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Love and Shame in a Networked World

Among the great benefits of civility and free speech are the opportunity to hear the wisdom of others and the possibility of moving wisdom forward by engaging it.  I am, therefore, grateful for the occasion that Respectful Conversations has provided Tony and me to engage each other and for the insights Tony brought to his first essay.  In it, he says a number of things that I wish I’d said (or at least thought), all of which warrant further reflection on my part even as I continue to advance some of the arguments I made in my first post.  Among Tony’s insights, I want to pick up on three, in particular, in this essay: 

  • Christians should be shaped by/act out of neighbor love.  I’m actually embarrassed that I didn’t raise this point in my own essay.  May Tony not shame me for failing to write about it.  😉
  • Love and civility should be linked in the Christian mind.
  • Shame plays a complex role in American public life and that role (or, possibly, those roles) have not been widely discussed or thoughtfully addressed.

 There is great wisdom in these three points.  They are, though, three points that I also want to raise some questions about.  Along the way, I want to use my questions to think more about civility and public discourse, especially during these social-media-driven and politically fraught times.  I didn’t pay too much attention to contemporary events in my first essay though promised there that I would in future posts.  The time has come due to begin to honor that promise. 

I. Preliminary Observations


First, though, I want to offer two brief observations about the topic as it is being hosted on the Respectful Conversations website.  First, this conversation is very “meta.”  That Tony and I are attempting to have a respectful conversation on the topic of respectful conversations on a website called “Respectful Conversations” is so reflexive as to feel vaguely hall-of-mirrors like.  All writing has audiences and in a society undergoing what journalist Bill Bishop calls “The Big Sort,” those audiences tend to find, reproduce, and pass on the types of writing they enjoy to others who enjoy them.  The result, I fear, is that the types of people that will read, (hopefully) appreciate, and (helpfully) pass along the writing that Tony and I are doing are likely to be the types of people who like the po-mo sensibilities involved in such reflexivity, appreciate attempts to promote respectful conversations, and therein reveal that they share values that overlap with Tony’s and mine.  The danger in this is that far from expanding the range and significance of civil public discourse, the effect of our writings actually manifests as a symptom of the problems we want to address:  that we’re feeding the energies and funding the perspectives of our tribe(s) rather than expanding the conversation to reach new people with other perspectives.  That I’m getting ready to post my second essay and nobody has posted a comment thus far in response to either Tony’s or my first essays is at least one piece of evidence in support of this problem.

Of course, one way we might draw wider attention and response would be to produce more heat:  pick some fights, say some outrageous things, call each other names, or otherwise act like most of the talking heads we see on the opinion shows that try to pass themselves off as news in the world of cable television.  That’s not really me; I kinda doubt it’s Tony.  But this gets to my second brief observation about this topic:  the need to produce heat/stir up energy may not have much to do with the actual significance of a topic for those doing the yelling.  Maybe those who are yelling aren’t quite so convicted by their positions as they are anxious about their significance in a very big, very complex world and yelling is a way to get attention.  And maybe audiences—which really aren’t the same as conversation partners—aren’t quite so driven by the desire to have their own thoughts confirmed or, less often, challenged, as they are looking to be entertained by a good fight.  The gladiatorial qualities of public disagreements reveal the degree to which these disagreements are simulacra of actual public discourse rather than expressions of it.  And, as Christians in the first centuries of the church were quick to point out in both word and deed, gladiatorial contests were damaging not only to those forced into the arena for the pleasures of others; they were damaging to the souls of those watching and to the societies to which they were trying to bear gospel witness. 

Those, then, are my two brief observations:  I am concerned about a potential disjunction between the intentions and the effects of a civil conversation about civility and conversation (though don’t know what I can or at least am willing to do save continue in the path we’ve already been walking down).  And I think there may be more to interpret about growing incivility and contemporary debates about free speech than many of us usually recognize or admit (so attempting to resolve or at least mitigate the disturbing consequences of such incivility and debates will mean taking on interpretive responsibilities that move well beyond what this conversation can manage).  Now on to three of the insights Tony offered in his first essay that I want to explore in greater detail.

II. The Priority of Love


Tony’s first and, I think, most significant point is that the Christian obligation to “love thy neighbor as thyself” is both unconditional and foundational for any ethic that would call itself “Christian.”  Not only is a deeply theological claim (coming, as it does, on the heels of and linked to the first great commandment, to love God), it is the type of claim that manifests depth beyond facile understandings of those five simple words.  The command to love neighbors invites us to rethink our conceptions of love (Love can be commanded rather than only arising naturally?  Love can be directed at a wide range of persons rather than only the natural objects of our affection?  Love can be task, virtue, and inclination all at once?  Love is a social as well as a personal thing?).  The commandment calls us beyond tolerance, civility, and even respect for others—though, as I’ll suggest below, it also shapes how and why we value tolerance, civility, and respect.  But that depth also complicates how we love, especially as we start to apply it in varied contexts.

