Outrage culture is a term coined for public shaming and reviling of people for usually minor offenses related to political identity narratives ( feminism, LGBT activism and Afrocentrism). It also denotes the “going viral” on social media of opprobrium against a particular person that often involves demands that they be fired ( and other unpleasant things happen to them). This mentality treats an accusation as being enough to establish wrongdoing and reviles the accused. In what follows, I won’t try to explain public shaming as a practice in every context or culture, but only the recent surge of public shaming practice ( but not exhaustively). It is quite possible that in different periods of history and different cultures, the motivations for public shaming are different, even if there are some fundamental commonalities.
The Receding of Christianity and Forgiveness
I believe one fundamental reason for the recent surge in public shaming is the receding of Christianity’s influence on the public consciousness, and of the primacy of forgiveness as a central virtue. Outrage culture events seem to occur mostly on Twitter and at prestigious universities, first in the United States and then also elsewhere in the English-speaking world. Media organizations often reinforce this outrage culture and public shaming, and journalists in the English-speaking world seem mostly secular. That is to say, the outrage culture is most pronounced among Western cultural elites who are post-Christian and who have a basically secular outlook on the world, even if there is some nominal belief in some sort of god or supernatural reality left, or a fascination with eastern mysticism.
Forgiveness, at a basic level, just means the foregoing of vengeance; not trying to get even; not thinking you know what someone deserves and not trying to give them what you think they deserve. The central symbol of Christianity is the cross. That cross signifies atonement and forgiveness that is available to everyone, no matter what they’ve done. On the cross was someone who was not merely publicly shamed in the worst way possible, but also tortured and then executed. The person who was crucified himself taught a very radical and unconditional forgiveness, that involves not merely the foregoing of vengeance, but actively loving the wrongdoer. “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.…” (Matthew 5:44). It is not simply that Christianity commands us to forgive unconditionally, but that forgiveness is part of the fabric of reality in Christianity. It structures the Christian way of looking at reality and the course of history: the God who forgives. One thing that is not often quoted about Jesus’s teaching is that it is very severe toward the unforgiving, and maintains that God will not forgive you if you don’t forgive those who sin against you. “But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:15). This includes the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, which I think is one of the scariest of Jesus’s parables (Matthew 18:21-35):
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.
“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Note especially how the parable concludes: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Even some Christians argue that forgiveness should be conditional not unconditional – that the person who offended you must first be repentant before you can forgive them. But this is quite clearly not what Jesus taught. He tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. This is present tense. This means we must love them and pray for them even as they are doing these wrongs against us. This is clearly unconditional and it is reemphasized in Romans 12:14-17. Also, Jesus himself forgave people without them offering any repentance ( Luke 23:34). Jesus forgives the Roman soldiers who crucifies him. In order to pray that God forgives them, it seems clear he needs to have forgiven them himself. If he wants God to forgive them, this means he has goodwill for them and does not want them to be punished for what they did to him. If we have to follow his example, as the Bible says we should, then we must do the same. As far as I can tell, everywhere Jesus, and the rest of the Bible, gives the command to forgive, the condition that they must first repent is not expressed. The only reason given for having to forgive them is that God has forgiven us (Colossians 3:13, Ephesians 4:32, Matthew 18:33). The only place I know of which possibly puts that as a condition on forgiveness is Luke 17:4. If that is your only leg to stand on for conditional forgiveness, it’s a very shaky one, considering how high the stakes are.
To say that you only have to forgive if someone has apologized raises the following problems, which are clearly contrary to Christian morality and theology:
- If you don’t have to forgive unless someone repents, then you are justified in trying to get even with them until they repent. In other words, you can be vengeful until they repent. If that is not what it means to refuse forgiveness, then what does it mean to refuse to forgive until someone repents? This is clearly against Biblical ethics, not just the New Testament, but also the Old Testament. In several places it is emphasized that we should not repay evil for evil and should not take revenge of any kind (Leviticus 19:18, Deuteronomy 32:35, Proverbs 20:22, Romans 12:17, Proverbs, 19:11, Proverbs 12:16, Proverbs 17:9) . In none of these places is the condition expressed that they must first repent toward you. The Bible teaches repeatedly that having ill will toward anyone regardless of what they have done, is wrong. Being motivated by someone else’s disadvantage and destruction is always wrong in every circumstance, no matter if they’ve repented or not. This includes Romans 12:19, which says to never take revenge:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
- If you only have to forgive if someone repents, then this presupposes that you know that what was done against you was truly wrong and how wrong it was. Perhaps you are not correct that that you have been wronged or perhaps you are wrong in thinking it a severe wrong. In the former case, the person is not wrong in failing to repent. This elevates human moral judgments against someone else too much. It places you in the place of God in determining whether their repentance has been genuine. What if they never apologize to your face, but changed their behaviour? What if they do change their behaviour, but you never notice it, either because you are no longer really involved in their lives or because they live somewhere else? What if they do not change their behaviour, but it simply appears to you that they have? What if they apologize to your face but never change? You are not in a position to judge someone else’s moral character and the state of their heart, which means you cannot judge whether someone truly has repented or not. You do not have nearly enough information about someone’s intentions, motivations, or even the patterns of their actions to make an accurate judgment regarding this.
In researching this post, it was concerning to me just how much material there is online arguing for a limited and proscribed understanding of forgiveness as conditional. I will return to this topic for a future post.
Scapegoating and Sacrifice
As I’ve written in a previous post, the abandonment of Christianity has a different and related consequence. All human beings have a sense of shame. We all feel that there is something wrong with us. As a result we need to justify ourselves. We need to show ourselves and the world that we are good and righteous and worthwhile. One of the ways that we do this and that human beings have done in history, is to cast our wrongs onto another person or animal and then punish them for it. In Christianity, the person of Jesus fulfills this role for us. He was punished for our transgressions. But without that, what happens then? If somebody’s wrong is revealed, I believe one of the reasons this becomes a scandal and sensation is precisely because of our desire to absolve ourselves. We comfort ourselves by looking at the wrongdoing of others. This gives us the license to say that we are not all that bad after all. We decrease our own sense of shame by looking at the shame of others. We emphasize our own goodness by looking at the badness in others. But this is a form of scapegoating; of justifying ourselves morally through the wrongs and punishment of someone else. It is a type of human sacrifice, but in a “social” rather than physical sense.
Human Beings are Basically (Morally) Good
The idea that human beings are basically good in a moral sense and well-intentioned is a very common assumption and you will see it often in popular culture. That humans are basically good, we are told, is an Enlightenment idea in contradiction with the primitive and backward notion that humans are basically evil and sinful, which is what Christianity teaches. The Christian doctrine of Original Sin does not imply that everything about human nature is wrong, because we are still made by God and in the image of God, but that we have been seriously corrupted by sin and, in a moral sense, we are not basically good. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, claimed that humans are born good but are corrupted by society ( even though it is probably the other way around). This assumption is behind many revolutionary and anarchist tendencies. The idea that human beings are basically good is popular. Influential media companies endorse the view, claiming that “science shows” it to be true. See here and here for more information. There’s a scene in the movie, Secondhand Lions, where Robert Duvall’s character (Hub) includes the belief that humans are basically good as something that every man should know. Why would this seemingly positive and optimistic belief fuel and encourage public shaming and outrage culture? There are a couple of reasons.
If human beings are believed to be basically good, and people generally believe themselves to be basically good, then as soon as it is revealed that someone has done something wrong, especially seriously wrong, they seem “other.” That is to say, when we believe that society is made up mostly of good people, the bad people seem so much more bad in comparison. Badness and immorality is not seen as a general human problem, but as an aberration in an otherwise good society. People who are identified as bad become a different species; less than human. We don’t see wrongdoing as a general problem, and so individuals whose wrongdoing are exposed and promoted by the society are singled out especially for it and become scapegoats. If someone is dehumanized, then it is fine to treat them horribly and to believe that every wrong against them is then justified. There is a well-known story in the gospel of John, where Jesus finds himself in the middle of a public accountability process. A woman has been caught in adultery and is about to be stoned. The scribes and Pharisees ask Jesus what should be done with her. Jesus responds, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7) There is no longer a widespread and fundamental recognition that we are all wrongdoers and sinners, which means that those who are ( mostly arbitrarily) singled out for moral derision will not be treated well, because people will recognize nothing of themselves in the wrongdoer.
Another reason the belief that human beings are basically good fuels Outrage Culture is because this belief serves as a psychological defense mechanism. Religious people believe that God protects us and has control of our destinies, so that even if bad things happen, it will be okay. Secular people don’t have access to this belief, so they must find something else to make the uncertainty and perils of the world bearable. The belief that human beings are basically good replaces the belief in God’s providence and protection. Instead of God providing, human society will provide. Instead of God protecting, human society will protect. It’ll be okay because humans are basically good. They probably won’t do terrible things against me. I can count on them to get me out of a bad place if I find myself in one. So the presence of someone who has done something wrong or severely wrong is difficult to process for someone with this belief, especially one who relies on it as a way to feel safe. They are disturbed not merely by the fact that someone has done something wrong, but by the fact that they reached high places in a society of good people who are supposed to be able to spot and weed out badness. This creates existential angst for such people. There is deep fear produced by wrongdoers, even a panic. People who act primarily out of fear will not act rightly.
Finally, the belief that people are basically good also creates the impression that accusation is enough to establish guilt. People are good, so they won’t make false accusations. This belief makes it feel unlikely, if not impossible, that someone will make false or exaggerated accusations. It makes any demand for further investigation seem implausible and therefore such a demand must be driven by ulterior motivations. Since accusation is enough to establish guilt, very basic gestures of fairness toward the accused are thrown out and we have a primitive mob justice.
The Worship of Public Opinion
There is a long history in philosophy to the idea of historicism. This is the notion that human history is moving inexorably in a particular direction, usually a direction of progress, or that the march of history has a particular significance for various areas of human life or knowledge. Hegelian and Marxist ideologies both rely to some extent or another on this notion. Hegelian philosophy makes divine the the process by which a society reaches consensus in that the mind of God is actualized through many human minds. In other words, Hegel seemed to advocate a type of “social pantheism” that identified God with state and society. The philosopher Karl Popper connected the Hegelian deification of state and society with 20th century totalitarianism ( Nazism and Communism) in The Open Society and Its Enemies. In the 19th century, Darwinism, especially Social Darwinism and eugenics, along with the Industrial Revolution fed strongly into this idea that human society is driven inevitably toward progress.
A similar idea to this can be seen in many places in our society, especially in modern civil rights ideology, or “identity politics” (I use the term “civil rights” here very loosely as I don’t believe those busy with identity politics are busy with civil rights). It is common to justify causes that operate in the name of civil rights through historicist ideas of Progress. When Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, was asked to justify why he wanted half his cabinet to be women, he responded “Because it’s 2015.” The implication is that the passage of time must necessitate progress or that moral progress is connected to the passing of time in some way. Similarly, when the actor Chris Evans was asked whether he supports same-sex marriage, he responded:
Are you kidding me? It’s insane that civil rights are being denied people in this day and age. It’s embarrassing, and it’s heartbreaking. It goes without saying that I’m completely in support of gay marriage. In 10 years we’ll be ashamed that this was an issue.
Here again we find the suggestion that because it’s “this day and age”, we should believe in same-sex marriage. Also, the fact that our descendants or the future social consensus will be ashamed of current opposition to same-sex marriage, is presented as an argument or support for the claim that we should support it. After all, you don’t want to be on the “wrong side of history.” If you pay attention, you will find this type of thinking all over the place, but especially in political identity narratives.
Why would the fact that everybody accepts it in the future mean that we should accept it now? People are then shamed by the idea that their descendants will be ashamed of them, although it is not clear why it should. This is based on a historicist logic of progress in civil rights and on the idea that public opinion has a great deal of moral authority. This type of thinking justifies itself by saying there has been an arc of indisputable progress in the past 150 years or so. First, the end of slavery, then women’s enfranchisement, then the end of racial enfranchisement and the start of universal enfranchisement, then the end of segregation, then second-wave feminism, and now the new thing is gay marriage (although I don’t believe the last two are good developments). The pattern that is noticed is that these changes are first opposed and then universally accepted as obvious, but the locus of moral authority is wrongly identified as the public opinion which eventually accepts them. This type of thinking takes it as a moral and metaphysical vindication that everybody eventually accepts a particular belief as true. But what causes everybody to believe something is influenced by many factors, most of which has nothing to do with the truth of the matter or its morality. In particular, it has much more to do with power, PR, spin and advertising, and the competing of interests, than with morality and truth. We can also clearly see many times in history where what was generally accepted as self-evident was wrong. So why would modern civil rights ideology take the general acceptance of an opinion as a moral vindication? The thing that makes social changes right has nothing to do with how many people accept them and to argue from this is ultimately nihilistic, because it implies a social relativism in morality.
So many things have been generally accepted which are not true. Historicist ideas of progress purport that the present is by definition better than the past and the future will be better still. But more than just civil rights ideology, this idea that the modern or new is automatically good, and traditional or old automatically bad, is found in almost every corner of our society. Even some of our colloquialisms make this assumption, like calling people “backward” when they adhere to old or traditional beliefs. It is impossible to escape it. The new gauge of moral truth is whether you accept whatever our descendants will treat as obvious, as though the unanimity of a particular opinion means that it has moral authority. The belief in Progress as historical destiny feels plausible because the West has been blessed by wonderful developments in the past two-hundred or so years, not just scientific and technological, but also political. Political systems have become more humane, there has been an explosion of technological advances and our scientific knowledge has grown a great deal. It is important for people to understand that the trend in the West in the past 200 hundred years is extremely rare in human history and there is certainly no guarantee that it will continue.
