It’s funny how religious even the most secular can be. Transgress their idea of righteousness and you’re banished to outer darkness. Witness social media’s recent indigestion over HGTV megastars Chip and Joanna Gaines. BuzzFeed outed the Fixer Upper hosts last week for the sin of attending a church that opposes gay marriage.
Conservative pundit Justin Raimondo, himself gay, labeled the reporter “a McCarthyite witch-hunter.” He was not alone. BuzzFeed presented no actual evidence the Gaineses are personally against gay marriage. It didn’t need to. The traditional Christian view of sexuality is now so unfashionable just a whiff can bring out the wolves.
But what if they were? That would make them no different than millions of other Americans. Public support for gay marriage is at an all time high. But, as Brandon Ambrosino points out, a substantial number remain opposed. That’s especially true among black Protestants and white evangelicals.
“Is the suggestion here that 40 percent of Americans are unemployable because of their religious convictions on marriage?” asks Ambrosino. “That the companies that employ them deserve to be boycotted until they yield to the other side of the debate—a side, we should note, that is only slightly larger than the one being shouted down?”
In a word, yes. The anti-traditionalists are hurriedly twisting themselves into everything they claim to hate about Christians: petty, mean-spirited, self-righteous, vindictive. They are the Inquisition, the Pharisees, the new Puritans who will lock you in the digital pillory and shame you for the deviant sin of wrongthink.
The rise of public shaming
The image of the pillory is apt. This kind of digital takedown attempt is part of a wider cultural trend of public shaming.
We can see the germ in the browbeating antics of Jerry Springer, Dr. Laura, Dr. Phil, and Judge Judy. You know the formula: A deviant sits center stage for our instruction and amusement. His faults are aired. He defends his stupidity. We gape incredulously. Then the wise and practical host smacks him down. We hoot and smile. We congratulate ourselves for seeing the truth as clearly as the host and delight in the buffoon’s comeuppance. Right has been observed and justice served.
We’re an easy stroke. Give us a chance to feel morally superior, and we’re in. But who needs day-time television or talk radio anymore? The internet has thoroughly decentralized and democratized public shaming. A while back I saw this video:
A man parks in a space reserved for the disabled. His car is vandalized, he is humiliated, and the whole episode is aired for our self-validation.
“If there’s one thing most people agree on,” says the YouTube summary, “it’s the shared anger at someone who wrongly uses a disabled parking space.” I get it. My father has been in a wheelchair since he was a child. But what’s on display in this video is not anger. It’s meanness, punitive reprisal, and creepy joy at someone’s expense. “One does not become a saint through other people’s sins,” said Anton Chekhov. But we love trying.
Policing the new moral bounds
“Shaming is a form of social control,” writes University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner. Participants
react, often instinctively and harshly, and often to emphasize their own virtue through their condemnation of someone else’s vice. . . . The major effect of social media is that it enables people to broadcast an opinion—or, more accurately, a gut reaction—to the whole world, instantly, without pausing to give it any thought. This, combined with pervasive anonymity and traditional animosity to anyone who acts or thinks unconventionally, has awoken atavistic instincts that are multiplied a hundredfold through herd mentality.
We’re just as moralistic as we’ve always been. It’s just the moral landscape is in a state of flux. A position held by most of the population only a few years ago is now on the outs. And the boundaries will be policed. It reminds of these words from the second chapter of the Wisdom of Solomon:
Let us lie in wait for the righteous man. . . . He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange. . . . Let us test him with insult and torture, so that we may find out how gentle he is, and make trial of his forbearance. Let us condemn him to a shameful death. . . .
Today it’s as simple as a click and a share.
Image: Arallyn!, mod.