JAY TALKING

Gossip and bond

The Kardashians, and other misbehaving people whom everyone knows, can keep the kampung spirit alive

Sometimes, when the worries of the world are getting me down, I find it is best to devote my mind to meaningless endeavours such as playing Candy Crush, randomly slipping romance novels into the children's section and trying to understand how Keeping Up With The Kardashians continues to thrive.

And so it was that this week, a group of friends of mine convened a viewing/panel discussion of the Kardashians' reality TV show to see what the fuss was all about and, of course, to escape from the dreariness of our own existence so we may, for a fleeting moment, point and laugh at the shallowness of someone else's life.

(That's right, this is how antisocial nerds entertain themselves. I would ask you not to judge me, but that would be extremely hypocritical of myself since I am about to write 800 words about judging other people.)

Anyway, a strange thing happened over the course of the night. You know how sometimes you are really cynical about something but after you watch it with an open mind, you realise it's actually quite awesome?

OK, technically this is not what happened as I watched the Kardashians holidaying in Thailand, but I have come away with a new appreciation of the important role the TV show plays.

After all, Keeping Up With The Kardashians is keeping society functioning.

In fact, I now believe that as many people as possible need to watch this show. The future of the world depends on it.

Now, I didn't just pull this stuff out of thin air. There are genuine, peer-reviewed sociological studies that back this up. I can't name any of them right now, but I assure you they are out there. Let me explain the basic argument I am making by first taking a little trip back into human history.

Ever since the time of the caveman, human society generally functioned by having a set of social norms. For instance, it was considered impolite in prehistoric times to go potty on someone else's sleeping rock. If you were sufficiently lazy, it was permissible to go potty on your own sleeping rock, but it was considered good manners to then put on some deodorant before leaving the cave.

These rules were passed on from generation to generation, from parents to children, mainly through clubbing. Whenever a child misbehaved, the parents would hit him across the head with a club and then he would learn.

But all this begs the question: Who came up with the rules in the first place and how did they spread? How did the first parents know to club their children?

The answer? By watching a primitive version of Keeping Up With The Kardashians.

Just kidding. They didn't have television back then and Bruce Jenner didn't become interesting until he started looking like a plastic doll accidentally left in a hot car.

Nope, the way the rules of society were enforced and promoted were - you guessed it - picture books about penguins.

Kidding again. OK, I'm going to be serious this time. The way they did it was through gossip. That's right, one of our favourite pastimes turns out to have an important social function.

Gossiping about other misbehaving cavepeople helped early society bond and taught newcomers to any group what the rules were. I mean, after attending a cave party during which everyone spends all their time slinging mud at someone for being a jerk, it is inevitable that you feel closer to everyone there and learn what not to do. (Historical note: Early mudslinging was not metaphorical. They would often tie the pariah to a rock and sling mud at his face for sport.)

Granted, gossiping was much more effective back then when people had closer relationships with their community and most people knew someone in common they could gossip about.

This is much harder in today's world, what with your Facebook, Twitter and whatnot. I'm not 100 per cent sure the mechanism in which social media is weakening human connection but everyone on social media is saying this so it must be true.

While gossip is still possible when you have a boss who is a jerk and a black sheep in the family - you should be thankful for these people - it is generally harder to bond an entire community this way because often, many social circles don't overlap. Despite what you may think, your neighbour is not interested in hearing your complaints about your boss.

What we need is someone behaving badly that everyone knows and can complain about together. Hence, the Kardashians.

By allowing cameras to capture all their flaws, imperfections and generally lousy behaviour, they help become society's black sheep. People all around the world can watch and bond and gossip about this group of people they have gotten to know through TV.

And it's not just the Kardashians who can serve as important social missions, although I would argue they are just about the best at it. Justin Bieber can do it too, or Miley Cyrus.

In a world where the kampung spirit is being eroded every day, gossip allows us to hold on to a core part of community living. And we have the Kardashians to thank for that.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg