New York Times writer Tim Kreider coined the term, “Outrage Porn,” to describe what he sees as our culture’s insatiable search for things to be offended by.
Based on hundreds of comments and letters to the editor, Kreider says that many contemporary people feed off of feeling 1) right and 2) wronged. “Outrage Porn” resembles actual pornography in that it aims for a cheap, temporary thrill at the expense of another human being, but without any personal accountability or commitment to that human being.
It often escalates into the public shaming of groups and persons. Labeling, caricature and exclusion occur as offended parties rally together against a common enemy.
There are many forms of online shaming: The angry blog, the critical tweet, the vicious comment on Facebook. Whatever the method—people try to hurt people. Sometimes the shaming escalates into a mob, a faux-community that latches on to the negative verdict and piles on. Under the pretense of righteous indignation, the mob licks its chops as it goes about demonizing, diminishing and destroying its target.
The Power of Shame
Andy Stanley once said in a sermon that it would take just five poorly chosen words, spoken in the wrong setting, to destroy him personally and professionally. This nightmare came true for Justine Sacco, a PR consultant who posted an offensive tweet—just 12 words to her 170 followers—while boarding a flight to South Africa.
When her plane landed, Sacco discovered that her tweet had gone viral. In a few short hours she had become the headline, the inhumane bigot and common enemy to tens of thousands of people. On the basis of those 12 words, she lost her career and the life she once knew. (She’s also featured in journalist Jon Ronson’s new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.)
Looking back on the incident, Sacco reflected:
“I had a great career, and I loved my job, and it was taken away from me, and there was a lot of glory in that. Everybody else was happy about that.”
Imagine for a moment. Your entire life, all you had ever done or worked for, reduced to a single, 10-second lapse in character and judgment. And those who brought you down? They never met or heard of you before today, and will never again think of you after today. To those who brought you down, your name was never sacred. Rather, it was a product—Outrage Porn—to be consumed and evangelized as the latest cheap thrill.
Your character assassins will never have to look you in the eye. Nor will they be held accountable for turning you into a nothing, or for their blatant disregard for your whole, image-bearing person.
Scripture and Shame
Outrage Porn is not new. The holier-than-thou New Testament Pharisees “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and looked down on others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). It’s there in Simon the Pharisee as he shames the woman anointing Jesus with perfume and washing his feet with her tears and hair. She is “a sinner.” Not a person, but a thing. Not a woman, but an animal. Not the image of God, but sub-human trash (Luke 7:36-50).
It’s also there in those who brand the woman caught in adultery with a Scarlet Letter. The mob encircles her, ready to pile on and destroy. Had Jesus not intervened, they would have destroyed her just like the Internet mob destroyed Justine Sacco for her single act, the act that she apologized for through tears. But apologies don’t make good stories, do they? They aren’t as tweetable.
What Shame Tells Us About Ourselves
The pious Pharisee’s bravado and righteous indignation is just a mask for self-justification. Forming a mob around a common enemy—around “the sinners”—was the groupthink of deeply insecure, small men looking for a way to medicate their own small egos at the expense of a scapegoat—a scapegoat who was no more shame-worthy than they.
When tempted to join the mob and to shame, maybe we should shift our eyes from the computer screen to the mirror. Maybe we should ask ourselves why we, too, enjoy the caricature and the labeling. Maybe we should ask ourselves why we, too, are prone to “like” and “share” when someone else’s whole life is reduced to their most foolish, offensive and regretted public moment.
A Better Way Forward?
As a Christian who is active on social media, I often remind myself that each image-bearing name is sacred. The ninth commandment, which warns against bearing false testimony of any kind about one’s neighbor, must remain in the forefront. I must remove all negative caricature—the exaggeration of someone’s worst features and the censoring out of her or his best ones—from my words, both spoken and written. It is unChristian to bless God while cursing a person with a soul.
What if instead of condemnation, we became known for giving benediction? What if instead of being on the hunt to catch people doing wrong, we went on the hunt to catch people doing right? What if instead of looking for someone to curse, we started looking for someone to bless? What if instead of naming people according to their worst behaviors and features, we named them according to their best and most God-reflecting ones?
Even When the Shameful Story Is True
And when the damning narrative is true? When the horrible account about a person is more reality than caricature? Even when this is the case, humble restraint and self-reflection should be the starting point.
When Ham exposed Noah for his drunkenness and nakedness, Shem and Japheth did not join in the exposing, but reversed it. Instead of forming a mob based on outrage toward their drunk Dad, the two brothers looked away from Noah’s nakedness and covered him. In doing this, the two brothers also covered and restored Noah’s good name. For this, the two received a blessing—and Ham received a curse.
And we all tremble at the thought of receiving a curse for tearing down a name and doing violence to a soul.
Or do we?
Scott Sauls is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee and author of several books. He also blogs weekly at scottsauls.com, and can be found on social media at @scottsauls.