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Is there a limit to public shaming? Is public shaming uncivil religion?

Not since when Hester Prynne got her scarlet “A” for adultery has public shaming been such a hot topic. The neo-Puritan politicians of the United States are as full of bile and hypocrisy as their forebears.

Last week, the Washington Post headlined a “Feud over civility in politics escalates amid Trump insults.” The current uproar is the result of a “shaming” campaign by pugilistic liberals that involves aggressive public harassment of Trump officials and their families. Democratic United States Congresswoman Maxine Waters told supporters that “if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them!” She revels in the example of an owner kicking Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her family out of a restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia.

The article generated over 3,923 comments by 7 AM. Suzanne P. Tyrpak wrote, “The time for being civil is over.” Competitor media mavens could only drool over the Post’s big hit article. New York Times media reporter John Herrman tweeted, “the civility fetish blinds some…” Such a criticism of civil discourse was also endorsed by his colleague, national politics reporter Astead Herndon. White House press conferences often seem like shouting contests over fake facts and fake news. From the conservative corner, Laura Loomer took her video camera to record her harassing Congresswoman Waters as she strolled from her office to the elevator.

On MSNBC Democratic U.S. Senator Cory Booker backed into a supporting position for the shamming by declaring, “Yes, you should protest. Yes should confront evil and injustice.” However, his very generalized endorsement backed away from the specifics of Waters’ call to action, an ambivalence found in various Democratic circles.

The current public shamming has arisen like steam from the defriending movements between Trump and anti-Trump partisans. During the 2016 presidential campaign, several acquaintances recounted to me that they were defriended on social media by people that they have known and liked for decades. From the unscientific gauge of my personal experience, it seems that this rupture of civil relations was effected mainly by anti-Trumpers. Maybe, my observations are true for New York City but not for the rest of the nation.

Quite a few Republicans and Democrats just can’t stand the way society is splintering and civil discourse is becoming so rough. They ask, are you prepared for the full-scale civil strife like that we experienced in the 1960s? Do we you look back with nostalgia on those days of foreign wars and domestic riots? Will conflict generators of yesteryear like Saul Alinsky and current Trumpenators pen the narrative of our age?

We have come so close to tossing away civility over the cliff because of an apocalyptic mood in the nation. After the presidential election, I wrote that the conservatives and liberals were both apocalyptic and liable to relieve their depression by withdrawal from society or by revolutionary movements:

“Two versions of secular political apocalyptic narratives were developed, tested, and then, found wanting in the 2016 presidential election.

There was an apocalyptic narrative of their own destruction that was consuming conservatives. Many of them figured that the 2016 election was going to doom conservatives, Christians, and the nation.

These pessimistic prophetic voices arouse during the election campaign of Barack Obama in 2008 and worked its corrupting nihilism into the Christian right and other conservatives.

It started with hints that Obama was the anti-Christ or a Muslim fundamentalist in disguise. After he won two elections, some conservatives thought that they were truly doomed to be a persecuted minority and that the nation was in its final days. Some declared a withdrawal from politics — “it always disappoints.” Others declared it was time to go back to the monasteries —  the church would survive by weathering the storm of persecution and social anathema.

However, at the same time, some of the liberal disappointment with Obama was feeding a growing desire for a different type of apocalypse – you might call this an optimistic prophetic narrative of the destruction of the religious, the misogynist, and anti-gay enemies followed by a near heavenly government unhindered by conservatives and wishy-washy Democratic politicians who compromised too much.

Neither of these apocalyptic narratives came true on election day of November 8th. The conservative predictions of their own destruction didn’t come true. The liberal anticipation of a new day after the destruction of their enemies failed to be consummated.”

Can there be civility within a  looming apocalypse? The apocalypse may not come, but the effects of its prediction live on. There is a lingering deep disappointment, hurt, and disorientation. I warned,

"Those believers who stay in the bubble of the believing world eventually re-orientate their narrative to say that despite appearances the prophecy of apocalypse will come true and that the destruction of the enemy and the rise of a heavenly kingdom is surely coming. Their intense hurt and anger at the devils, increases, so that their hearts are steeled against their opponents. The believers will work really hard to bring the apocalyptic conditions to a crisis to match their rationalizations about history. This reduces their cognitive dissonance, said social psychologist Leon Festinger."

But there are some on both sides who will come out of their apocalyptic funk better than others to the extent that that they reach across political lines and recognize each other as human. Not devilish but hurt, needy people also.

In 2018, wouldn’t it be lovely if chastised liberal and conservative apocalyptics could recognize each other as human beings and not just as objects of destruction? Wouldn’t it be great to have optimism grounded in real accomplishments of religious believers and the non-religious working together rather than nihilistic visions of the future? How can this happen? Maybe, a look back at the roots of our crisis in the time of our national revolution in 1776 and the parable of the Good Samaritan will help us to have wisdom in our current crisis.


