The Atlantic just ran an article called Have You Heard? Gossip Is Actually Good and Useful. The teaser was, "Talking behind other people's backs may not always be nice, but sometimes it can help promote cooperation and self-improvement." It is a very interesting read. You could discuss it from a number of different angles. This paragraph really caught my attention:
As the study explains, “by hearing about the misadventures of others, we may not have to endure costs to ourselves,” by making the same mistake. And because negative stories tend to stick better in the mind than positive stories, it makes sense that gossip about people who violated norms would be more instructive than gossip about people who are really great at norms. (What’s more, one study found that sharing a negative opinion of a person with someone is better for bonding with them than sharing a positive opinion.)
It strikes me that a considerable portion of political discourse plays a similar role. A small group of people are having a conversation when someone offhandedly makes a disparaging remark about a politician, a political party, or a public policy. Joe says, "Did you see the news today that this is the 17th straight year where global temps have not increased? So much for global warming." (Or "Did you see the news about the ice caps becoming 10% smaller over the last year? How does anyone deny global warming?") Though it may appear on the surface that the remark is inviting discussion, most often it is not. It is being deployed as means of reinforcing social cohesion. And woe to you if you are not discerning enough to know the difference.
The "appropriate" response is to affirm what has been said with your own comments. As members of the group hear each other express affirming remarks, group solidarity is built. And as the article suggests, affirming negative opinions seems more potent. Knowing that we all have a common view on this one topic builds a basis for cohesion as we move on to more interaction. It isn't just a philosophical excercise to challenge the remark, it is a threat to group solidarity.
That leaves a dissenter in a difficult place, espeically if he has been public at all with a differing view. If you join in with the affirming chorus, then you may soon be outed as a hypocrite. If you challenge the remark, then you will be seen as a troublemaker. If you say nothing, then your views may later be discovered and you will be percieved as being decietful. It is a bit of a minefield.
Another layer to this is that sometimes the person inititating the remark knows that a member(s) of the group has differing views. By making the disparaging remark, she signals others to rally to her flag with affirming remarks, putting the dissenter in an awkward or defensive posture. It is an attempt to dominate and enforce solidarity.
The idea that talking about others behind their backs and sharing a common disapproval of others generates social cohesion poses some challenging questions for discipleship. I once read that not every movement needs a god but every movement needs a Satan. I doubt it is possible to fully escape this dynamic. I have no easy answers. But I suspect if our aim is to love our neighbor as ourself, then maybe the first place to begin is by deeply listening to our casual conversations, conciously evaluating what we intend to accomplish with the views we express in any given context.