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Philosophical Currents - Gossip; Gray Fox; Prairie Plates; Tom Isern

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Dr. Jack Russel Weinstein, UND

Today's Segments:

Philosophical Currents - Gossip
With Catherine Middleton's health in the news and tabloids, we look at the role of gossip with philosopher Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein.

Gray Fox
Dave Hoffman, a technician with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and his team use a radio receiver to track and collect data from a male gray fox known as "GF1" to study its habitat and den sites. Amidst concerns over a significant decline in gray fox populations across the Midwest, researchers from multiple states are investigating causes, including disease, habitat loss, and competition with other wildlife, to help the species rebound as we hear in this report from Harvest Public Media.

Prairie Plates
The comfort foods of winter, and the fresh greens of spring. What's not to love about Easter brunch. It's time for Prairie Plates with Rick Gion.

Tom Isern: Plains Folk Essay, "The Most Popular Man"
Herbert M. Larimer, a local schoolteacher and community theater participant, constructed a historical monument in North Dakota to honor pioneers, a project tinged with personal ambition and marked by community involvement, despite his controversial actions and personal setbacks.

Transcript of Philosophical Currents - Gossip

Ashley Thornberg

Jack, thanks so much for joining us today.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

I'm happy to be here. And I was really excited that you mentioned a celebrity that I didn't have to look up. So I'm already a couple of steps ahead of the game than I usually am.

Ashley Thornberg

Do we want to start right there with why this person is considered a celebrity when a few generations ago, there was a point in history when royalty was revered.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

This is really interesting because it switches the idea from a hard power to a soft power. There was a time when the aristocracy was in charge, where the king was a military leader and made the laws. And so the king and his family were people who you had to be aware of because they affected your life profoundly and in ways that you can't prevent.

Now royalty are celebrities. They have a soft power. They can influence through example.

They can influence through social pressure. They can set trends and nudge. And so if some of the royalty wants to have a political opinion, they have to do so subtly or in a way that doesn't affect legislation, but affects the populace.

And so I think a lot of this has to do with just the changing role of what royalty was and what it is now, particularly in the United Kingdom.

Ashley Thornberg

Well, and then stretch that out to the United States, which is not even a part of the Commonwealth. And yet,on NPR's website, this is getting significant coverage and we are not even ruled. We had a war over not being ruled by the United Kingdom and not having a monarchy at all.

So what does it say about at least contemporary U.S. society that there are still a lot of folks talking about this and specifically in legitimate news sources in addition to sort of being tabloid fodder?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Well, Kate Middleton has the trifecta. She's rich, she's attractive, and she's white. And this is also the same kind of thing that motivates coverage on missing children.

We know through the history of media that children of color, poor children, their disappearance doesn't matter as much. But if you get a JonBenet Ramsey or something like that, it becomes a sincere focus of people's attention. People aren't going to investigate King Charles in the same way that they're investigating Kate Middleton because she fits a visual image and she fits a cultural slot that we are used to jumping into.

That Western ideal. That Western ideal, but also that love and interest of our betters, so to speak, right? We think that the rich are better than us.

We think that Brad Pitt is better than us or George Clooney or whomever is relevant these days. We think they're better than us. They have an exciting life.

They get to go wonderful places. They've got money. They've got sex.

They've got everything. And so many of us want so many of those things that what we can do is live vicariously through them. So now something happens that isn't wonderful, but is tragic.

And our vicarious living helps us both feel a little superior, but also very empathetic because what if this were me? What if this were someone I know? Cancer is egalitarian disease.

You can be rich, poor, you can be attractive, you can be unattractive, what have you. And so the power shifts a little bit and now we are in the enviable place and she is not.

Ashley Thornberg

Is the coverage of her news or gossip?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Well, I guess it's a little of both, right? It's news on a slow news day. It doesn't compare to the collapsing of the bridge in Baltimore or something like that.

But at the same time, it's of interest to people. Now, gossip in itself is an industry. Kate Middleton is an employer in the sense that lots of people make money off of her the way that they make money off of Taylor Swift.

They sell T-shirts, they sell posters, they write articles, they do all these things. So in one sense, this is the news industry and an economic necessity. On the other hand, gossip is a very interesting bridge between the public and the private.

Gossip is the way that we talk about things that aren't necessarily on the surface supposed to be talking about. So it's not simply that Kate Middleton has cancer, it's that Kate Middleton has cancer but some people don't trust that and think that something else is going on. Conspiracy theories are soap operas that we play in our head and we're constantly looking for the reveal.

It would be really interesting if it turned out that Kate Middleton didn't have cancer but had given birth to triplets from a secret lover or something like that. People would love that because it's more exciting and it's more positive than cancer. There is something private about a medical diagnosis and there is something very isolating about suffering through an illness because no matter how many people are around you and love you and hold your hand, it's you and your mortality.

And so the fact that this is gossip is a way that we can connect our private and our internal lives with the public in a way that doesn't quite sanction us talking about it. So talking about it in and of itself is kind of titillating.

