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The radical possibility of gossip / by Tali S.F.

For as long as I can remember, I've been torn between my tendency toward speaking out and my desire to keep the peace. This struggle has been partially informed by my childhood experiences that included a constant stream of contradictory expectations placed specifically upon me as a Jewish woman. I grew up in a strict, religious community, and from a young age became accustomed to the normality of an endless set of rules that governed my existence. These regulations were introduced simply enough, with laws about keeping kosher and saying the correct prayers before bed. As I got older, things intensified in specificity and scope. As young Jewish women reach puberty, a new set of rules are introduced, pertaining both to the outward body and to the socially acceptable ways of maintaining the inner self.

I could follow rules about clothing and food fairly easily: no more pants, no more sharing classrooms with boys. These were strange new realities, but they were manageable. More confusing were those laws that pertained to the ways in which we were trained to communicate with one another. In a manner that can only be described as obsessive, our young, religious teachers taught our all-girl classroom about the evils of gossip, a term that is in biblical Hebrew known as "loshen harah." To ensure that the point was driven home, lessons were taught from a scriptural perspective. Teachers told us the story of Miriam, sister of Moses, a leader of the Torah-era Israelites. The story from the Hebrew bible goes as follows:

Miriam was Moses' older sister, popularly known for saving him from the ancient Egyptian edict that demanded first born Jewish males be killed. Miriam saved her brother by sending him down the Nile river in a basket and he was discovered by the Pharaoh's daughter who raised him as an Egyptian. As an adult, Moses discovered his Jewish identity and chose to reunite with his family rather than remain a prince. He eventually married a woman with darker skin than that of his family, and Miriam reacted harshly against Moses' decision. She spoke outwardly about her disapproval and as a result of her bad mouthing, God struck Miriam with a painful skin disease known as Tzaraath. Like the Scarlet A, her boils were specifically meant to be visible so she would be embarrassed, so that everyone would know she had spoken against her family.

Though there are many ways to think about Miriam's story and her intolerance, the only facet we were taught pertained to her punishment as a gossiper. Inevitably, the lessons we learned in the classroom spilled over into our social interactions. As young girls, we heavily policed ourselves and each other, taunting one another with the singsong edict, "loshen harah not okay, go to hell the easy way," any time someone deviated from this strict code of conduct we were expected to follow.

Unlike any of the other laws I had learned to adhere to unquestioningly, this one tormented me in a particular way. Though gossip was scripturally forbidden, it seemed that everyone around me was mired in it. My religious school friends constantly talked about each other. My equally religious family members seemed to only ever speak about each other in nonconstructive ways. Gossip was a distinct thread in the fabric of our everyday lives. Every weekend at synagogue, large groups of people would sit in corners, talking loudly and critically about people in the community. Judgment over peoples behaviors and choices was so oppressive that it created an atmosphere of fear in which people were afraid to deviate from the right wing, religious norm that was our world.

My own tendencies towards judgement and over-analyzation were certainly borne from this environment; yet as soon as I realized that so much else of what I had been taught, about religion, Zionism, and other faulty tenets, were wrong, I began to question the hypocritical ways in which I had been taught about such rules of speaking. I realized too, how gendered these structures were, how women were maligned for engaging in manners of speech that fell under the gossip umbrella, regardless of the possible validities of the actual words being spoken, or grievances being aired. I felt trapped. Within me was the innate tendency to want to call out bullshit wherever I saw it, as I was surrounded by those who spoke of the importance of biblical laws while continuously breaking them. People around me shit talked, and I wanted to shit talk them for shit talking. It seemed an impossible situation for so many years, and for so long I oscillated between speaking out and keeping quiet, never knowing which was the appropriate choice to make in any given situation.

This cycle continued into my adulthood, though it manifested differently as I left Judaism and became more involved in punk communities. Whereas in my youth I felt the urge to call out religious peers and figures for their hypocrisies, as an adult, I eventually found these same urges would creep up for different reasons. Though punks preached inclusiveness, equality, and various other anti-oppressive politics, I saw a scene that couldn't and wouldn't live up to its own self-imposed rules. I thought I had left a hypocritical world for good, and found that I had entered a seemingly similar situation. The major difference though, within the punk scene, was the pervasive silence around me, though the unwillingness to call people out for their harmful behaviors was almost exactly the same.

