The Theology of Everyday Life: Is Gossip a Sin?, Part 4, "Schadenfreude"

After some pretty heavy posts on game theory and evolutionary biology, let's now, finally, begin a theological analysis of gossip.

First, we must note that gossip is pretty universally denounced in the Bible. So, on first blush, gossip is a sin.

However, I'd like to suggest that the Biblical witness is a little more ambivalent about gossip than it might seem at first. First, in my last post we noted that the Bible does encourage us to foster a good reputation. And reputation is only effective if people are talking about each other. Second, the Bible may report instances when Christians employed gossip to further the interests of the Kingdom. For example:

Acts 9:28-30
So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him. When the brothers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.

Now this passage doesn't specify how the brothers learned of the plot to kill Saul/Paul. But I'm betting that the gossip on the street is the most likely candidate.

Regardless, we have to admit the Bible comes down pretty hard on gossip.

So, we have to ask, what is so bad about gossip? What is sinful about it? I'm intrigued by this question because, as a psychologist, I think prohibiting gossip might be both impossible or foolhardy.

If we take (mistakenly, in my opinion) gossip to be the simple transmission of social information I don't think it is theologically reasonable to prohibit gossip. It would be like prohibiting eating. Sure, you could prohibit eating. And some people even might elect to follow this prohibition (and die in the commandment-keeping). But toward what end?

So, sharing social information is going to happen, not due to human depravity, but due to biological necessity. Further, this sharing of social information is critical to creating a cohesive world. To refuse to share social information is tantamount to refusing to do your social duty. If a plumber rips you off and you refuse to tell anyone, allowing him to rip off your friends and neighbors, I think you're abdicating some moral responsibility here. You've got to share that social information.

But is gossip simply sharing social information? I don't think so. I think the sin of gossip is more. Here is what I think is up for discussion when we consider the sinfulness of gossip:

1. Sharing social information.
2. Spreading unsubstantiated information (i.e., rumors).
3. Sharing social information or rumors to harm another or to place oneself at an advantage.
4. Schadenfreude.

Okay, I've just gone on record that #1 isn't a sin. I think what makes the sharing of social information sinful is something additional, something in the list #2-#4. Lets' look at these in turn:

Rumor mongering
Due to our commitment to truthfulness, it seems clear that rumor mongering isn't right. Plus, rumor can be potentially harmful bringing us to...

I also think it's clear, morally speaking, that we should not share information that hurts people or places us at an advantage relative to others. This is not to say I have clear guidelines on managing the conflicts between truthfulness and love. I'm simply asserting that, all things being equal, we should not share information the goal of which it to hurt someone.

Okay, then, no big controversy so far. If gossip is about spreading rumors or hurting people then I think we all can agree on its wrongfulness. But it is the last issue on the list that I find most interesting: Schadenfreude.

When is sharing social information a sin? Don't we all struggle with this question? If I talk to my wife or best friend about incidents at work or struggles in the lives of friends, am I gossiping? Have you not wondered where the line is? When, exactly, does a conversation become gossip?

Well, like we have just seen, it's gossip when you are spreading rumors or attempting to hurt someone's reputation. That seems clear, and no one is debating that. Thus, for me, those instances are not psychologically (or theologically) interesting. No, what interests me is when I'm talking to my wife about a person and I get this odd feeling inside that I'm doing something wrong. That I might be gossiping. What is that feeling? And what triggers it? And should I heed it?

I believe the origin of that feeling is Schadenfreude.

Schadenfreude is a German word that has no English equivalent. Schadenfreude is the taking delight in another's misfortune. For more, see a Wikipedia entry here.

When I'm talking to my wife about people we know we share all kinds of social information, mainly about the joys and successes of our friends and family. But we also discuss the struggles and failures we see in the lives of friends and family. Is this gossip? I don't think so. Not yet at least. But there are times, when we discuss the plights of others, when I feel Schadenfreude grow within me. Not that I'm delighting in the failure of others. Perhaps I do when we talk about rivals or people we don't like. But with loved ones, I don't take delight. No, in those moments the Schadenfreude feels more like a smug superiority. The feeling that if people were sensible like me they wouldn't be in such a mess. I become the measure of all good-decision making and life management.

So, as a first pass at a psycho-theological analysis of gossip, I would conclude this: Gossip is best not evaluated, theologically speaking, from a behavioral vantage, as it usually is. Rather, gossip is best evaluated from motivational and emotional vantages. The motives behind sharing social information are critical in discerning its spiritual status. Further, our emotional reactions to the information, such as Schadenfreude, must also be evaluated. The information I'm sharing might not hurt someone and it might not be rumor, but if I take glee in the sharing of the downfall or misfortune I'm definitely not living out the Kingdom ethic.

One more post to come in this series.

