Monday, May 05, 2008

Gossipy Girls

Cinco de Mayo seems as good a day as any day to start up my blog again. Since I am moving way way north and hence will be out of daily contact with so many of my friends here, I need to keep this blog alive. Moreover, this blog is an outlet for me to work out ideas that would otherwise pass through my consciousness into oblivion. The blog is like a cyber-bulletin board where I can post notes to myself and if these ideas have any merit, pursue them later.

So, onto one of those insights. I was digging in the dirt yesterday, which is just the kind of activity that frees up my mind to wander and reflect on interactions with people or pursue questions that interest me. What spontaneously entered into my consciousness was my interactions with those people who like to talk with others but only about the inane details of their day.

You can see that by using the word "inane," I have already made clear that I am "uncomfortable" with those sorts of conversation. The discomfort manifests itself quite bodily. I get anxious when I think about social situations where I might be surrounded by heaps of people who might corner me and talk at me relentlessly about things that hold no interest for me. One of my worries is that I will start to yawn while they are speaking. Or that I will not find the right sort of phrases or responses to indicate that I am listening and interested. My mind will most likely wander onto other topics--errands I need to complete or work I need to finish.

When a topic such as this pops up it usually indicates to me that I need to reflect more on why I am so freaked out by being sucked into conversations with relentless talkers who engage in nothing but "idle talk." The phrase idle talk has many origins, but I am interested in two.

First, Martin Heidegger's criticism of a way of being with other people that is not authentic. What happens when we engage in idle talk with others is that we stop interpreting the world--which means laying bare the world in such a way that it reveals to us paths to pursue that coincide with our deepest creative impulses. For Heidegger, interpretation is an important faculty of human beings and is fundamentally connected to our "essence," which is to engage in projects (putting time and attention into turning a possibility into an actually). We are defined by our projects and those projects that reflect our own creative and thoughtful insights about the world are the preferable ones for Heidegger. Idle talk [Gerede] is a way of avoiding the more difficult labor of seeing into the world and its riches and choosing a path that allows us to bring into existence a way of life or artifacts that reflect our mindful reflection of the world and our capabilities.

I realize that everything I just wrote is incredibly abstract. It is hard to avoid abstract language when discussing philosophy, especially phenomenology. To make this thought less abstract: Heidegger is entreating us to be more thoughtful in our attitudes, projects, choices and relationships. When we speak with someone it should in some way be oriented toward helping us be more thoughtful about our lives. Our friendships with others are best knitted together by conversations that help us find what is most meaningful to pursue, what will help our communities thrive, what will help us care for the earth (which is the source of our inspiration and projects). In sum, to waste our conversations on idle talk is to avoid the more important work of living our life to fullest extent.

The second way in which I want to think about idle talk is in connection with gossip and slander (this is incipient in Heidegger's thought but never really developed). Idle talk is thoughtless conversation. It is conversation with no real objective, other than to disseminate gossip about other people. Idle talk easily devolves into mean spirited and moralizing conversations where we disapprove of other peoples' behavior. We mock how people raise their children, how they control their dogs, how they tend their yards, what they wear, what failings they have . . . you get the point. More often than not, this is the kind of conversation style associated with women.

And, while digging in the dirt and pulling out weeds yesterday, I started reflecting more on the kind of person I try to avoid socially--the relentless idle talker. It is a she. More specifically, it is a she who comes across as moralizing, bitter, or worse (for me) boring.

So what am I--the feminista--suppose to make of this attitude I hold toward gossipy women. Does it make me part of the cruel patriarchy that tends to prejudge most women as idle talkers, who have nothing of value to say other than to diminish others? Maybe. But, I like to think that my reaction to such people is more complicated.

While all of this was swirling in my mind, I went inside to watch a Masterpiece theater show. Of course it was a typical costume drama, set in the 19th Century in England. And, of course, there is a built in critique of gossipy women. And, during this show I thought back to Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women. She has an important insight into why so many women are idle gossipers--they aren't educated. But, this is less true now than it was in the late 18th Century. Something else is going on then that makes women (I know a lot of gossipy men too) fall prey to harmful gossip.

What is it? Education is obviously available to them. Women can study any subject their heart desires. Part of the answer must lie with the fact that women spend so much of their lives taking care of children and then their elderly parents. This kind of labor--if it is the sole labor one is engaged in--can take women so far out of the larger world. This is not necessarily true--since I did argue that being a mother can take you out into the world--but, nonetheless, it can happen. The intense work of caring for others--and especially little ones who are not yet engaged in the world in the way Heidegger exhorts us to be--can absorb all of one's thoughts and energy. One's identity can easily become inextricably bound up with their caring labor and so the need to maintain a sense that one is doing it well is profound.

That is the root of gossip--the need to assert one's importance in realms where labor is not rewarded or recognized. What is unfortunate, however, is gossip only leaves one feeling empty. When we gossip (and believe me--I am NO saint), we further wall ourselves up into a world where our sense of self is precariously dependent on the approval of others. When we gossip, we recognize how easily it is for others to do the same to us. When we gossip, we are really only highlighting our own deepest fears and failings. What we loathe in others is precisely what we loathe about ourselves.

So, the problem with idle talk and the fact that so many women seem to engage in it seems to be larger than individual failings (though that is at work too). It reveals to us that we are a community that does not value traditional women's labor in ways that provides for women to draw a real sense of self and accomplishment. It reveals that we continue to bifurcate our lives into the private and the public. And, finally it reveals to us that we all desperately need to be valued and loved.

I didn't actually mean to sum this up. I am probably wrong. I am probably missing important things here. Am I being too hard on women?