The rise of civility and its cultured critics

Back in the time of the American Revolution, the famed biographer James Boswell penned some reflections on the language of civilization used by his friend and lexicographer Samuel Johnson. Boswell wrote that civility was mainly used to designate a social order and its refinements, especially in contrast to barbarism, the rude state of the barbarians.

As Raymond Williams sums up in his handy dictionary Key Words. A vocabulary of culture and society (1983), this sense of civility became associated with civilization as the product of elite culture. Edmund Burke wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France an influential praise of the interconnectedness of good manners and the well-being of society: “our manners, our civilization, and all the good things which are connected with manners, and with civilization.” He was alarmed by the rule of the mob in the French civil wars. On the other hand, his appeal to the continuity of manners could in some hands squeeze out the heart from one’s life.

The Romantics wondered if civility and civilization was “itself a mixed good, if not far more a corrupting influence…, and a nation so distinguished more fitting be called a varnished than a polished people?” Civilization, poet and theologian Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued in On the Constitution of  Church and the State, must be grounded in a deep cultivation values and ideas so that both the creative and the orderly aspects of our humanity are nourished.

The restraint of civility is similar to our own concept of tolerance. A few years ago, Leith Anderson, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, portrayed “blessing” your enemies as a type of tolerance and civility. He wrote, “When the supposedly tolerant were intolerant, St. Paul said to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Romans 12:14) …” He pointed out that God was polite to Satan in the Book of Job, so we should be “respectful … to those who beliefs and behavior we reject.”

Anderson, who is a very shrewd leader of the evangelicals, seems here to drift toward the language of tolerance, civility, and plurality so that “blessing” becomes being “polite” and “respectful.” His shrewdness tames Jesus too much.

The framework of tolerance and civility is not adequate to Jesus’ teachings. He didn’t say, “Be polite to your enemies,” or “Tolerate your enemies.” He said something much stronger and more disturbing, His teachings were “Love your neighbor as yourself, “Bless your enemies, and “Do good to them who despitefully use you.” Toleration leads to a civil co-presence, while doing good to your enemies leads to love. Which kind of national household do you want to live in? A peaceful but basically disconnected group or a group with hands on love? What a difference if we start our discussions with love, not in the realm of tolerance and civility!

Imagine that you are in the room at a college campus party with your enemy. You may be civil, say hello, and shake hands, but you probably will stay on the other side of the room. If you follow Jesus, you would pick up some hor dourves and take them over to the one who has despitefully used you, in the King James Version’s wonderful bluntness.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is an instructive basis for the current discussions of civility and its limits.

The Samaritans were trouble for Israel. A long time before Jesus, the Assyrians had conquered Israel and used their typical devices of keeping an enemy subdued by moving them around, encouraging intermarriage, and a decline of local religions. The Jewish understanding about the Samaritans is that the Assyrians moved a couple of groups of people into the region of Samaria where they proceeded to intermarry with the Jews and share their religions. The Samaritans mixed and matched their religions. Some of the new arrivals even practiced child sacrifice. For political and religious reasons, the Samaritans also didn’t see why they had to worship God at Jerusalem, so they established a similar worship center near Shechem (today’s Nablus). During Jesus’ time, there were stories of Samaritans murdering Jews who were cutting across Samaria to worship in Jerusalem.

Notice right away, that Jesus didn’t say that the lesson of doing good to your enemy means converting them to the idea that Jerusalem is the capitol of Israel or to the gospel of salvation. Rather, Jesus’ parable teaches how to love better by doing like the heretics.

If we can make a rough analogy here, the Muslims today are to evangelical Christians that the Samaritans were to the Jews in Jesus’ day. The Muslims, Jesus would tell us, show us how to love our neighbors.

The Trumpers’ love for their neighbors would also be an example to the anti-Trumpers, and vice-versa. Love the Trumpers as yourself. Do good to them as you would have the anti-Trumpers do good to you.

Are you feeling a little tense? Are you feeling that Trumpers are good examples of how not to love your neighbor? Or that the anti-Trumpers love everyone but their neighbors? If you don’t see your enemy as holding the key to your compassion and salvation, then you are in trouble, Jesus teaches. You can hardly be civil to someone in whom you can find little or no good.

The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches that before you can practice civility, you must practice love. Before you can practice love, you must have the civility to pause and look at the good in your neighbor.

In the long run, civility won’t last if you can’t love your enemy as yourself. Doesn’t it pain you to see marriages that are civil but where there is no love left? These marriages very often lose their civility too.