(For further reading, see John Portmann's book on Schadenfreude, When Bad Things Happen to Other People.)

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7 thoughts on “The Theology of Everyday Life: Is Gossip a Sin?, Part 4, "Schadenfreude"”

  1. I think the "intent" aspect is completely valid. But I'd also want to hold out for the "content" angle you mentioned earlier: if the content isn't truthful, or isn't verified, it can't rightly be passed along as if it were truthful or verified. Was it Lincoln who once said that someone who tells something as established fact, not knowing whether or not it is established fact, is morally lying even if by chance they might happen to be proved correct on the facts? The privacy angle is also legitimate -- breach of agreement / breach of trust tend to make a conversation inappropriate even if no harm is intended.

    Take care & God bless

  2. Just discovered your blog tonight, having a good fun read. I've left a couple of comments around but wanted to mention that one was way back here on a paper you were doing on salvation metaphors, suggested a few for your list.

  3. Dear WF,
    Wow, thanks for all your comments sprinkled over various posts. And all in one night?! I'll try to hunt them down and comment if I have anything enlightening to say!

  4. LOL, I have to admit I read much of your blog like a novelette. That's what happens when you start having archives.

    Believe it or not I had some other comments that I haven't made, but I was afraid I'd already overstayed my welcome with that many comments. I think your posts are fascinating and thought-provoking even when I have some points of disagreement -- but like I mentioned, I did think I might have overstayed my welcome.

    Take care & God bless

  5. Dear WF,
    No, you didn't overstay. As a blogger you know it is a high compliment to have someone take the time to think along with you. As for disagreements, that is to be expected. I must admit I don't agree with myself most of the time. A lot of my posts are like trial weather balloons, floating an idea to see how it fares under continued reflection. This blog does have a lot of the "experimental" in it: Trial thought experiments, often failed, in the domain of theology.

  6. Dr. Beck

    Could any of the concepts from your gossip posts be applied to lying?

    I recently received orders from my wife to read a “self-help marriage” book. I complied, but not without complaint. The opening chapter laid out this scenario.

    A councilor had several married couples in a group session. He asked the men if they felt complete honesty was important in a relationship. The men said yes. Then he asked how the men would answer the “Do you think I look fat in this?” question from their wife’s if they had recently put on a few pounds extra pounds. Many of the men said they would not tell their wife’s they looked fat. The author seemed dumbfounded these men had just said complete honesty was important and were now willing to be less than truthful. The councilor said this was a lie and would undermine the relationship.

    This strikes me as to simplistic. Along the lines of “all gossip is wrong”. Surly there is a proper role for “white lies”. Truth, like gossip, can be either beneficial or detrimental, can’t it?

    There are numerous scenarios where lying seems right (or at least not wrong). If my brother guesses what I got him for Christmas but I tell his he is wrong have I lied? Is our relationship damaged by my lack of honesty? If my daughter is going through an awkward adolescent stage and asks me if I think she is pretty do I harm our relationship by lying and saying she is beautiful? Would it not be devastating to tell her the truth? If my wife has sacrificed her figure to bring our children into the world do I really need be honest and tell her she does not look as good as she once did?

    As with gossip, Christians seem to paint with too broad a brush when it comes to lying. Just as not every transaction involving the exchange of social information is sinful gossip, it also seems (to me) not every omission of truth is sinful lying.

    As a Christian psychologist what would a list look like for discerning when a lie is socially beneficial and when it is not? The list you used for gossip goes a long way toward this goal, but is there anything you would add, amend or take away? (Assuming you agree with this premise in the first place.)


  7. JHR,
    Here's my take.

    Studies indicate that people tell 5-10 "lies" a day. And when the lie is directed at a loved one it is generally classified as "other-oriented." That is, the lie is told to protect the loved one from shame, embarrassment, or distress.

    So, as a descriptive norm, we all lie, all the time. The world would shut down if we didn't lie. Relationships needs lies. Brutal honesty is just that, brutal.

    I'm exaggerating a bit here, but my legitimate point is this: Relationships require the ability to "spin." If a wife asks you if she looks fat in a dress she's actually asking you many different kinds of questions. For example:

    1. Do I look fat?
    2. Do you still find me attractive?
    3. Would you be embarrassed, given where we are going, if I wore this tonight?
    4. I know I'm a little fat (why else would I be asking) but am I TOO fat?

    And on and on. So which question do you answer? Me? I go with #2 and answer "No. You look great." Which translates: "I'm never going to, ever, comment on your weight. I just won't do it. My message to you will always be: You're beautiful." And that is a truthful answer as I see it. It's, however, a form of spin.

    My other criterion for lying is this: Do I benefit in some way? As in, am I getting away with something immoral? If I am, the lie is self-serving and these are the ones I worry about. Other-oriented lies I feel fine with.

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