The Power of Shame image

The Power of Shame

A couple of years ago Justine Sacco tweeted an ill advised joke to her 170 followers as she was about to board a plane to Cape Town: ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!’ By the time she landed in Cape Town, Sacco was the number-one worldwide trend on Twitter.

This story, and others like it, is recounted in Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Sacco was clearly being ironic in her tweet, clumsily identifying the realities of white privilege and bias. There was no malicious intent in what she wrote, and no intent to be racist: it was irony. Yet such is the power of Twitter memes and instant judgments that her life was turned upside down, losing her job and being subject to incredible torrents of abuse. Ronson documents the fallout from Sacco’s tweet and examines the ability of the internet to heap shame on individuals. It’s a book about shame, and social media, and it contains a lot of expletives, and a number of unsavoury scenes, so don’t go picking it up expecting a sober evangelical treatment of the subject. I would suggest SYBPS is worth a read though, if only to understand better the manner in which social media is causing our culture to shift towards a ‘fame-shame’ model.

Ronson observes the extent to which social media has shifted the power balance in how and to whom shame accrues. “On Twitter we make our own decisions about who deserves obliteration. We form our own consensus, and aren’t being influenced by the criminal justice system or by the media. This makes us formidable.” Formidable, and relentless – and not always predictable.

Behaviours that would once have been considered deeply shameful are not considered shameful on Twitter, while other actions are and can generate a career destroying avalanche of attention. In a sobering parallel to the saga that led to Mark Driscoll’s fall from grace, Ronson describes the case of best selling author Jonah Lehrer who was exposed for fairly minor, though consistent, plagiarism. Lehrer was shredded by social media and his career as an author effectively terminated.

Shame is powerful. It can destroy people. And as Ronson concludes, the threat of public shaming is creating a new conformity in western culture:

We see ourselves as nonconformist, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age.
‘Look!’ we’re saying. ‘WE’RE normal! THIS is the average!’
We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside of it.

Ronson’s observations are of clear interest to the gospel preacher, for at least two reasons.

1. The message of Christ covering our shame is likely to gain increasing resonance in a culture that increasingly understands and fears social shaming. Fortunately few of us will experience the scale of shame heaped upon Justine Sacco or Jonah Lehrer but many, many people will experience the shame of low-level social media bullying, or live in constant ‘status anxiety’ over their Facebook profile. In this climate the promise that, ‘hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts’ should find real traction. It is a message that people need to hear.

2. If Ronson is right and the boundaries of ‘normality’ are ever more narrowly defined we should expect to experience an increase in shaming for declaring the truths of the gospel. The Christian message contains claims and demands that places it well outside the margins of the new moral consensus and it is likely that expressing such claims and demands will be regarded ever more shame-worthy. Of course, this means we need to be wise as serpents in how we communicate, in order to minimise hostages to fortune, yet we need to beware lest we find ourselves so sanitising the message for fear of social shaming we end up neutering it.

The gospel both invites us to share in the shame of Christ and to experience the covering of our shame. Of this gospel we should not be ashamed!


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