Shelter in the Shame Storm

We who grew up with the internet are going to have to reckon with the spiritual powers embedded in the technology we put in our pockets.

Helen Andrews’s essay on online shaming, featuring in the forthcoming January issue of First Things, is the kind of piece that can genuinely change readers. It is a stunningly powerful meditation that is simultaneously personal and sweeping. I can’t even choose a passage to excerpt without feeling like I’m under-representing the quality of writing, so please; if you haven’t read it, stop reading this blog and go read Helen’s essay.

I’ve been trying to figure out why, beyond the exceptional literary beauty on display in the writing, this essay has left such a strong impression on me. Perhaps one reason is that more and more of my thinking and writing has been taken up with trying to understand what technology, especially social media, is doing to me and my generation. I know some friends roll their eyes whenever they read another sentence like that one, but I wonder if they roll their eyes only because they haven’t allowed themselves to really listen to what’s going on—which, ironically, is one of the most aggressive symptoms of the social media contagion. There are probably only two kinds of people whose online habits aren’t at least challenged by phenomenons like online shaming: the people who stop reading essays like Helen’s because they don’t want them to be challenged, or the people for whom online shaming is not a problem but a bonus. Four years ago I would have said the latter group didn’t exist. Four years and too much time on Twitter later, I know for a fact it does.

This is a point Helen brings up to devastating effect. “The more online shame cycles you observe,” she writes, “the more obvious the pattern becomes: Everyone comes up with a principled-sounding pretext that serves as a barrier against admitting to themselves that, in fact, all they have really done is joined a mob. Once that barrier is erected, all rules of decency go out the window, but the pretext is almost always a lie.” In other words, people Twitter-shame not (ultimately) because they feel duty-bound to, but because they want to, because doing so is pleasurable and brings, however fleeting, satisfaction.

Not long ago it was common to hear that the internet doesn’t really “form” us, it simply removes analog inhibitions and frees up the true self. There’s probably some truth there, but all it takes is a little digital presence to quickly realize just how easy it is to become something online that bears little or no resemblance to your life offscreen. Put another way: If the tech is neutral and the only problem are the preexisting moral conditions of the users, online mobs should only be constituted of noxious people going after truly innocent targets. Alas, that’s not what happens.

At some point people like me who grew up with the internet are going to have to reckon with the spiritual powers that are embedded into the technology we put in our pocket. We’re going to have to determine to understand (a dangerous resolution!) how and why it is that the avatar-ization of our thoughts and names creates on-ramps in our hearts for delighting in the suffering of people whose only crime is disagreeing with us, or being friends with somebody who does. Why does mitigating our experience of the world through screens push us toward cruelty and resentment? Is it because we’re bored? Because our dopamine receptors are so calloused by notifications and we need a bigger hit? Is it because we are created to feel the very things social media is designed to prevent us from feeling? And after all these questions: Why is it that the fear of losing “connection” or “platform” is so strong that we shrug, pray for our broken world, and then check Instagram again?

I’ll confess to living out my own anathemas. As I was reading through Helen’s piece the first time, I stopped halfway and went immediately to YouTube to look up the fateful clip she describes. It was an eminently forgivable curiosity; how many of us can read an essay about such a moment without wondering where we can access it? So I watched the clip, then resumed Helen’s essay. And then a funny thing happened. I went back to the clip and watched it again, and then another time. Even right after reading about the man who grabs his phone and unwittingly invites Helen’s now-husband to watch a moment of profound humiliation, and wagging my head at such a clueless guy, here I was, basking in someone’s lowest public moment, because I found the “cringeworthiness”….well, what did I find it? Entertaining? Funny? Educational? To be honest, I’m not sure. I don’t know why I watched that video 3 times. But I did all the same.

Let’s say that YouTube didn’t exist, and that the only way such footage was accessible to me was through an exhaustive combing of C-SPAN files. Would I have made the effort to watch it? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I think the better question is whether, in a world where YouTube didn’t exist, and there wasn’t a multi-million dollar sub-industry that feasted on attention spans with “content,” there would have even been an extant clip to find. Perhaps one reason I went looking for the clip was that I knew I would find it. Perhaps another reason was that I had never stopped myself from viewing someone’s lowest professional moment before; why stop now? I don’t dislike Helen, and my guess is that we would agree on 98% of important matters. I didn’t relish her embarrassment while reading her testimony. I wasn’t piling-on. I just…watched.

I’m not sure where the shelter is from the shame storm. Today it feels as if anybody who has ever written or done anything in public is liable to be ridden out of civilization on a rail (or thread). But I’m hopeful that the same offline existence that can relieve anxiety and heal relationships can also re-calibrate our desires so as not to crave the saltiness of shame. Lord, grant me serenity to accept the Tweets I cannot change, the courage to log off, and the wisdom to know which comes first.

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Andrew Sullivan’s Ghost of Liberalism Present

Andrew Sullivan yearns for a Christianity that supplies meaning and destiny. But his Christianity is too beholden to modern gods.

In his final moments with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Ebenezer Scrooge sees a young boy and girl, whose monstrous, “wolfish” appearance terrifies him. The ghost explains that the boy and girl are Ignorance and Want, and without transformation of society’s attitude toward the poor, they will be doomed to a desperate fate. “Have they no refuge or resource,” asks Scrooge. The ghost then quotes Ebenezer’s own words from the opening chapter back at him: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” The ghost vanishes, and Scrooge is left alone, condemned and exposed.

