Reading “Crampton Hodnet,” a Barbara Pym novel set in North Oxford, Epstein gets the sense that “gossip traditionally has worked best in a small, one might even say tight, community.” I can’t help wondering how many citizens of small communities whose destinies are not in Barbara Pym’s benevolent hands would agree.
In any case, we all live in a small town now. Epstein acknowledges the power to libel and “wreck lives” made so widely available by the Internet. But he cites no more than a handful of online gossip’s casualties, in examples ranging in gravity from Malcolm Gladwell’s reputation (after his inclusion in a database of bad tippers) to a Rutgers student’s suicide (after video of his encounter with another male student was streamed online). Nor does Epstein seem particularly interested in gossip’s relationship to power, though he suggests it may have a role in revolutions. What for him constitutes a kind of spectator sport has been (and still is) for the disenfranchised a means of reconnaissance, a way of acquiring information crucial to their status and survival. It’s not for nothing that the two groups most notorious for trafficking in gossip have been women and gay men. Epstein quotes Leo Lerman, who said he kept a gossip-filled journal “because I am always interested in the disparity between the surface and what goes on underneath.”
Well, I suppose. Pascal Boyer wrote in Religion Explained about what he called “strategic information” — essentially, knowing what other people are doing and saying when they might not want you to know it. He suggests that deities and other lesser spirits are extrapolations from that concept — we humans are always limited in our access to strategic information, but wouldn’t it stand to reason that there could be some who have unlimited access? As circumstantial evidence, he notes that “gods” always seem to be primarily interested in who’s sleeping with whom, who’s telling lies, who’s stealing, and any of the myriad other behavioral concerns so typical of small communities, rather than in more abstract knowledge (“Does God know what every insect in the world is doing at this very moment? Does he know the contents of every refrigerator in the world?”) Interesting theory.
Anyway, I just feel like acknowledging here how grateful I am to the age of digital anonymity for allowing the freedom to choose your relationships to a much larger degree. I can’t help but think that people who romanticize small-town life must either be incredibly straitlaced and boring, or they’ve never actually lived in one.