Looking back gets harder the further you want to delve into the past, and a lot of humankind’s history is both subject to change and up for interpretation. Most everyone studying this stuff agrees on certain things though; and pretty much all of them are on the same page about how tribes laid the blueprint for much of our modern thinking. We’re all sort of hardwired to interact with a few hundred people at the very most, and to travel great distances very rarely.
Nowadays, we can get news from the other side of the world in the same moment it’s happening; in the distant past, people living in tribes didn’t even know there was another side to the world. If they did, there was no way for them to keep up on the things happening there. All the interactions they had were confined to the people either in their tribe or trading with their tribe, and their day to day activities were seldom tightly intertwined with any more than a handful of people. Lots of work needed to be done, and talking was already a thing; so folks took the opportunity to make sure everyone they knew was up to date on what was going on with other members of the tribe.
They didn’t have water coolers back then; but they wouldn’t have had much use for them, since they didn’t have television either. People talked to people about other people while they worked, and the subjects of those conversations were all folks they knew firsthand. Everyone was aware this was happening, and nobody seemed to mind. Tribe members were both constantly updated on the ongoing or new behaviors of others, while being made aware that everyone else was getting updates on them.
When someone gets violent or nutty in a scenario like this one, everyone should at the very least know about it. Imprisonment isn’t really feasible in this kind of environment, and the only real options for extreme punishment are exile or execution. If an outcast tribe member comes back, everyone has to know they’ve been exiled; and if someone is executed, it helps put the people in fear of that someone at ease if news of the punishment reaches them. It also lets folks who might think doing violence is okay know that it isn’t, and could help prevent future violence.
After all, a lot of people think fear of punishment is the only thing keeping most folks in line. Others feel that civilization itself is the cause of most or all crime. A child raised in a village very rarely grows up feeling left out or disenfranchised, while millions in modern society may never realize there’s another way to feel. Nowadays we need a lot of institutions to house all the people the folks in charge consider undesirables, and the truth is that the need for exile or execution seldom comes up in a tribal setting.
But we’re not here to talk about the effect of modern society on the people raised in it, or what kind of rehabilitation is effective. We’re discussing gossip, and how the face of it has changed as the way we live has. Talking about others is different when everyone knows everyone else; and in a tribe, there are no strangers.
Of course, traders and travelers would bring news of distant lands, in the days when this is how most of humanity lived; but this probably worked much like our understanding of history. The further away from the place you got, in a time where traveling was almost all done on foot, the more those stories may have varied in accuracy. Whatever had been going on when the tale was first told might have been long past by the time you heard about it, and then it isn’t really news any more. Then it’s history, possibly altered by countless factors.
Most conversation happened within a small group of people, and the vast majority of that talk was about that same small group of people. The level of accountability in a situation like this is pretty high, which actually probably does do a lot to inform an individual’s desires. You get to hear what everyone else is doing, but you also get to see how others react to the news. If it really does take a village to raise a child, gossip may well be one of the tools employed to shape that child’s personality.
Like many of the instincts that come with being human, this one has become twisted by our modern version of life. Moral arguments can be made on both sides, all day long; but the amount of attention someone can get for doing something negative in certain forums has gotten a little out of hand, and I think we can almost all agree on that. As much as it may be fun to judge someone you’ve never met, it just isn’t the same as considering the actions of a person you actually know.
The purpose of gossip may have been left behind in that tribal culture, as funny or sad as that would be. Crime and punishment are a different thing now, and you can’t always trust a friend’s assessment of someone when they heard something from another person that was passed on from someone else. When we aren’t tightly interwoven, the whole point of knowing everything about everyone kind of goes out the window.
Being from a small town, I have seen the way gossip works in that environment. It tries to take on some of the elements of tribal gossip, or at least it pretends to sometimes; but all it really ever did for me was make me long for a city. I knew I could be left to my own devices in a more clustered living environment, and that city dwellers had stuff to talk about that went beyond what their neighbors were doing in the privacy of their own homes.
You know, enlightened stuff…like what Kim and Kanye are up to these days.
All kidding aside, the thing I like most about city life are the choices it presents. Life in a small town is often characterized by behaviors nearly everyone seems to share, and the people who don’t have those common desires are keenly aware of not fitting in. More densely populated areas offer everyone the opportunity to be weird in their own unique way, without worrying about what others are saying about them behind their backs. It also creates a situation where us weirdos can pull together our own makeshift version of a tribe.
If you share the political leanings of most of the folks you live around, small town life is probably pretty comfortable for you; if you don’t, you might have some trouble making friends. Race and religion are not things anyone should be judged on, but being the only person of a few thousand practicing your religion and speaking your language is at best going to feel a little awkward. Tribes never really have to deal with this stuff, but small towns are pretty expert at keeping the fringe dwellers on the fringes.
You can be one in a thousand in a city, when it comes to your perspective and your habits; but that’s no problem. Lots of other people are one in a thousand in some other way. When you get enough of us together, we can interact peacefully on our way to gatherings of those folks who are into the things we’re into. We can make our own little community within the context of a larger one, and gather people around us that make us feel like we belong. Then, when someone leaves the room…
We can gossip about them.
Thanks for reading!
All the best,