Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Religion and Learning to be a Node

A short excerpt from zeroth draft of chapter "Learning to be a node"

The chapter is about how social networks depend on competent nodes and how competent nodes are made rather than born.  I show how primary and secondary socialization help us learn what we can tell to whom when.  Other sections in the chapter are about children as spies; discretion as a social achievement; humor, drama and the incompletely socialized node; the social organization of omniscience; and the social control of nodes in corporations and states.
For Jews and Christians, the most well known religious exhortation about information behavior is probably the commandment "thy shall not bear false witness" (Exodus 20:16, Deuteronomy 5:20), but sacred texts are rich in behavioral guidance for nodes in social networks.  The admonitions are general guides for information behavior and suggest misgivings about humans as untutored nodes in community communication networks.
The most basic suggestion is to err on the side of silence.  Imam Nawawi, the 13th century Islamic commentator,[1] says 
"It is obligatory for every sane adult to guard his tongue against talking, except when it contains a clear benefit. If talking and remaining silent are of equal benefit, it is sunnah (normative) to abstain, for permissible talking might lead to something undesirable or forbidden, as in fact is very often the case, and nothing matches safety."
The book of Proverbs (21:23) suggests "Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble" and in Ecclesiastes (3:7) we are reminded that there is "a time to keep silence, and a time to speak."  In the Christian New Testament, Saint Paul exhorts the Ephesians  to "[l]et no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear" (4:29). The Koran is on the same page: "He does not utter a [single] word, except that there is, with him, [an angel] ready and waiting [to record it]" (50:18).
The baseline recommendation, then, for nodes is mindfulness about what they transmit; in a word, nodes should not always be "on." But all of these traditions go into greater specificity about what responsible and socially competent nodes should and should not "put on the network."
Both Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions address gossip and "tale-telling" as a continuum of network behaviors that require regulation. Three levels are specified in the Torah: mere idle talk; negative truths about others; and negative falsehoods about others. The first, Avak lashon harah, follows from the suggestion to err on the side of silence, prohibiting rechilut or “peddling,” prattling on, repeating things for the sake of repeating them (Leviticus 19:16).  A more serious network sin is for a node to be a conduit for negative information, even if it is true, unless it is specifically intended to improve a bad situation.  Lashon hara means repeating negative truths.  The most serious infraction is Hotzaat shem ra, slander or defamation through spreading untrue negative things about others.
This suggests an awareness that a community depends on actors to socially attenuate what gets through to the network, to apply generic content rules to what they do and do not transmit.  And nodes are not only prohibited from sending gossip along, they are actually also enjoined from Mekabel lashon harah, accepting and believing gossip or slander (Pesachim 118a).  This is, perhaps, a recognition that the temptation to pass gossip along is so strong that the only way to avoid it is to prevent the information's arrival in the first place.
In Sharia law, slander, gossip, and backbiting, or "ghiba" is regarded as a major sin, perhaps more serious than adultery (Al-Ghazali 2008):
"O you who believe! Avoid much suspicion, for some suspicions are a sin. Do not spy on one another, nor backbite one another. Would one of you love to eat the flesh of his dead brother? Nay, you would abhor it, [so similarly, avoid backbiting]. And fear Allah. Indeed, Allah is Most Forgiving, Most Merciful." (Qur'an, [49:12])
The excessive attention given in these traditions to the regulation of gossip suggests a keen awareness of the deleterious effects of unregulated communication networks. In the book of Proverbs the transmission of gossip is connected to social conflict: "Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down" (26:20) and the destruction of relationships: "He who covers over an offense promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends" (Proverbs 17:9). These traditions are also aware of the non-linear effects of deviant information transmission; in the epistle of James we read "The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell" (James 3:5-6).
Too, nodes are admonished to eschew second hand information:  "And do not follow that of which you do not have knowledge. Indeed, the hearing, the sight and the heart - [you] will be asked about all of those" (Qur'an, [17:36]).
In these sources we even find attention being paid to the micro-sociological aspects of nodal behavior. Rashi, the medieval Torah commentator, notes that winking is a behavior common among those who would traffic in gossip. "To eat the food of winking" was understood as a way of sealing the deal – you spread gossip and your willingness to break break proves your sincerity but the winking part means that some folks are in on it and know it is gossip while those unsuspecting hearers take it as reportable truth. [2]
The counsel to prefer silence is not an absolute that would shut networks down.  Believers are reminded that even as they are enjoined from spreading malicious gossip, nodes still have obligations upon receiving certain kinds of information:
If you hear it said about one of the towns the LORD your God is giving you to live in that wicked men have arisen among you and have led the people of their town astray, saying, "Let us go and worship other gods" (gods you have not known), then you must inquire, probe and investigate it thoroughly. Deuteronomy 13:12-15
Another aspect of being a competent node is to wisely pick the nodes to which you are connected.  The Book of Proverbs suggests that gossip reveals meta-information about the gossiping node:
With his mouth the godless destroys his neighbor, but through knowledge the righteous escape... A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret (Proverbs 11: 9;13).
A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much (Proverbs 20:19).
This same observation also shows up in a Spanish proverb, "Quienquiera chismea a ti chismeará sobre ti"( 2007): Whoever gossips to you will gossip about you. ( 2013). Publilius Syrus, a first century BC wit also counseled picking friends on the basis of their nodal competence: "Count not him among your friends who will retail your privacies to the world" ( 2013)(Wikipedia Editors 2013). Horace (65BCE-8BCE) gives similar advice: "Percunctatorem fugito, nam garrulus idem est; / Nec retinent patulæ commissa fideliter aures" : Avoid an inquisitive person, for he is sure to be a gossip; ears always open to hear will not keep faithfully what is intrusted to them (Wood 1899).


  1. Al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid Muhammad. 2008. “TheRules of Backbiting.” Qibla - for The Islamic Sciences.
  2. 2007. “Cotizaciones y Refranes Del Chisme.”
  3. Wikipedia Editors. 2013. “Publilius Syrus.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.
  4. Wood, James. 1899. Dictionary of Quotations From Ancient and Modern, English andForeign Sources. London, New York: Frederick Warne & Co. .
  5. 2013. “Gossip Quotes.” WorldofQuotes.

[1] Nawawi (1234–1277 CE) wrote about Fiqh, an expansion of conduct rules found in the Quran,
 and hadith which are reports of the sayings of the prophet.

[2] See Vayikra - Leviticus - Chapter 19.  Note emphasis there on spying on your neighbors so you could talk about them.  This relates directly to the material on children as spies.

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