The belief that human beings are basically good also clearly undergirds the worship of public opinion. If human beings are basically good, then the things they believe will generally be good, especially if they come to conclusions collectively. The worship of public opinion also creates a desperation to be generally accepted or believed by everyone, which I think one can see in LGBT activism and some feminist rhetoric. To people who come out of this ideological backdrop, bringing your case before the public is like pleading your case before God.
More than this, if you remove God from the equation and the new measure of morality is social consensus on a particular matter, then public opinion becomes the new arbiter of moral justice, instead of God. This provides a fundamental rationale for public shaming. Since public opinion determines what is true and just, it is what holds people accountable and therefore the “public has a right to know” about every wrong under the sun. If people don’t know, who will hold it accountable? If God is not the defender of truth and justice, who is? If God will not “render each man according to his works”, who will? The realization of this power vacuum has one of at least two outcomes. The first is a totalitarian state where every moral and immoral act is legislated and people are under close surveillance to ensure compliance. The second possible outcome is a society where social sanction must replace God as the new defender of moral justice. This stands in contrast to the way Christians understand how moral wrongdoing is held accountable, as expressed in Romans 12:19, quoted earlier:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
If public sanction is the new locus of moral justice, then the public has a right to know about every single wrong committed and there is no more justification for privacy. The combination of the public accountability model, promoted by journalists and media companies, combined with the belief that everybody is basically good, renders plausible the idea that wrongdoers of any kind should not have any privacy. Any attempt at secrecy is then culpable. To some extent, it legitimizes gossip and backbiting as an accountability practice.
This is how the news media attempted to discredit Christian fundamentalism or any pastor who had political influence: by revealing any private wrongdoing they may be engaged in, then ridiculing and reviling them for it. This discrediting, however, relies on a logical fallacy known as “appeal to hypocrisy”. (Just because someone is a hypocrite, doesn’t mean that what they believe is wrong or untrue.) Also, it is clearly true that everybody who tries to live according to a robust and substantial set of moral rules will sometimes fail to do so. Nevertheless, it was effective as a strategy and it set a precedent, or at least continued a precedent, for how the public deals with wrongdoing, especially by public figures. This model of accountability denies the wisdom that one should keep the secrets of one’s friends, family and acquaintances, and that doing otherwise is a a betrayal of their trust. Proverbs 11:13 tells us the following:
A gossip betrays a confidence,
but a trustworthy person keeps a secret.
This worship of public opinion stands in contrast to the way Christians have always understood human society. Quite the contrary of believing that widespread belief in something indicates its goodness, Christianity teaches instead that widespread social agreement on something has no moral authority, and may even indicate that it is suspect. In speaking to the Pharisees, who “loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (John 12:43), Jesus says the following (Luke 16:15):
And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”
Similarly, Jesus warns those who are popular in the following way (Luke 6:26):
Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.
Similarly, the New Testament frequently condemns an attachment to the world, because it is evil:
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not from the Father but from the world.…
And in James 4:4:
You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
The New Testament also understood the world to be under Satan’s power, with frequent references to the “prince of this world” (John 14:30) or the “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Even Christian ideas that gain power are always twisted and corrupted as they climb the rungs of influence.
Public opinion is fickle, empty and often evil. It is foolish to put any trust in it and it is certainly not the appropriate authority for moral justice.
Moral sentimentalism is the idea that morality is defined by how one feels about a particular act. This can also be called moral intuition, but it refers to the same thing: a feeling that something is wrong or right. Some form of moral sentimentalism arguably dominates much of modern secular thought about morality and it is also found repeatedly in popular culture. For example, it is common to believe that it is feelings of sympathy or empathy that are the foundation of morality. This is in contrast to the idea that morality is obeying the commands of God as expressed in the Bible, regardless of how one feels about them. Moral sentimentalism easily lends itself to mob justice for two reasons. First, someone who believes in moral sentimentalism, and locates the authority of morality in emotions, is more likely to indulge anger that arises as a result of wrong and is more likely to see this anger as right, and to regard anything it prompts them to do as right. Also, since we are social creatures we are deeply influenced by what those around us are doing, such emotions become contagious. It feels good to be righteously angry about something and if the people around you are also moral sentimentalists then they are also more likely to surrender to their moral anger that you have influenced them to adopt, and to surrender more completely. The dark side of moral sentimentalism is part of the lesson of Paul Bloom’s book Against Empathy.