Return, for a moment, to the story of the Good Samaritan that Tony retells on the way to offering some provocative and helpful insights.  Having been asked “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells the story of an outsider who, rather than ignoring a robbed and injured man in the ditch as various other insiders do, cares for the man, binds his wounds, takes him to a place of comfort, and covers the costs for that comfort.  The Samaritan becomes the prototypical example of how to do neighbor-love. 

Now complicate the story: 

  • What if the man in the ditch says, “No, leave me here to suffer and die”?
  • What if this is the third time the Samaritan has found someone lying in the ditch post-mugging?
  • What if this is the third time the Samaritan has found the same man lying in the ditch post-mugging?
  • What if the Samaritan comes upon the man as he is being mugged rather than after he has been mugged?
  • What if the Samaritan comes across a second man lying in the ditch?
  • What if the Samaritan got robbed by bandits the last time he tried to help someone in a ditch?

 The obligations of neighbor-love didn’t go away in any of those contexts but perhaps the way neighbor-love should be expressed might change in each of those contexts.  Unsurprisingly, theologians have written books on these and similar questions

In the instance of these essays in Respectful Conversations, the context in which neighbor-love is expressed is that of American public life—a context in which, at least in theory, rights-bearing citizens who have equal standing vis-à-vis each other are engaged in verbal intercourse over matters of common concern but shaped by varied and seemingly incommensurable perspectives.  Assuming that the topic at hand actually is a matter of common concern, then refusing to participate in the conversations isn’t an expression of neighbor-love because such refusal tacitly claims that the matter is not of common concern:  “I can’t be bothered with your concerns.”  Refusing to listen to what others have to say isn’t neighbor-love because that denies the equality of the neighbor:  “I don’t believe your concerns matter as much as mine.”  Simply acquiescing to the other isn’t neighbor-love because that denies the significance of a matter about which you, as a citizen, should care:  “I’m not an interesting partner for you in addressing these concerns.”  Coercing others—whether through force, threat of force, or rhetorical manipulation—to do what you want regardless of their arguments certainly isn’t neighbor-love:  “My concerns give me the right to harm you.”  All that’s really left, so far as I can see, is to shape the disagreement and continue the argument.  Maybe one side will persuade the other.  Maybe the two sides will have to call a truce for a time.  Maybe the argument will simply have to go on until the context so changes that its initial terms become less meaningful. 

If this is what neighbor-love looks like as it is expressed in American public life, then it seems to me that civility isn’t what comes after neighbor love (contra Tony’s suggestion that “You first need love, then you need civility”).  Civility is the way neighbor-love expresses itself in that context.  Civility is a form of neighbor-love.  This takes me to the second of the insights I want to pick up from Tony’s initial post:  that civility and love should be linked in the Christian mind (or at least in the minds of Christians who live in open, democratic, rights-based systems; things may be different in other contexts but those contexts are beyond the scope of this conversation).

III.  Civility as Neighbor-Love


So what are the implications of thinking of civility as a form of neighbor-love?  At least these:  First, to the extent that neighbor-love includes attention to intention, being civil must mean more than being polite.  Politeness can be motivated by many things; the kinds of civility that count here are those that are motivated by love.  Second, to the extent that neighbor-love sits as a high standard for behavior, it offers a means for judging calls to civility.  If those calls are used in defense of the maintenance of unjust power structures or illegitimate relationships, neighbor love judges them and finds them wanting. Third, to the extent that neighbor-love is something that we can get better at through practice, civility is something we should aspire to, not something we should think we’ve got right.  And, fourth, to the extent that neighbor-love is made possible by the prior love of God, those interested in promoting civility ought to be looking for signs of the work of God in the world. 

And what do these implications get us?  At an obvious level, they help explain why social media (or at least Twitter) can feel so uncivil.  One simply cannot give much expression to neighbor-love in 280 characters so as people take short-cuts to get to their point, they eliminate the things that are hardest to convey:  intention, integrity, depth, and naming whatever desires are motivating them.  Moreover, and perhaps at a less obvious level, social media distorts not only those we interact with (and it’s hard to love neighbors that we’ve abstracted), but it distorts us (and it’s hard to love neighbors as we love ourselves when we aren’t honest about who we are).  As Jaron Lanier has reminded us—repeatedly—we tend to reduce ourselves to the avatars we produce online, and since those avatars are not good at loving (since they are not complete and complex people), the results of our online preoccupations make us less good at loving (and, therein, being more civil) in general.  Recognizing that the objects of online incivility suffer from the incivility of trolling, attention to the way we reduce ourselves also helps us see the way that online incivility also harms trolls.  Perhaps that sounds odd, but the illustration is fairly obvious to those of us who have ever lurked over an online debate and thought, “Why can’t these people get a life???”  Though the question is rhetorical, the impulse behind it, perhaps, isn’t:  the reason “these people” can’t get a life is that they aren’t people; they’re avatars.  And avatars aren’t good at being civil because they can only express opinions, not neighbor-love.

IV.  Civility and Shame Online


So how should we engage them?  This question gets at the third insight I want to pick out from Tony’s first essay:  that shame plays a complex role in American public life.  And my arguments thus far suggest some of the reasons that such complexity might be growing.  They point toward the idea that we can’t shame trolls not because trolls lack a conscience but because they aren’t really human:  they’re simplified representations of human beings.  They point toward the idea that intent and effect both matter in assessing an action and so acts of shaming face the doubled judgment of being inappropriate or immoral because of what motivates those acts and because of the consequences of those acts.  And they hint at the idea that it is at least investigating whether shaming can be an expression of neighbor-love. 

At least in principle, I can imagine a defense of shaming as an expression of neighbor-love.  The capacity to feel shame is premised on the ability to make moral distinctions and the ability to make moral distinctions is grounded in the existence of complex psychological componentry.  There is, therefore, a peculiar back-handed compliment paid to those who, upon being shamed, feel shame:  it recognizes their humanity.  Done thoughtfully and lovingly, it may even help enhance their own sense of their humanity.  There are, after all, things we might do that we should feel ashamed of. 

Things get trickier in social media, as Jon Ronson’s entertaining if unduly flippant book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and Jennifer Jacquet’s Is Shame Necessary? make clear.  Both of them see value in shame but both also recognize how easy it is to get shame wrong:  to let it be driven by spite or envy or vengeance or any other of a wide range of things-that-are-not-neighbor-love. 

By way of illustration, let me turn to a few recent events of online shaming.  Recently, Sarah Huckabee Sanders was (privately) asked to leave a restaurant in Virginia because the owner of the restaurant and that restaurant’s employees were offended by SHS’s complicity in supporting policies they deemed immoral (including on the treatment of LGBTQ+ persons), her willingness to demean the press, and her consistent duplicity as the Press Secretary to President Trump.  This act, itself, was a kind of private shaming—and the restaurant covered the costs for what SHS and her party had already eaten.  As word about the act spread on social media, though, a private act became more public and a private shaming became a series of public/online shaming, including by SHS, who tweeted about the event on her official Press Secretary twitter account and by President Trump, who never seems to miss an opportunity to make things worse.  The restaurant owner was, by all accounts, civil—and so perhaps the private shaming could have been motivated by neighbor-love.  The snowballing accounts and effects of the private act as it became public, though, grew increasingly uncivil. 

If one of the reasons it is difficult to negotiate shaming on social media is that we are not our full selves when we’re acting through our avatars, another reason is that the viral qualities of social media allow things to explode so rapidly.  It’s doubtful we ever would have heard of the Red Hen restaurant without social media (of course, it’s also doubtful that Donald Trump would be president without social media).  Social media is a tool of 21st century communication, but as singer/songwriter Ani DiFranco reminds us in her song, “My I.Q., “Every tool’s a weapon if you hold it right.”  And social media is especially easy to weaponize.  As this example reveals, one of the ways that social media get weaponized are when they drive the collapse of public/private distinctions.  And the maintenance of civility in open and free societies is predicated on the maintenance of that distinction:  civility in public life works because we maintain private spaces to retreat to when the anxieties, frustrations, and angers that come with living with others in pluralistic contexts become onerous. The safe spaces necessary for intimate relationships and individual development disappear when it is so easy for private to become public.  There’s a reason we don’t make women wander around with scarlet “A”s on their chests, after all.      

A more complex set of illustrations have come with those whose actions reveal their racism:  the white woman who calls the police on black families barbequing in the park; the white woman who calls the police on a black child selling water without a license; the white man who calls the police because he doesn’t believe that the black family in the community’s swimming pool belongs there; the list of such events is going depressingly long.  As they were all videotaped doing something both racist and dumb and those videotapes all went viral, they were, I think, quite properly shamed.  Yet the consequences of their shaming have included the loss of employment and the sundering of relationships.  Were those appropriate consequences?  What is the limit to the penalties incurred through/with shaming?  It seems to me that one of the real dangers in shaming when it goes viral is that we are less likely to treat shame as the punishment for bad behavior than to treat it as the justification for allotting further punishment.  Recognizing that shameful behavior is shameful behavior, social media seem to feed the mob mentalities that keep us from maintaining a sense of proportion about how to respond to those who have behaved shamefully.  That was the case for Hester Prynne as she dealt with Puritans; it is even more the case when shaming can go viral and be passed along by avatars who do not love but do enjoy the thrills of punishing others.


Next post:  further reflections about the necessities and limits of civility and free speech in a poisonously partisan society. 

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