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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Sen Tim Johnson and the unholy uses of gossip

Sen. Tim Johnson's illness has brought out some of the best in a few people, and the worst in a lot of them. Kathleen Norris in her book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography devotes a chapter to the holy uses of gossip. She recognizes that gossip is the means through which people express their interest and concern for others, and through which we become engaged in the human community. However, her observations are limited to benign gossip. She does not devote much commentary to malicious gossip.

Nor does she go into the personality factors involved in those who try to become the gatekeepers of gossip. This is a familiar type. We have one who is an officer in a corporation in which I also hold an office. [Yes, rightwingers, you can blog about this. It is a business corporation with the purpose of making a profit (well, sometimes remaining solvent). I have current responsibilities with the finances, and I have been president. The blog mob, as Erin calls it, can go on for weeks on my hypocrisy at being involved in a capitalist venture and being a "liberal.'] The personality type to which I refer is one who always has all the inside and correct information on everything that happens in the world. Even if you inform this soul of a transaction that just took place between you and an associate in the privacy of your office, this person already knows about it. And if there is business to be done, this person always knows the "best" people or places to get it done. The telling characteristic is that if another individual comes up in a conversation, this person always has a comment on how defective and untrustworthy the person is. Most of the information this person transmits is false, at least in part. It is used as a posture of power and knowledge, and it usually is smothered by the presence of malice.

Almost every utterance that comes out of people like this damages the human community. Forgive the old professor at work, but "community" is derived from "communication." It defines a group of people who share and exchange information and develop common purposes with it. When communication is deleterious, the community is injured.

That is not to say that the examination and criticism and resulting condemnation of actions and words committed are malicious gossip. That is the function of dialogue. What makes the human community dysfunctional is the ad hominem attack, the distorted, contrived, and resentful representations of other people for the purpose of diminishing them and claiming superiority over them.

And that leads us to the case of Sen. Tim Johnson. Most people seem to wish him a recovery and the resumption of his duties in the Senate. The Johnson family has become an inspiration for those who find themselves beset by illness and misfortune. Barbara is a breast cancer survivor who has traveled the world to encourage women to have regular examinations and take the measures that can defeat this disease. Tim has had a bout with prostate cancer. Now he is recovering from a congential brain malformation that caused bleeding and some brain damage for which he is undergoing rehabilitation. Many people are hoping for the best, because when Tim resumes his Senatorial duties, it will mean a triumph for new knowledge and new procedures for treating brain damage.

I have a personal interest in this, because I inadvertently became part of research studies involving the treatment of aphasia, the loss of word recognition abilities because of brain damage. When a close friend of my family's was beaten with an antique table leg and left for dead, the left side of his brain was severely damaged. I worked with him intensively to help him restore his speech, but I had the help of a young professor and his chair in the communications disorders department at the college where I worked. At the time, researchers were just finding some tantalizing evidence that the brain can repair itself with the proper stimulation. Up to that time, the assumption was that a damaged brain was a dead brain.

My colleague was working on using reading texts and verbal exercises that could re-stimulate the brain into regaining the full powers of word recognition and speech. My role was to help find the texts that worked. The theory was that literary texts which reach into the emotions and the memory as well as the intellect have a powerful effect in restoring verbal powers. Reading to patients, having them read, and talking about the reading has a healing and restorative effect. The process is called bibliotherapy, and it is now used in treating many mental-related illnesses and injuries. The key is in finding texts that engage the individual patient.

I saw the technique put to effective use a year ago when my brother suffered a stroke. The therapists worked him so hard that he complained, but he regained his speech in a few months and was able to resume an independent life. Now rehabilitation people devote as much attention to exercising the brain as they do the body. And the process works.

However, Tim Johnson's illness moved some individuals who use gossip for malevolent purposes to emerge from under their rocks. A medical doctor in California who professed to be an expert in rehabilitative medicine posted a blog giving a prognosis that Sen. Johnson could not regain his powers and should resign. Because of my background in working with aphasia, I seriously doubted that this man was a legitimate M.D. If he abided by the standards of his profession (he did not have any of the diagnostic files on Sen. Johnson) and if he was current in the developments in his own field, he would not make such a specious prognosis. I had a friend in the medical field in California check him out, and he is a licensed practicing physician. But he suspended the standards of his profession in this instance and opted for an unholy use of gossip because of his political creed.

The Aberdeen newspaper, as we sometimes euphemistically call it, published two items that attempted to construe Sen. Johnson's illness into a disability. A woman named Roxanne Gill wrote a letter to the editor calling for Tim to resign because we need two senators. Then a man who is something of a community scourge, Bill Welk, took out a paid advertisement also calling for the Senator to resign.

Our colleague in history, Prof. Bob Thompson, wrote a letter to the editor making these points:

History shows us that Republican Sen. Karl Mundt suffered a stroke in 1969 and died in 1973. In that period of time he remained a U.S. Senator but was unable to participate and never cast a vote. In contrast, Sen. Tim Johnson has been ill for a little more than a month and his condition has been

It is true that South Daktoa has a problem with Sen. John Thune being in the minority party in Congress, under a lame duck president of the same party, but let's have some patience and give Tim Johnson our support during his recovery.

Some outcry was heard when Sen. Johnson was dismissed from the hospital and moved to a rehabilitation facility which his family and staff declined to name. Claims have been made that the public deserves more information on a more timely basis than has been released. The fact is that information on the Senator's condition has been released as promptly and completely as it can be established and verified. Those who object to the confidentiality of the treatment facility are whining because they can't act as gatekeepers for the medical information and have no easy basis for representing their malevolent little conjectures as a prognosis.

At two meetings of the Brown County Democrats last week, Sen. Johnson's staff updated the public on his progress. Barbara says that he has progressed to using multi-syllable words and is keeping up with the news and briefings from his staff. His staff reports that he is reviewing the Whitehouse budget proposal and is engaging in Senate business that does not require his presence on the floor. His main physician has described his recovery as "miraculous."

The only bad news is for the detractors and the would-be informational gatekeepers. The Senator is recovering and we will have two Senators on the floor soon. In the meantime, the purveyors of busy-body conjectures and unholy gossip are limited in how much damage they can inflict on the information environment.

That other poet David wrote about the unholy uses of gossip in Psalm 36:

For they flatter themselves in their own eyes
that their iniquity cannot be found out and hated.

The words of their mouths are mischief and deceit;
they have ceased to act wisely and do good.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States