A “new” morality is emerging in America. David Brooks, in the New York Times, coined it: “The Shame Culture.” I find the description apt. I use the word new with air quotes because, as Solomon so famously wrote in Ecclesiastes, “there is nothing new under the sun.” The same is true for the shame culture. The shame culture is neither new nor unique in history. It is a consequence of ideas; the child of moral relativism grown, ironically, into the destroyer of its creators.
Before proceeding, we need a framework on what the shame culture is and how it works. David Brooks’ piece, mentioned above, provides such a blueprint. Brooks builds off of an article by Andy Crouch in Christianity Today. Brooks describes it as follows:
Crouch argues that the omnipresence of social media has created a new sort of shame culture. The world of Facebook, Instagram and the rest is a world of constant display and observation. The desire to be embraced and praised by the community is intense. People dread being exiled and condemned. Moral life is not built on the continuum of right and wrong; it’s built on the continuum of inclusion and exclusion.
This creates a set of common behavior patterns. First, members of a group lavish one another with praise so that they themselves might be accepted and praised in turn.
Second, there are nonetheless enforcers within the group who build their personal power and reputation by policing the group and condemning those who break the group code. Social media can be vicious to those who don’t fit in. Twitter can erupt in instant ridicule for anyone who stumbles.
Third, people are extremely anxious that their group might be condemned or denigrated. They demand instant respect and recognition for their group. They feel some moral wrong has been perpetrated when their group has been disrespected, and react with the most violent intensity.
The framework is important and shows us how to find shame culture at work. Shame culture is observable in the news stories we see every day. The rise of trigger warnings, speech censorship, and a victimhood culture has provided shame culture warriors tools to silence dissent and outside opinions. The use of cultural shame shuts down debate and censors ideas. It is, quite literally, the closing of the American mind. 1
In years past, debate was how people challenged existing ideas. People and institutions would have to answer to challenges to their power and authority with truth. In order to challenge an idea you had to present evidence to counter it and present a coherent alternative. The Protestant Reformation began with Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. The United States began the Revolution with The Declaration of Independence. Plato’s Republic had Socrates debating the nature of the political state with Thrasymachus, Glaucon, and Adeimantus. The essence of free speech is multiple ideas vying against each other in a marketplace. What has changed in modern times is people are using victimhood, real or fake, to gain moral superiority over others to censor speech and debate. Moral superiority is used to shame opposition into submission to a group. Once shame culture has eliminated debate, the shame culture warriors can then place their moral code above others. Since government censorship is impossible due to the First Amendment, cultural leaders are shaming people to their will. Truth is not important for shame culture, what matters is censoring unwanted speech to establish the preferred morality.
As I mentioned earlier, this form of morality is neither new nor unique. What we are witnessing is a repackaged form of legalism that evolved from moral relativism, not a truth based morality. Moral relativism hit a zenith in the second half of the 20th Century. Moral relativism concerned itself deconstructing foundations of absolute truth and morality. It replaced absolute concepts of truth and morality with its own absolute: there are no absolutes, every ethical answer was relative depending on the variables and situation.
Shame culture follows the same logic while building off of it. Shame culture adds legalism and shames those who reject it as discriminators. They claim discrimination because they have a foundation of moral relativism: nothing is true, therefore you cannot tell them they are wrong. You may notice the hypocrisy of this argument: if nothing is true, how can shame culture attack others? I’ll cover that below. First, we need to understand legalism. Legalism has two main definitions in the dictionary:
(Noun) A strict adherence, or a principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter and rather than the spirit.
(In Theology) 1. The doctrine that salvation is gained through good works. 2. The judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.
Shame culture follows a strict adherence to rules. Outsiders are forced to acknowledge safe spaces, speech zones, and progressive morality or else face cultural condemnation. There are no absolute concepts of truth or justice in shame culture, only whatever it endorses. The enforcers attempt to position themselves as victims, to prevent any retaliation. From this claimed victimhood status, shame culture passes judgement on society while claiming it is discriminated against. The group pursues strict adherence to the letter of its rules, judging society and anyone who even mildly stands against it. This is why headlines appear where progressive groups ban speakers, even speakers normally considered allies, to maintain strict adherence to group morality.
Legalism is nothing new. There are multiple examples from literature and history. I am going to focus on three: first from Jesus’ life, the second from American literature, and finally a post mortem of a recent shaming incident. Each example brings out the hypocrisy of legalism and shame culture. The first example comes from the Bible. Pharisees, legalistic religious leaders of the day, brought Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery. The Pharisees told Jesus the law demanded the woman be stoned to death for her actions:
6 They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground. 7 But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court. 10 Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”
Jesus pointed out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. They were not sinless and had no interest in pursuing the law; they wanted to stone a woman to condemn Jesus. Their motives and actions made them as sinful as the woman. Shame culture operates in a similar fashion. Everyone lines up to stone a person who has stepped outside the boundaries of the group or said something “egregious.”
The second example comes from American literature, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great classic: The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne’s book tells the tale of Hester Prynne, a woman who lived in the Puritan town of Boston. Hester is caught in an adulterous relationship and had a child out of wedlock. The town’s punishment: Hester must wear a dress adorned with the scarlet letter “A” while enduring hours of public scorn at the public scaffolding. The letter signifies her sin for all to see. The modern shame culture takes similar cues and brands anyone standing against the group as: sexist, racist, a hate monger, part of the patriarchy, or any number of insults. Shame culture wants to brand a person as a sinner, brand them with a scarlet letter, and publicly scorn them so the person becomes an outcast or exile.
Some may say the previous two examples are not applicable because they involve religious cultures from the past. Shame culture is progressive and not regressive like the examples above. This is untrue. Shame culture operates exactly like the Pharisees and the legalistic community condemning Hester Prynne. Nothing shows this better than the story of Justine Sacco. Sacco tweeted out a joke in poor taste that went viral as people spent their time tearing her apart on social media. Sacco was on a plane flight while the tweet went viral. She ended up receiving a massive number of insults and even death threats. A majority of social media users used the event to showcase their own self-righteous judgement. Jon Ronson, the reporter who investigated the aftermath had this observation:
When I first met her, [Sacco] was desperate to tell the tens of thousands of people who tore her apart how they had wronged her and to repair what remained of her public persona. But perhaps she had now come to understand that her shaming wasn’t really about her at all. Social media is so perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval, and that is what led to her undoing. Her tormentors were instantly congratulated as they took Sacco down, bit by bit, and so they continued to do so. Their motivation was much the same as Sacco’s own — a bid for the attention of strangers…
The point of internet mobs and shame culture isn’t to enforce right or wrong. Like the Pharisees in Jesus’s time and the Puritans of Hawthorne’s Boston town, shame culture wants to tear others down to stroke its ego. Instead of reigning in the passions of the mob to prevent cruelty, the shame culture operates on tyranny, hubris, and repression. The mob mentality seeks to dehumanize another person to make attacks more palpable. We’ve seen this tactic from the legalism of Pharisees to the white supremacy lynch mobs of the Jim Crow south. If you can dehumanize a person, you can destroy them.
In the end, this isn’t truth, it’s narcissistic legalism. It is the modern incarnation of the scarlet letter. Branding those you disagree with to marginalize and exile them from the community at large. There is no grace, mercy, or love in the shame culture, only isolation and destruction.
I’ve said several times in this piece that the root cause of the shame culture is moral relativism. Not everyone agrees with me on that point. In a recent piece in the Atlantic, Johnathan Merritt argues what we’re actually seeing is the death of moral relativism, with shame culture rising from the ashes. He insinuates at the end of his piece that the push of conservatives to defeat moral relativism is what led to the shame culture:
From the Cold War to the War on Terror, conservators have protested the “evils” of moral relativism for decades, and now it may be a relic of the past. But although conservatives got what they wanted, they didn’t get what they expected. It’s hard to say for sure whether they’re better off now than they were before. It depends on how you look at it. Or, as some might say, it’s all relative.
More importantly, Merritt argues:
A culture of shame cannot be a culture of total relativism. One must have some moral criteria for which to decide if someone is worth shaming.
I disagree with him for two reasons.
First, I argue the shame culture is based on a foundation of moral relativism. The point of moral relativism was to replace absolute truth with the concept that truth was relative to a person, place, or time. In other words, there was no right or wrong, only what the person decided for themselves. Nothing within moral relativism prevents groups from forming who adhere to the same form of moral relativity. The only rule is: there are no absolutes.
Secondly, the morality shame culture advocates for comes from a liberal progressive worldview. In The Righteous Mind, Social Psychologist Johnathan Haidt finds there are six basic dimensions to morality people use:
[Haidt] and his colleagues have compiled a catalog of six fundamental ideas that commonly undergird moral systems: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Alongside these principles, he has found related themes that carry moral weight: divinity, community, hierarchy, tradition, sin and degradation.
In Haidt’s research, what he found is that liberals focus almost exclusively on the first two ideas, care and fairness, to the exclusion of the others. Conservatives are more likely to be fluent in all six dimensions of morality, with care and fairness ranking lower than the remaining dimensions.
What you find when studying the shame culture is that they use moral relativity to attack all dimensions of morality except the dimension they desire. Typically, this takes the form of progressive groups alleging traditional morality has no place because everything is relative, while asserting they should be accepted, cared for, and treated fairly. Challenging the group with objective truth, or pointing out the logical incoherency of their stance, is akin to attacking them on a personal moral level. Hence the claims of victimhood and public shaming brought on people to attack shame culture or moral relativity.
Where Merritt misses the point is how relativism is used. Moral relativism was never one of total relativism. Such a concept has never worked on any level. For starters, it disproves itself. When you claim there are no objective truths, you’re making an objective truth claim. Total relativity is a logical impossibility. Whenever moral relativity is used, it is used to attack one moral code and replace it with another. In the shame culture, moral relativity is used to attack anyone who challenges the group or is not pure enough to be a part of the group. This, as I’ve written, is a form of legalism and hypocrisy.
Shame culture builds off the hypocrisy of moral relativism to form its own hypocrisy. When shame culture chooses liberal progressive morality, as Haidt has shown happens, it is not surprising to see them attack their own. If mainstream liberalism points out shame culture’s flaws, it becomes a threat to shame culture. The moral split within the Democratic Party can be seen within the younger voters, most of which are going to Sanders, and Clinton. Clinton is just as likely to be challenged for discriminating against a progressive group (Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street) as she is attacked for being dishonest by Republicans.
What conservatives wanted was to maintain a morality founded on objective truth, not defeat it and be left with nothing as Merritt contends. Fighting against moral relativism was also a stand for objective truth. For conservatives, this is typically a Judeo-Christian ethic where all six dimensions of morality are in play. Without objective truth, all you have are competing narratives with no truth grounding them. This is why you see bizarre claims from Trump supporters claiming reverse racism or college campus groups claiming that a comedian who offends them is harmful and should be censored. These are narratives unmoored from truth and nothing more than a narrative.
Shame culture has no “love thy neighbor” component. Which is why social media has become nothing more than people posturing themselves in the best moral light. As David Brooks said: the shame culture seeks to lavish praise on those tearing others down. In the past, you would see people put on a show at church or community events. Now people cultivate social media presences to parade their moral superiority. This is why hashtag campaigns are popular. People can posture themselves without ever taking action. Social pariahs are those shamed from polite company by the shame culture. This is no different than giving someone a Scarlett letter for their “sins” against the shame culture.
So where are we headed? This form of morality cannot sustain itself. It kills and attacks its own. Trying to out-victim others as means of progressing society is not a sustainable path, nor is it a form of true morality. Jacques Mallet du Pan, the French journalist who reported on the French Revolution, said: “The Revolution devours its children.” The same will happen to the shame culture. When the shame culture runs out of third parties to shame, it will turn and devour its own. We are already seeing this happen.
A morality based on an absolute truth exists outside man’s reach to manipulate. Absolute truth gives men and women intrinsic value. Shame culture takes that away. Shame culture relies on extrinsic values to define others. When the others are gone, the only source left to condemn are the people within shame culture. The shame culture will eat its own.
Some might say this is an invitation to jump in a bunker and outlast the shame culture. Surely time will allow shame culture to implode on itself? This is the wrong attitude to take. First, shame culture will last for a period of time until its passions are cooled and it is overtaken by the next en vogue idea to challenge truth and morality. Second, just as moral relativism before it, shame culture seeks to fundamentally transform society. These changes must be resisted. Shame culture has no foundation or truth within it. The only way it can exist is for truth to never challenge it. It must to remove all challengers and maintain a monopoly on ideas while shaming others into exile. Which means, in order to survive, the challenge for conservatives and others wanting to end the tyranny of mass shaming is to enter the breach once more. We must challenge society with the mercy and grace of absolute truth. Shame culture provides no hope or grace to anyone, only a path of destruction. Engaging culture and bringing truth and grace to it is the only way to defeat shame and remove the scarlet letters shame culture forces on people.
To the untrue man, the whole universe is false – it is impalpable – it shrinks to nothing within his grasp. And he himself is in so far as he shows himself in a false light, becomes a shadow, or, indeed, ceases to exist.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
- Some of my more conservative readers would likely argue shame culture is nothing more than Saul Alinksy’s “Rules for Radicals.” I disagree on that point. There is a difference between organizing and protesting tactics and a moral code. As I’ll cover more in-depth in this piece, shame culture builds off of moral relativism and elevates certain moral concepts higher than others. Alinksy’s methods were written for culture warring/community organizing purposes, not creating progressive morality. There’s a difference. ↩