Why I Love to Gossip
A few weeks ago, I was introduced to the distinction between “studying down” and “studying up.” While studying down involves analyzing and/or diagnosing the problems within marginalized communities, studying up involves critiquing power dynamics and identifying different forms of oppression carried out by privileged groups. Studying down reinforces existing power dynamics by blaming the marginalized for their oppression and encouraging them to take personal responsibility for addressing their suffering; studying up seeks to challenge the status quo and urge those with privilege to recognize and give up (or be forced to give up) some of their power. The distinction between studying down and studying up is an extremely useful one.
I believe that a similar distinction is called for when it comes to gossip. In other words, there is a difference between “gossiping down” and “gossiping up.” Gossiping down is when we spread rumors or insults about those with less power than ourselves - usually, those with less social or financial capital than us, or those who are less accepted and valued than we are. Gossiping up is when we critique those who have more power and privilege than we do. Sometimes, gossiping up involves critiquing the people in power in our family system, school system, or workplace (e.g. parents, teachers, supervisors); other times it involves critiquing people with political power or social power.
The thing about gossip is that it’s incredibly powerful. As I’ve discussed in other blog posts (like this one about Taylor Swift), gossip is an assertion of knowledge, a claim to know something about a person that they don’t even know about themselves. Or, in the case of a rumor, it is a claim to know something about a person that they don’t want anyone else to know. It is not so much the content of the gossip as much as the secrecy and stealth of the gossipers that makes it so powerful. The person being gossiped about is no longer treated as an adequate source of information about themselves; they are not consulted or asked for their opinion or feelings on the matter being discussed. Their position as an authoritative knower of their own motives, thoughts, emotions, and actions is brought into question.
So, it’s easy to see why gossiping down can not only be hurtful but in some ways violent and abusive. Gossiping down is often a form of epistemic injustice, i.e. discrediting a person’s capacity as a knower of themselves and their own experiences. We are quick to gossip about people with mental health diagnoses as dangerous or irrational; we often judge people who are unemployed or receiving disability benefits as lazy or unproductive; we love to whisper to each other about the weirdo who won’t make eye contact or the creep who’s just too clingy. These experiences deny the individuals being judged or gossiped about the authority to define and characterize their own experiences - the ways that “mental illness” can be a quite rational response to external circumstances, or the types of labor that unemployed and disabled people perform every day that are not monetarily compensated, or the importance of questioning arbitrary social norms like mandatory eye contact. Gossiping down not only makes a value judgment about the external actions a person is engaging in but also makes an assumption about why they are engaging in those actions and the meaning behind them - in other words, gossiping down defines and explains a person’s internal experience without their consent or input.
I have been on the receiving end of gossiping down too many times. Needless to say, it is not the kind of gossip I love.
The kind of gossip I love is gossiping up. Gossip is powerful, alright, and gossiping up can be an important way for marginalized groups and individuals typically in a position of powerlessness to gain power. I see gossiping up as a form of quiet, subtle, stealthy rebellion. Gossiping up is a small but powerful way to undermine the authority of those who are traditionally seen as having capacity as knowers, not just of themselves and their own experiences but of others and others’ experiences. Gossiping up is a way to assert an alternative claim to knowledge besides the dominant one that is usually taken for granted or accepted as fact.
If you’ve read other blog posts on Radical Abolitionist, you probably know that I love gossiping about psychiatrists. Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals are seen as the all-powerful knowers and understanders of mad people and their experiences - they are the ones who can best describe, characterize, and predict the motives, emotions, and behaviors of people in distress. They have the power to diagnose - to ascribe language to our own internal experiences - and to decide what type of treatment is best from us (and will keep the public safest from us). Gossiping about psychiatrists is an important way to assert an alternative claim to knowledge - the radical idea that we can define our own experiences, and that we know what is best for ourselves. When psychiatrists gossip about mad people (because, let’s be real, that’s what a lot of psychiatry is), it is a form of denying us agency over our own bodyminds. When mad people gossip about psychiatrists, it is a way to re-establish our expertise over our own experiences and our own authority as knowers of ourselves. It is a way to take back power.
But mainstream psychiatrists aren’t the only group I love to gossip about. I also love to gossip about some ideas and positions promoted by the critical psychiatry community - for example, the idea that psychiatric drugs are the cause of all madness, or that people with psychiatric diagnoses should be coerced to engage in yoga or meditation to recover instead of using psychiatric drugs, or the idea that people with mental health diagnoses should not receive disability accommodations since “mental illness” is not biological. While these ideas are critical of the biomedical paradigm of psychiatry, they do not challenge the assumption that mad people need to be spoken for, explained, or treated by people with authority as knowers and experts - people who are deemed experts not due to experiencing madness but due to years of studying and diagnosing the problems of mad people (studying down).
For me, gossiping about these aspects of the critical psychiatry community is not only a way to assert an alternative claim to knowledge but to gain a better sense of who I am and who I am not. In rejecting these aspects of critical psychiatry, I am able to better know what kind of activism I do want to engage in (namely, the kind that is pro-disability and opposed to any kind of pressure to recover). The critical psychiatry community is one group that rejects psychiatry and while they do not have quite the same level of power and influence as psychiatry, they have gained a great deal of traction in the public eye over the past few years. Gossiping up about some of the harmful aspects of the community is a way for me to carve out a space to critique the power dynamics in psychiatry without espousing some of the more harmful ideas or messages promoted by many in the critical psychiatry community. It is also a way for me to find community and solidarity with others who share my vision and values - who believe that mad people should be able to define their own experiences and identities, which means the right to choose whether or not to take drugs or engage in any form of treatment/recovery, as well as the right to receive accommodations and have their limitations recognized as real.
I think there is a societal tendency to declare that all gossip is wrong and harmful, and to treat gossiping up and gossiping down as the same phenomenon. I believe it would be much more useful to distinguish between the two types. We can work to put an end to gossiping down while encouraging marginalized communities and ostracized individuals to arm themselves with the subtle, stealthy, and powerful weapon of gossiping up.