front seat. Otherwise, I thought it went well — until I heard, over the course of the following day, that he was involved with two other women. One date does not monogamy make, but my friends wanted to protect me; to protect myself, I told him that between Caroline and Anna (not their real names), I didn’t want to get involved.

But afterwards, I realized that I had not even given him a chance to explain himself. In an e-mail later that week, I learned that the situation was more complicated than it first appeared.

I found myself thinking about a time in high school when a friend copied an e-mail left open on a school computer, and forwarded it to me. It was from my best friend, Caroline, to her friend, Hillary, “omg u have to look at alice’s pictures from saturday nite… i’ve realized alice and patrick … lov[e] when people take pictures of themselves.” Hillary responded, “they r all soooo egotistical!” I did like taking pictures of myself. I had just bought a new camera. I liked taking pictures of everything.

Gossip does not have to be false to be unkind. As Heidegger noted, with aristocratic disdain, “Idle talk is something which anyone can rake up; it not only releases one from the task of genuinely understanding, but develops an undifferentiated kind of intelligibility.”

But though we know that he-said-she-said is innocent at heart, but not so in practice, we seem all too willing to speak before genuinely understanding. Perhaps it is because gossip defends as often as it libels, protects as often as it humiliates. It is a mechanism to say that which we would prefer to leave unsaid but still need to hear.

Last year, my friend was interested in a senior, who had taken a semester off. No one thought anything of it: Yale students burn out or break down as often as electrical equipment on factory recall. But the senior had not taken the semester off to recover his mental or physical health. He was serving his Executive Committee sentence for sexual assault. She wouldn’t have known if a concerned friend hadn’t told her. She tried to understand, but in the end it was that information, which kept her from getting hurt.

Alice Baumgartner is a senior in Berkeley College.


  • 07 Alum

    I want to preface this by saying that I am not defending or condoning sexual assault in any way. It is an incredibly serious crime that everyone should be more aware about, especially on college campuses.

    However, I think Ms. Baumgartner’s climactic example, where she seeks to perhaps illustrate the good that gossip can do by notifying her friend of her prospective blind date’s history, is more complicated than it seems. Executive Committee hearings are kept confidential for many reasons, but I believe the primary one is to protect the students before the committee by not having things taken out of context. Perhaps he had been accused of sexual assault but not convicted, but it was still suggested that he take a semester off. What was the assault exactly? ExComm is not a court of law, and even being “convicted” of certain things there can have very different meanings and nuances. As someone who has gone before ExComm myself, I know the crazy versions of events that become pervasive on the campus when the full facts of the situation are unknown by the general student body but rumor and gossip run rampant.

    Again, things like Megan’s Law exist for a reason; because of the high incidence of repeat offenses for convicted sex offenders, the government has decided that people have a right to know about registered sex offenders. However, this is an extreme case that should not be applied to any and all situations without extreme care. A former thief is not necessarily a future thief, and one’s past actions should not necessarily stigmatize all of their future interactions.

    We are all guilty of rumor and gossip, it is definitely a guilty pleasure. However, I think extreme caution is needed before spreading any kind of negative rumor. It is very hard to know the whole story.

  • Monogamy:Polygamy

    Wonderful article, esp. the Kierkegaard, Heideggar quotes .

    Isn’t it ironic that the sincerity implicitly yearned for in citing those quotes, is advocated by the very wimps and soft-heads so many of the posters here ridicule as “divinity- school-types”, and yet the overwhelming tendency is to gravitate toward the Tiger-Woods-types?

    The apparent shock that the object of a woman’s attention might be sleeping around with others baffles me.

    The adultery commandment isn’t a “suggestion” or a “recomendation” it is a COMMANDMENT. Why?

    Because so many do NOT obey it. (One doesn’t under penalty of damnation ORDER people to do what they are naturally inclined to do.)

    It’s a trifle naive to think men by nature yearn for monogamy. CERTAIN types of men do: they types up there on Holy Hill. And even then . . . Jimmy Swaggarts and Ted Haggards pop up here and there.