As an adult, I made a close friend, and watched as she engaged in a series of harmful romantic relationships. I loved her, I cared about her, and I couldn't understand how any of her other friends could sit back and watch it all happen. So I spoke out: I told her time and again that I wished she would hold herself in higher esteem, that I wished she would stop dating people who took emotional advantage of her kindness. Not surprisingly, I would realize after the fact, this situation did not work out well for me. She grew to resent what she perceived as my constant negativity that was geared towards her partners, and we eventually parted ways.

The split had such an impact on me, and I vowed to try never to meddle in other peoples' business again. By my mid-20s I had decided that few things were worse than shit talk, no matter how pure I thought a person's intentions could be. Even when I went through an assault at the hands of a friend, I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt at badmouthing him in public, as much as he deserved it. I started to quiet down, to keep my opinions to myself more and more, and I did see some surface-level "positive" results. People wanted to be around me more, and it felt good to not engage, to try not to care about other peoples' aggressions or problematic behaviors. But inside, things were not good. I was still hyper cognizant of bad situations going on unchecked around me. From friends in toxic relationships, to people sequestered within music scenes who engaged in destructive behaviors towards themselves and others time and again, so much of what I couldn't understand was the collective silence of the community. People too afraid to speak up and out against harmful patterns. And for a short while, I became one of these people, because this was the only way I knew to get people to like me. Shutting up became an imperative key to my own social survival.

Though getting older and becoming more comfortable with myself has certainly helped in getting over a once crippling self-criticism, a particular incident happened recently that provided me with a moment of clarity. I was riding the train with a friend and we found ourselves engaged in heated conversations about certain people and certain behaviors that kept repeating within our social scene. At this point in my life, I had become so paranoid about my tendencies that I interrupted every other sentence with, "I can't do this, I can't gossip, this is bad." My friend looked to me and he said, "Oh, I don't think shit talking is bad. I think it's necessary in radical communities, to talk about people doing bad things, so that they can be weeded out." [Cue choir of angels singing: bros fall back.]

I was floored. I had never considered the possibility that there was validity to my calling-out tendencies. I spent the next few weeks thinking about the various ways in which my friend was correct. How over the years, so many shitty incidents and relationships could have been prevented if anyone had just spoken out. Would my assault have happened if years of my assaulter's sketchy behavior had in any way been addressed by anyone, instead of being continually ignored and swept under the rug? Would my friendship with someone important have ended if any of her other friends possessed the courage to help her out off her destructive relationships? These questions began to haunt me in entirely new ways, because prior to this moment, I could do nothing but blame myself for the ways in which certain events in my life had unfolded. I came to the conclusion that I had spent years entrenched in punk communities that festered upon its own silence, that actively allowed people to continue on with their harmful actions, all the while talking about camaraderie, unity, and other such ideals.

I was attracted to punk and other grassroots communities because I saw them as based on intentional social relationships that included extensive, often radicalized communities around the world. I was so drawn both to the collective refusal to look to established systems for guidance, and to those people who instead relied on others who also eschewed the establishment and its rules. But what do we do when we are creating new worlds one day at a time, and then find ourselves lost without positive guidance that may help us understand our behaviors towards ourselves and each other?

Our knee-jerk reactions to the broken systems of our world include a tendency towards anti-policing. Our goals are to fight the inherently authoritarian structures within our society. The question then becomes, how do we adhere to our antiauthoritarian principles while also holding ourselves and others accountable when problematic behaviors arise? Because we are making decisions on a case-by-case basis, we often find ourselves talking it out, unpacking issues and grievances, and looking for solutions as we go. What then is the line between pointless gossip and responsible unpacking towards a meaningful resolution? How do we constructively discuss peoples' oppressive behaviors while also taking into consideration infrastructural injustices that may have made these behaviors manifest to begin with? And how do we ultimately look out for one another, even those amongst us who have a lot to work out? With these questions in mind, and in tackling these issues with good intentions, we can begin to understand the radical possibilities of speaking out, even when that speaking out occurs in spontaneous ways, and in unmediated environments.

I think of this quote very often: Elie Wiesel, in recounting his Holocaust experience said, "Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented." I could finally comfortably pair personal experience with a sentiment I had held closely to my chest for so long. Though there are ways in which gossip can of course be harmful, pointless, and petty, in so many situations we bring up issues and grievances to each other for good reason. We sometimes do a disservice to ourselves when we ignore our instincts and automatically fall back on the idea that gossip is always bad. In fact, gossip does have the power to act as a saving grace, if we harness its powers responsibly, constructively, and with the overall aim of bettering our communities. A possible next step to the unpacking of this idea is to figure out the most positive, uplifting ways of calling out behaviors and problematic individuals without becoming oppressive ourselves.

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