Ashley Thornberg

I'm not sure if this is genderism or just a natural consequence of me being a woman and more of my friends who are talking about this also being women. But you saying that it might be more interesting if she gave birth to triplets because of an illicit lover whereas most of what I'm hearing in terms of gossip are if it's cancer, it might be HPV that was caused because of a philandering husband or nope, this is a deep fake, she's already dead or she's being thrown under the bus by the royal family and there is a desire to make the entire royal family but most specifically Prince William a villain here. What do you make of that?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

There's a couple things going on here, right? The first is again, that soap opera thing and villains are more interesting than the good guy, right? And there's the always punishing gender attitude that women in the public eye are deserving of being knocked down a peg and clearly we can attack her for her sexuality or what have you, especially again because she's conventionally attractive.

But gossip has almost always been the main purview of women in society because women weren't in charge and they didn't have to use that language again, hard power. What they had was the power of intrigue, the power of whispering, right? If you are a king and you have a harem with 50 wives, the wives are gonna be talking to each other and you're not gonna know what they say and this is how wives communicated with one another.

This in fact goes back all the way back to the classical Greeks in the Western world because women were required to stay home most of the day and then for two hours in the evening, they were allowed to socialize under the watchful eyes of their male family members.

Ashley Thornberg

Oh, there's so many words in that sentence. Allowed, watchful, mm-hmm.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

What's interesting to me and this is a side note is that I actually didn't learn this until about a year ago and I've been studying Greek philosophy for my entire career. It is a well-kept secret because we idolize the Greeks so much and we want them to be a model of democracy but the fact of the matter is that misogyny is probably the oldest prejudice and women have always found ways to use what they have to have power themselves and to have power over the people who allegedly have power over them. There's a great line in the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where one of the women says, the man is the head of the family but the woman is the neck.

She turns the head where she wants it to look and gossip is a tool that can destroy or can celebrate. It's something that can give and something that can take away and so women have always used that ability to talk to each other in secret, especially in places where men aren't, say if they're being isolated because the culture has purification rituals for menstruation or something like that. Men are not going to be there and so the women can talk and control and manipulate and I don't mean that in a negative way, I just mean we all make the most of what power we have and because the history of our cultures is predominantly a patriarchal history, the women are gonna find ways that don't involve swords and tanks and legislation, they involve something else.

Ashley Thornberg

Jack, can gossip be looked at in sort of one of three ways here? Is it sort of middle ground? It's a harmless social lubricant, something we do at the bar or at the water cooler at the office or this is destructive?

You know, there is evidence out there that rumors have been what have started war and big headlines that caused action and behavior and does that undermine social cohesion or is it good because it can build trust? If I tell a secret to someone and I never hear about it again, I can trust that person. If I tell a secret to someone else and then it comes back to me and likely manipulated, I know I can't trust that person anymore.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

What's so interesting about your question is that it can not only be all three but it can be all three at the same time. Gossip is a tool and like all tools, its use is as complicated as the human beings who use it. A hammer can be something that we use to pound a nail, it can be something we use to defend ourselves or it can be a sign of companionship between generations where the mother or the father handed down the family hammer because they're all carpenters or something.

It can mean anything you want and the thing that is so interesting about gossip is like the written word, once you let it out, you have no control of it anymore and this is where the game of telephone comes in and this is where your example of gossip coming back to you, you finding it means something else now comes in because once our words leave our lips, other people can repeat them in any way that they want and that's why there have been times in my life where people have come up to me and said, oh, I heard you said this or why did you insult me that way and often my response is, well, I'm deeply offended that you think that I would even say such a thing because first of all, I'm the kind of guy that tells things to people's face but more important than that, you know this as a fact, right? But more importantly, it's easier to believe things about people when the people aren't in the room.

It's easier to believe that Kate Middleton has some other disease or triplets or something than it would be if we were standing next to her and she's attached to the machine that goes bang, right? It doesn't, the second someone is absent, your imagination which holds their identity, it's in control and so there are a lot of things that I would hear about other people or that other people would hear about me that wouldn't make any sense looking into their eyes. I remember a long time ago, we had a mutual, we had a friend who everyone was saying was having an affair and Kim and I were responding, oh, she'd never do that, blah, blah, blah and of course she was having an affair and everyone knew it and we didn't.

So it goes both ways, right? You can think that a person is worse than they are but you can also think that a person is better than they are and that's the power of gossip. You can hold onto it to have any meaning you want and you can adjust your imagination to believe anything about anybody because in your mind, anything is possible.

Ashley Thornberg

Well, this becomes then a question of the power of belief and if we wanna keep it specific to the Kate Middleton story that we're talking about here, I know people who as soon as they saw the video of her saying that she has cancer, immediately said that's a deep fake, she's already dead, they Diana'd her which already says that they believe that the royal family murdered Diana and that they're doing this to Kate and they just have already decided that. I'm not sure what question to ask here but it sort of comes down to the belief in the stories that we want to hear anyway. It's almost more like public relations versus journalism.

People go where they want to be led, people believe what they want to believe in stories like this.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

I think that's a really important insight to connect it to public relations because of course the royal family made a crucial mistake and that is they released a Photoshopped picture and everyone knew that that Photoshopped picture was off because it got widely reported and the hand was in a weird angle or something like that and so the moment you lie once, then everyone believes you're lying all the time.

