Thursday, October 11, 2012
My son, Bahman, on his FaceBook has an entry that says, "'gossip is just jostling for social position' – my dad. put that on a magnet". His quote was a phrase I had used to comfort a close friend about some gossip she had heard a couple of weeks earlier. I told her that gossip is part of our social DNA and we cannot do away with it. That is what people do when they meet each other. A lot of the conversation is gossip, talking about other people who are not present and I summed it up with the quoted phrase.
I had been raised as most of you to frown on the idea of gossip. Most cultures have edicts against gossip. It is a sin that everybody commits everyday and abhors at the same time. Reaching the conclusion that "gossip is just jostling for social position" goes back to my youth studying in the U.S.
It was 1970, reluctantly taking a course in anthropology as part of my elective course work in Turlock, California. One day we had a substitute instructor, the regular professor was out for some reason. The substitute instructor was an authority on the subject of American Indians or Native American studies,Alfred W. Bowers. I think he was near his retirement but was assisting the department. He was very thin, old looking with a weathered wrinkly skin. His soft and gentle speech testified to his patience and experience. I never found out what he was doing at our little college, Stanislaus State. Recently when I tried to search for him on the Internet, to my surprise I did not find an entry for him on Wikipedia. Information about him on the Internet is scant. Bowers has an anthropology lab named after him at the University of Idaho, where he did most of his studies on Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Indians. Recently I e-mailed the staff of Alfred W.Bowers Laboratory of Anthropology, but they could not tell me much about Bowers other than to confirm that he was the person that I was inquiring about and he actually worked at my small college (1967-1971) during my introduction to anthropology.
I knew as it was known at Stanislaus that Bowers has been studying some Indian tribes while living among them. During this class session he began to speak about some of his experiences. Bowers mentioned that during their spare time members of the tribes that he visited would sit around each other and gossip; and that was what they did mostly. A student asked Bowers "what did they gossip about?". He replied "they gossiped about whoever was not present, mocking them!"
Bowers statement was an unbelievable shocker to me. That was the time of the "Little Big Man" movie, adulation of the American Indians, Beatles traveling to India sitting at the feet of gurus soaking up the "new" revelations. That was the time of believing everything primitive is pure, and everything else has only been tainted by the greedy "imperialists". I thought to myself how could a pure, innocent people like American Indians participate in such a reprehensible act; gossiping. I rejected what Bowers had said while his words stuck in my mind.
My social studies was very weak. I did not consider social studies as a science, those were subjects that I had to avoid as much as possible. My schooling in Iran had trained me to look down at these subjects. The last three years of high school in Iran were branched out into three categories, mathematics, biology and literature. It was assumed that the best and brightest students would go into the mathematics branch, the less fortunate would go to the biology and the "unfortunates" were looked down at while attending the abyss of the literature branch of the high school. In this branch the emphasis was on literature, history and other social studies, albeit a pathetic treatment of these subjects. These three branches of studies were even physically segregated, housed at different high schools which created a perfect environment for drilling narrow mindedness into us.
I did not do very well in that anthropology class, I do not remember if I even completed that course, but this first course in anthropology arouse some curiosity about social studies in me. This period of my life coincided with my introduction to the radical politics and my curiosity was channeled into my endeavors into Marxism. Marxism became my new ideological straight jacket that I wore for a couple of decades.
Marxism with all its backwardness taught me that our past is important and we are shaped by it. This understanding cured my aversion of studying social sciences and history. At the same time Marx and Marxists believe in a somewhat pure and cooperative human beings. That at an early stage humans lived in "egalitarian" societies, a form of communism, "early or primitive communism". My interest in anthropology was framed with the work of Friedrich Engels, "The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. I satisfied myself with Engels's narrow reinterpretation of the scant findings of the 19th century anthropology and Bowers words receded in my mind.
Eventually I shed my straight jacket through the school of hard knocks, the best school life can offer. I read broader than my habitual readings of the Marxists interpretations. I found out that Marxism is an upside-down view of the world just like any other religion (more on this later, a while later).
For Marx the storyline begins with a cooperative human being in "primitive communism", then there is class struggle and finally this whole thing "inevitably" will end in "communism". There is not much connection to the animal world.
Studies of the last 150 years in primitive cultures does not find a pure cooperative man living in "egalitarian" societies and also studies of the primates show that there is a tighter connection between humans and the animal world. The human world is not the exclusive domain of consciousness and the animal world is not purely instinctual.
The study of the practice of grooming among the primates has shown that this activity has a social meaning other than the appearance of the practice. To a casual observer grooming could be seen as a cleansing activity and for finding some grubs to be eaten by picking through the coat of hair. It has been reported widely that this practice is part of the primate social organization. Which member receives how much grooming depends on the pecking order of the social hierarchy. Also the lower ranked members use this activity to move themselves up, in another word jostle for social position. For me it was not a big leap to connect what Bowers had said with the grooming practice among primates. Gossip is the verbal version of grooming or more accurately the evolution of grooming. Humans have been gossiping as a means of massaging each other psychologically and elevate oneself against an easy target, the ones not present. Of course our social organization has evolved. Ours is much more complex and gossip plays a more limited role in building social relationships. It played a much more prominent one in primitive cultures.
Also I think the preaching against gossip must be old. After all the shaman or the leader of the tribe's secret society did not want to be "mocked". As the propagator of the culture it must not take a big leap for the shaman to interject an amendment into the cultural edict of the tribe.