The approach that one must be civil and tolerant first may indeed create a peace. But it doesn’t provide the emotional or social resources to build trust and sustain civility. For example, if you are an administrator on a college campus where civility is being tested, your first consideration should not be about what are the limits to disruption.

Rather, the first question is did you learn about love from your enemy, the disruptors? How you answer that question will limit the effectiveness of your attempts to restore civility and order. Should you be cultured in love or tutored in politeness first?

So, let’s put the matter differently. The key question is, are there limits to love? If you are on a campus where civility is sorely tried, you will probably find that love has already been discarded. So, first the lack of love needs to be addressed.

Have people on your campus refused to move beyond civility to love their enemy? Have they found the good examples from their enemies of living a compassionate life? If the people on your campus can’t articulate or refuse to see anything good and useful for themselves in their opponents’ behavior and values, then should we point out that those civil but unloving people need to be punished first? They have breached the law of love. Or at least shunned the education in love that their enemies offer them. This is a much greater breach than a breach of civility. If are prepared to punish disorderly conduct, we should ask, do we punish unloving conduct twice as hard?

A breach of civility is obnoxious to the orderly mind and a threat to civil peace. However, it probably doesn’t destroy the social bonds as much as lovelessness. You need first love, then you need civility. You need culture and civilization. We need to stand against those uncultured in the values of love and the barbarism of transgressive acts.

Society cannot protect its members if the heart is hollow from love and the acts are transgressive. A social leader in a democracy needs to resist both lovelessness and incivility. When a social leader, say a campus president, punishes only incivility and not lovelessness, he or she is a bad leader and will accelerate the spread of chaos and heartlessness. Distrust and hurt feelings will grow until the only useful tool left is a heavy use of enforcement power to maintain the peace. Clubbing, exclusion, and shamming are all versions of the heavy hand against your enemies who are beyond hope. They are justified as appropriate actions in apocalyptic days.

A better way is to balance out love and order. It is not an easy balance, but the first step is to see that love provides the foundation for order, while order should be aimed at restoring love.

Mayor Ed Koch had a generous spirit toward the graffiti writers of New York City. In the 1970s and 1980s, the city was awash with crime, graffiti, and hatred. The city was going broke and was championed or condemned as the secular Sodom and Gomorrah on the Hudson.  Saul Bellow wrote in his 1970 novel Mr Stammler’s Planet, “New York makes me think of the collapse of civilization, about Sodom and Gomorrah, the end of the World. The end would come as a surprise here. Many people already bank on it.”

One of the problems, in many people’s eyes, was that the public order had become so chaotic that too many people just wanted to stay away from New York. Billy Joel sang, “They burned up the churches in Harlem, but no one really cared.” The graffiti writers caught a lot of flack for contributing to the general sense of lawlessness. But really, they were kids swimming against the tide of crime, gangs, violence, poverty, and rotten schools that their elders had built. At least they were producing some beauty with their lives. But it was a problem too.

Koch was trying to balance out a love for the kids with the need for order. Many people would say that he didn’t quite get the balance right, but what he did is instructive.

He told an interviewer that the kids were creative and admirable, but were aiding a culture of lawlessness with their graffiti. He said he believed in the three strikes rule: if the police caught the kids in flagrante graffitis three times, then the kids would be in jail for five days. He joked that he believed in the death penalty for murder but observed that “these are kids” are just throwing up a little trouble on walls. Of course, the trouble was expensive to clean up, and many New Yorkers, including one of the chief detectives on the anti-graffiti squad who had to run after the miscreants at night along the subway tracks, dismissed the writing as not art “but a crime.’ Koch was trying to balance out his affection for the kids with the needs of civility. The graffiti kids bombed (painted) a train with “DUMB KOCH.”

Let’s set up a three strikes rule for public loveliness  and incivility. If you cannot see anything good in your enemies that you want to practice yourself, then that is one strike. Do this for three enemies, you need to suffer a lesson in love by listening for a day to the shamers in person or Trump’s speeches while visiting Trump Tower. If you refuse the Good Samaritan principle, then maybe your punishment should be extended to three days.

On the other hand, if you are uncivil, like harassing your opponent or trying to get him or her kicked off campus, then you are allowed three violations until you get punished. The levels of retribution should be half of what is administered for violations of the law of love. Maybe, you should be excluded from campus for half a day so that you can listen to the top speeches and watch a documentary on your opponents’ compassionate acts.

If we start with love first, trust is built, ears are unplugged, eyes are opened, and some civil conflicts can be much more easily settled. Not all can be resolved, but all can be loved.

Our judicial motto should be, judgers without heart, lovers without restraints, shamers without love, lovers without shame: these destroy the Kingdom of God.


PS - Take a look at Mark's conversation!

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