What is the most frightening verse in the Bible? For some Christians it may be the command of the “complete destruction” of Canaanites in Deuteronomy 7:2 or the appearance of the beast in Revelation 13:1. But for me, the scariest part of Scripture is Jesus’s words in Matthew 12:36: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.”
For much of my life, speaking careless words—especially in the form of gossip—has been a dominant sin.
The Oxford English dictionary defines gossip as casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true. When asked about the biblical definition of gossip, John Piper defined the term as, “Derogatory information about someone that you have that is shared with others in a tone of confidentiality, that is not motivated by doing good to them, and that you are enjoying in a way that shows your heart is not humble.”
Gossip is a serious sin condemned in Scripture. Paul associates gossip with murder and slander in Romans 1:29. He also associates gossip and slander in 2 Corinthians 12:20 and with idlers and busybodies in 1 Timothy 5:13. Why then do we gossip? Because it’s a form of social control, a way to “put somebody in their place.” The objective of engaging in gossip and slander is to lower a rival’s status, their relative social standing.
Why We Love Gossip
The benefit of gossip as a form of social control is that it’s cheap and effective. The downside is that, for much of human history, it did not scale. Gossip could spread within an immediate community—workplace, church, town—but to get the message out in a broader form was often technologically infeasible or prohibitively expensive. For much of history, mass dissemination of gossip was limited to governments or media outlets who controlled the means of mass communication.
Economist Tyler Cowen even argues that this is the unstated purpose of media. “No matter what the media tells you their job is,” Cowen says, “the feature of media that actually draws viewer interest is how media stories either raise or lower particular individuals in status.” He adds,
The status ranking of individuals implied by a particular media source is never the same as yours, and often not even close. You hold more of a grudge from the status slights than you get a positive and memorable charge from the status agreements.
In essence, (some) media is insulting your own personal status rankings all the time. You might even say the media is insulting you. Indeed, that is why other people enjoy those media sources, because they take pleasure in your status, and the status of your allies, being lowered. It’s like they get to throw a media pie in your face.
In return you resent the media.
While this may have always been true of the media, the technological changes in communication since the 1990s have broadened and democratized what constitutes “the media.” “The Internet, smart phones, and social media (ISS) have set human communication back about 20,000 years,” economist Arnold Kling says. “That is, we now rely more on gossip than we have since we lived in small tribes.”
The triumvirate of internet, smart phones, and social media—Kling’s ISS—has combined to create an emergent entity we could call the Gossip Machine. Emergence occurs when an entity has properties or behaviors that emerge only when the parts interact in a wider whole. We can think of the Gossip Machine as being an entity that relies on, but is not the same as internet, smart phones, and social media (since the ISS can, of course, be used for purposes other than gossip).
What makes the Gossip Machine distinct from ISS is that it not only disseminates gossip we produce but also entices us to produce new gossip. All of us have within us a desire to lower the social status of other people, whether friends, families, or enemies. However, for most of us and for most of the time, this desire lays dormant. The Gossip Machine prompts us to turn this desire into sin.
Three Steps for Turning Desire Into Sin
According to Augustine, there are three steps involved in turning desire into sin: suggestion, pleasure, and consent. Suggestion comes when we are tempted by a desire, either through memory or sense perception. Pleasure is when we recognize that it would be pleasurable to have something that is forbidden. (According to Augustine, this should be put in check by our reason.) Consent is when we do not allow our reason to put it in check, and so consent to the forbidden craving. The Gossip Machine affects each of these three steps.
The first part of the suggestion comes when the Gossip Machine encourages us to express ourselves—even if we have nothing to say. For example, on Facebook I’m met with the prompt, “What’s on your mind, Joe?” and on Twitter with “What’s happening?” I’m enticed to share my thoughts and opinions or be left out of the conversation. The second part of the suggestion comes when we scroll through social media to see what’s on the minds of others. The answer is often using gossip and slander to lower the status of our rivals. If you think I’m exaggerating, look at your own feeds and see how many postings and comments are attempts to “own the libs,” “cancel” someone for a thoughtcrime, or pass on unverified status-lowering innuendo.
The Gossip Machine shows you an inciting message (“Your rivals are trying to lower your status!”) and then provides you with the means of responding in kind. But the Machine also provides the pleasure. After posting the gossip you’ll get likes and shares and retweets and the dopamine-driven rush of having your biases confirmed publicly. Or, to put it in the parlance of neuroscience, “giving and receiving Likes—a unique feature of online environments that resembles both social and monetary reward—robustly recruits brain circuitry implicated in other reward tasks.” We reach the final step—consent to the forbidden craving—simply because the Machine makes gossip feel better, both physically and emotionally, than does avoiding the temptation to sin.
Rage Against the Machine
How do we counteract the influence of the Gossip Machine? We can start by looking at how others overcome a related emergent entity of ISS, the Pornography Machine. Two of the most effective tools to fight ISS-related pornography are avoidance and accountability: avoid the source of the temptation and have people hold you accountable when you stumble.
(While both will be difficult, the accountability may be the most challenging, since many Christians are offended by the idea that slander and gossip are considered sins when used for the noble purpose of lowering the status of one’s enemies.)
To effectively fight the Gossip Machine, we have to start seeing gossip and slander as sins that send people to hell, and to reflect on the careless word they speak. In a sermon on Matthew 5:22, the Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards said people in hell would give the world to have committed just one less sin in this life. If sinners in hell would give the world to have gossiped less, how much more motivated should we be to abandon this sin?