The moment you are discovered and exposed then the natural question is what else are you hiding? What else are we going to discover? If they had come out in the very first diagnosis even when there were no visible signs and Kate had said, listen to me talking about her like I know her name, personally Kate.

Well Kate had said to me, I have cancer, I'm going to start to look terrible, I'm going to hide myself from the public. I apologize but can't we be private about this? People would be more accepting and more believing but because they tried to hide it then it opens the door to what else are you hiding?

And so some of this is that we live in the time of conspiracy theories but some of this is bad public relations and a misstep at the moment when it was most important to get it right.

Ashley Thornberg

When you said I'm sorry in that speaking in her voice I really had to say should she have to apologize for something like this? But it brought me back to an early answer where you talked about the role of people like this having the soft power to influence and is there a trade off here? Do you have to give up a certain level of privacy in order to harness the incredible soft power that someone like her wields?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

So there is an expectation of perfection or more that we impose upon her and that by being in the royal family she uses to her advantage and when she falls short of that there is something that wants us to, there's something in us that we wanna hear an apology. I thought of while you were asking the question the song from Evita where Evita Peron is singing about how she let the people down and the lines if I remember correctly are don't cry for me Argentina I was supposed to have been immortal. That's all you wanted it's not much to ask for, right?

People want their leaders, their stars, their celebrities, their idols. They want them to be perfect. They want them to be immortal.

They want them to be unscathed by impurity and they're not. The difference I think, or I don't wanna say the difference. What is interesting though particularly in both the American and the English character is that the only thing we like more than a rise to the top is watching the fall back down to the bottom.

Ashley Thornberg

Oh, what does that say about us?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

We love building up our celebrities and then watching them collapse.

Ashley Thornberg

And is that- Talk about that more because you also earlier said because the villain is more interesting than the hero and just sort of like point blank accept that as fact.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

So there is attention in the fact that we see these people and they have that wealth, that power, that beauty, that sex. And there's part of us that live vicariously through them but there's also part of us that want, I don't know, universal justice. This idea that they have it and we don't.

So you know what? They don't deserve it. If I don't deserve it, they don't deserve it.

So watching them get their imagined comeuppance makes us feel better about not having those things because all of this is about our emotional state. All of this is about the way that we feel about ourselves when we look at ourselves in the mirror. And if someone as let's say talented and successful as Britney Spears has a breakdown and shaves her head, then we can say, she was crazy all the time.

I'm better off being where I am. Not to mention just the sheer entertainment value. Some of this is escapism.

Some of this is the escape of our own mundane lives or our own troubles and our own problems. And we can enjoy the drama because we have chemical reactions in our brain and it gives us good feelings or makes us excited or what have you. Celebrities are people who we impose meaning on.

And when they violate that meaning, it causes us to react in ways that are surprising to ourselves. I think about, and you and I talked about this on Philosophical Currents before, I think about when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars. It instantaneously changed public opinion on Will Smith and there was something invigorating about that.

At that point, Will Smith was just a nice guy and we wished him success. But then all of a sudden, he's this complex, dark guy who's in an abusive marriage and we can shift our sense of who the villain is from him to her. It becomes a Lady Macbeth situation.

And we can start thinking about it again so we have more fuel for our escapism. Human beings want entertainment. We want a tremendous amount of entertainment.

We are tirelessly looking for entertainment and our own lives are rarely entertaining enough because what we are for the most part is exhausted and frustrated that we are not the rich and famous people.

Ashley Thornberg

So does everybody just have delusions of grandeur and incredible imaginations? And is that bad? Is that just literally what it is to be human?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Everyone is the center of their own universe. I do this. I do this.

Ashley Thornberg

Oh, there's a word for when we realize that everyone else is the star of their own universe.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Well, I do this exercise with my students where I say, you know, I'm the center of my own universe. Watch. And I stand in front of them and I spin in a circle and I say, see, everywhere I go, I'm in the middle, right?

We are experiencing creatures and we experience through the eye, through the self and everything in the universe that we experience is filtered through who we are. So it's not narcissistic to say that we are the main characters in our own lives. It's just true.

The thing that we have to do and the moral lessons that we have to both learn and impart is that just because we experience ourselves as the center doesn't mean that we are in fact the center. And the central rule of ethics that every ethicist imparts in one way or another is we are not special. The rules that apply to us apply to other people and the rules that apply to other people apply to us.

And the Kate Middleton saga is a way of telling us that even Kate Middleton isn't special because she too can get cancer.

Ashley Thornberg

Always an intriguing conversation with a philosopher, Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein, a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Dakota and our go-to for philosophical currents when we take a deep dive into why are we talking about the things we're talking about? Jack, thanks as always.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

It is a pleasure.

Ashley Thornberg

And listeners, I did have a chance to Google after that conversation, the word I was looking for a minute ago about when you realize that everyone else is thinking about themselves as the star of their own story. Sonder the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own in which you might appear only once. Happy sondering, everyone.

NOTE: Prairie Public transcripts are created on a rush deadline by turboscribe.ai. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of "Main Street" is the audio record of the show.