    Nature, as Thornton Wilder observed , is concerned with one thing and one thing only (and it ain’t monogamy): “covering the planet with as much protoplasm as it can as fast as it can”

    M.Div ’80

  • saybrook997

    Gossiping about the new double standard–against men? (But first, most guys can barely deal with one woman, not three. You’re fantacizing, not gissiping. Second, if you mean rape, why do women call it sexual assault? That means groping to battery, and everything between.)

    The new double standard. The men’s locker room at Payne-Whitney. Two Yale women walked in one afternoon right after I had wet hair, and bare feet against Yale’s always dirty floors. They were giggling, too old to be curious about what men look like, and didn’t know that was a slow time for workouts. They didn’t even get to see or surprise/embarrass any guys coming out of the shower. I’ve seen girls do this in some middle school documentaries and American Pie-type movies–the guys then are more modest about exhibitionism than girls, and there is a certain coming-of-age cuteness to it. At Yale, women in the men’s locker room were just showing women do as they want. Guys never report or hurt them; guys going into the women’s locker room would be expelled, if not charged with a crime.

    The same double standard with public restrooms. I’ve had drunk girls walk through laughing to see us pee, but really to show they can do what they want, without old restraints. (Girls always see boys naked or take care of young ones, at least until the boys are old enough to want to see them too.) Again, men do nothing to the always young, drunk women. It would be almost fun if women were really just interested in physical “little” things. Men would have to say they went in the wrong door by mistake, which happens.

    And women can touch guys they know almost anywhere, anytime, and it’s considered affection. Girls have veryfew public touch zones. Still, a double standard.

    So much for gossiping about the dangerous patriarchy and “sex object” stuff. I have not known any Saybrook guys who are monsters, even, especially athletes. You can gissip, but not needed for protection. As I have said, when was the patriarchy? It sounds nice.

  • Great piece

    This was fun and well-written, like the column two weeks ago. Copy editors should fix things like this though: “He was serving his Executive Committee sentence for sexual assault. She wouldn’t have known if a concerned friend hadn’t told her. He was serving his Executive Committee sentence for sexual assault, and she wouldn’t have known, if a concerned friend hadn’t told her.”

  • @1

    @1: Wouldn’t it make sense for ExComm to be more transparent? That would knock out the “crazy version of events,” and protect other students on campus at the same time. Perhaps this information is kept quiet so as not to “ruin their lives.” Those convicted of sexual assault, however, did not extend the same courtesy to their victims. It is true that “a former thief is not necessarily a future thief,” but given the high incidence of repeat offenses, it seems that this information should not be kept altogether private, if the university cares about the safety of its students.

  • BR’10

    Nice, Alice!!

  • Yale 08

    @ #2,

    Riiiight. Because the Yale Div School really steps up and defends traditional sexual morality? (Yale Div School: Where we study the gods inside us!)

    Puh-lease. Those aging hippies are still groovin’ on free love, man. Don’t be a square.

  • History is a mess.

    Not sure I agree. The Big Three Abrahamic religions seem like thousands of years (cumulatively) of a Monogamy Skinner Box in the making. (Ironic since Abraham took a concubine, Hagar, to make a male heir, who turned out to be Ishmael and started the whole Arab/Israeli chosen/unchosen-people feud when the legitmate heir i.e.non- bastard heir Isaac was born to Abraham’s wife at 90!)

    Dunno. Religion seems like a giant chastity belt thrown over Nature with the word Monogamy inscribed on the buckle to restrain promiscuity and social disease.

    History is a mess.


    PS (BTW) Solomon of Song of Songs fame had 300 wives and 800 concubines (or vice versa) just to complicate the monogamy picture.

  • FailBoat

    Honestly, as much as I enjoy Alice’s prose – it IS very good – her defense of gossiping here is beyond weak.

    Yeah – loose lips can sometimes save lives. But they can also invade privacy and slander reputations.

    If a girl calls her ex-boyfriend a stalker (to use a totally random example) when he’s not there to defend himself, you get a biased one-sided version of events. This sort of behavior could be helpful, but it can be easily exploited by the vindictive.

    I tend to trust people who don’t gossip at all.