A Christmas Carol is a story about a man who gets a rare mercy: A chance to see himself and the world as both truly are. The story is an evergreen classic precisely because it narrates a fundamental human experience of understanding. For we creatures who look in a glass darkly, to see the true end of our ideas and actions is a kind of personal eschaton. Mostly, we expect to be justified, and are shocked when we aren’t.

I wonder if some ghosts have been haunting Andrew Sullivan lately. His latest essay on the way Americans have replaced religion with politics reads like someone trying very hard to see the world as it really is, but lamentably turning his eyes to the wrong place at the most crucial times. While reading it, I wanted to join the Ghost of Christmas Present and scream at Sullivan, “O Man! Look here!” The problem for Sullivan is that I would be pointing at him.

Sullivan laments the thinning out of organized religion in American life. “We are a meaning-seeking species,” he writes, and meaning cannot come from material wealth or scientific conquest. In lieu of the meaning-bestowing propositions and practices of Christianity, Sullivan fears that Americans are juicing their sense of transcendence out of politics and tribalism. This could be thought of, Sullivan argues, as the conclusion of (classical) liberalism-for-liberalism’s-sake:

Liberalism is a set of procedures, with an empty center, not a manifestation of truth, let alone a reconciliation to mortality. But, critically, it has long been complemented and supported in America by a religion distinctly separate from politics, a tamed Christianity that rests, in Jesus’ formulation, on a distinction between God and Caesar. And this separation is vital for liberalism, because if your ultimate meaning is derived from religion, you have less need of deriving it from politics or ideology or trusting entirely in a single, secular leader. It’s only when your meaning has been secured that you can allow politics to be merely procedural.

That’s an outstanding final sentence, and gets to the heart, I think, of how American life has transformed in the past 30 years. The postwar solidarity that was the unseen casket next to George H.W. Bush’s this past week was a solidarity bought and paid for, in a real sense, by American Christianity. Cultural Christianity is a major problem for believers who take the euangelion literally and not just liturgically, but it does bestow certain benefits. What Sullivan rightly fears is the emerging anti-solidarity generation, an American era without shared religious experiences or thought-forms, that transfers the metaphors of sin, judgment, and salvation from the spiritual to the social. There’s good reason to be afraid of that era, and writers like Sullivan, Marilynne Robinson, and Jordan Peterson are not speaking to the whirlwind when they warn us that politically conscious secularism may be costing us something we won’t be able to get back.

But Sullivan’s prophetic mantle is a bit too see-through. Sullivan yearns for a Christianity that supplies meaning and destiny, even as he’s spent the better part of his public life rigorously advocating for a Christianity that reinvents itself in the image of modern gods. For years Sullivan was one of the most influential and impassioned advocates of legal same-sex marriage, and his “conservative case” for radically redefining matrimony drew extensively on his progressive Catholic sensibilities. During the George W. Bush administration Sullivan eviscerated traditional evangelicals over their stance on LGBT issues, even coining the term “Christianist” to evoke Islamic extremism when describing Christians to the right of him.

Sullivan doesn’t appear to consider whether the neutered Christianity that bows to politics might bear any genetic resemblance to the doctrinally plastic faith that frames his celebration of Obergefell. Indeed, it is extraordinarily telling that Sullivan thirsts for a Christianity that transcends politics, only three years after using “It is accomplished”—the Greek τετέλεσται uttered by Christ on the Cross in John 19:30—as the title of his blog announcing SCOTUS’s decision. Does Sullivan truly want a Christianity that talks down to politics? It’s difficult to know, only because there seems to be a lot of confusion in his own mind over which political issues deserve equivalency with the Atonement, and which don’t.

What Sullivan calls for in his essay is a Christianity that can bestow meaning, revelation, and identity across any political experience. Every believer should want this too! We American Christians are far too given to letting social and political categories set the agenda for the church. But as in the parable of the sower, merely wanting the message to implant and bear fruit isn’t enough. The problem for modern Westerners is that even our desire for transcendence outside politics is lethally dosed with our own desire for theological autonomy. We want Christ to tell our political opponents to find their identity in Him rather than their ideas, but we want Christ to tell us, “You guys have it right. You’re good.” We want to crack the whip at the fundamentalists changing money (and ballots) in the temple, but resist the “legalism” that scowls at our ethically-sourced porn. We want, in other words, the risen Christ to shape our deepest desires, but to retain the final say as to what those desires actually are.

Sullivan’s lifelong advocacy for same-sex marriage represents a lifelong resistance to the unanimous teaching of the Christian church and the overwhelming judgment of the Scriptures. What kind of culture-shaping transcendence can really come from a faith that has been so gutted? Asking for Christianity to be exalted over politics may not be a request Sullivan is ready to have fulfilled. The same is true for many of us, left and right, fundamentalist and woke. The vacant pews of mainline Protestantism testify to how the human heart responds to the separation of theological authenticity from authority, just like vacant worldviews of many American evangelical leaders.

Just like Scrooge, our fate depends much on how well we see. Sullivan sees an American public square fraying at the edges and hollowed out at the center. Many of us see the same thing. But what he doesn’t see is the lordship-shaped cavity in the heart of American Christian churches. The idol of politics is too strong to yield to the idol of self-determination. For Sullivan’s sake and ours, I wish he would reconsider his own role in the gutting of American Christianity, and turn to a solution more ancient, and more spiritual, than ever before.