I eagerly listened to him as he went on. He was sharing with me the ‘spicy’ story of the private life of a mutual acquaintance. I probed him for more ‘juicy’ details. I wanted him to go and on! At that moment, I wish he would never stop! The shocking details that he revealed stirred in me a perverse delight.
Sometimes, there is nothing that we like more than gossiping about the foibles—real, exaggerated or imaginary—of others, especially when they aren’t around to defend themselves. Most of us would be too scared to say the same things about others in their presence, though. After all, we might be shouted down, beaten up or worse!
Inevitably, we love talking negatively about others. Rarely, if ever, do we like praising them, unless in flattery or sometimes when we think this can serve our own interests. It is amazing how easily we identify and obsess about what we consider the negative in others, while, on the other hand, it is rare for us to permit ourselves to even recognise anything positive in them. Praising their goodness in their absence is for us rarer still.
What is true for individuals in this regard is also true for social groups. Entire communities revel in harping on the real or imaginary misdeeds of other communities—‘communal backbiting’, you could call it. They are quick to spot the ‘stupid beliefs’, ‘silly rituals’ and ‘cruel practices’ of other communities, at the same time as they rarely, if ever, are willing to admit any goodness in them.
If you come to think of it, many of us spend a significant part of every day bad-mouthing people. Sometimes, it is the only topic of conversation we have—and that really says more about the sort of people we are than the people we gossip about! Some of us have even made gossip our profession—being paid neat sums to rant and rave against others.
It is not that what we gossip about is always fabricated or exaggerated or completely unwarranted. Some, or even much, of it may indeed be true. But, very often, we tend to blow the matter completely out of proportion, adding our own heavy dose of prejudice and bile as we embellish the stories we tell, so that we come to present the person we gossip about as wholly evil or irredeemably immoral or incorrigibly cruel or pathetically greedy or infuriatingly irritating. Sometimes, we may be well aware of many good things in a person, but when we gossip about him, these totally escape our minds. One negative aspect thus comes to completely overshadow this person’s entire personality, shutting out from our view his many virtues.
Here’s an interesting experiment you might like to try in this regard. The next time you feel the seemingly overpowering urge to gossip about someone, stop for a moment and bring to mind what it is about this person that you are so eager to talk about. Almost inevitably, this will be something that you consider negative: perhaps he may have done or said something that you do not agree with; some view or belief that he might hold may not accord with yours, and so you find it ‘wrong’; some habit of his may indeed be irksome and cruel; something about the clothes he wears, the way he eats or even his hairstyle may not be to your taste. And so on.
When you learn what it is about this person that you are so eager to gossip with others about and when you are aware that it is negative, try to restrain your tongue. Sometimes, the temptation will appear simply too unbearable to resist. After all, backbiting can seem so titillating that it can easily become an addiction, one that can be even more difficult to drop than drugs or alcohol.
When you speak, then speak good or else remain silent—this is what religions tell us. All religions warn against backbiting, gossip and idle chatter. They promise stern punishment, either in this world or in the life after death, for those who engage in it. They very clearly tell us that this isn’t something that God likes.
And so, each time you feel the urge to backbite someone, bring this to mind: “This isn’t something that God approves of. My religion says it is wrong and that this will work against me in the Hereafter.” Remind yourself this: "Each time I backbite someone, I’m adding to my stock of negative deeds that might tip the balance and take me to eternal Hell-fire. Am I ready to do that just for the sake of the malicious pleasure of talking bad about someone, which in any case isn’t going to change him?"
When you realise that you are paving your own way to Hell by succumbing to the temptation to backbite and gossip, you may find that your tongue simply refuses to comply with your old bad habit! "The thirty-second pleasure of taking delight in the foibles of others just isn’t worth it one bit," you may begin to say to yourself. "It certainly isn’t worth the cost—of leading myself to eternal Hell!"
That’s something like what I did the other day when my friend shared the ‘scandalous’ story of our mutual acquaintance. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have spared any opportunity to repeat what I had just heard with yet others, deriving a malicious delight each time I repeated it. But this time, I decided to firmly tie up my tongue in a tight knot! If all my talk about God and morality and success in the life after death were not to be all a hypocritical hoax, I decided I had to keep my lips tightly sealed.
To begin with, resisting the temptation to backbite about the person my friend had talked about wasn’t at all easy, especially for someone like myself, for whom backbiting has for long been a favourite past-time. But as the days go by, the urge to gossip about what I heard that day is, I am happy to report, dissipating, at the same time as the sheer delight at being capable of keeping my tongue tied up in a knot remains undiminished!