The difference between outrage and accountability

Karen Swallow Prior

I was recently reading the newspaper when I came across a story that pushed my outrage button hard: a public figure, one whose position depends utterly on public trust, was exposed as a hypocrite, an egomaniac and a liar. I composed a snarky tweet in my head, pulled out my iPhone and began to type. But somewhere between the 140th character and “send,” I paused. A humiliating hashtag was already trending. What could my tweet possibly add? But more importantly, how might it harm? I deleted the draft and turned back to reading the newspaper.

As providence would have it, a few days later I was at a meeting where the topic was civility - specifically the need for Christians to engage more civilly with the culture and to set an example for speaking the truth in love. I was convicted once again about the tweet I almost sent. Then I read these pointed words by Rebecca Warren at The Banner about the growing meanness that has come to characterize our society, even within the church:

Our outrage leaves us drowning in self-righteousness and pride, which are harmful to our souls and devastating to our communities. We seek out the people who agree with us and avoid those who do not. Most of the time, if we’re honest, we put a higher value on being right than on being loving.

As a result, Warren writes, “our witness is broken.”

This escalation of public humiliation on the Internet has a name: social media shaming. It’s a phenomenon so prevalent and so devastating, in fact, that an entire book has been written on it: Jon Ronson’s forthcoming So You’ve Been Publically Shamed. A recent excerpt from the book in New York Times Magazine details how one snarky, stupid, better-unsent tweet - and the public shaming that followed - nearly destroyed the life and career of one communications professional. Another story Ronson reports is of a young woman working in the nonprofit sector who lost her job and her reputation after an offensive prank photo she took at Arlington National Cemetery. This year’s Oscars telecast has been characterized as a fountainhead for outrage, protest and shaming on a range of issues.

It’s tempting to emphasize the range of differences in culpability in these situations, to point to poor choices in some cases, to ideological differences in others and pure victimhood in others. But perhaps for Christians, the cause of the shaming and outrage is far less significant than the phenomenon itself.

For the Christian, shame and outrage can never be ends in themselves.

Ours may be a culture that no longer believes in sin. But, clearly, it believes in shame. Shame was the subject of this month’s Christianity Today cover story, in which Andy Crouch analyzes how Western civilization is transitioning from a guilt-based to a “media-amplified shame culture.” The role that communities play in conferring either honor or shame (in contrast to their more individualistic counterparts, innocence and guilt) provides an opportunity for the church, Crouch argues.

While public outrage is as old as human history, social media shaming is new. In its ability to take shame as far beyond a local community as the entire globe and to wreak effects vastly disproportionate to the precipitating acts, social media shaming may become a form of systemic injustice. It therefore is a phenomenon that Christians need to acknowledge and address intentionally and with principle. We have the opportunity at this moment in our culture to determine to offer a different way than the world.

For the Christian, shame and outrage can never be ends in themselves. While we value accountability, Christian accountability should always be oriented toward reconciliation and restoration - and seasoned with humility and love. Keeping this purpose and this manner in mind will go a long way toward employing the best form of accountability, as well as its most healthy and productive context. More often than not, true accountability occurs within the context of real community and real-life relationships - not off-the-cuff tweets or outraged Internet posts.

Topics: Online, Culture At Large, Science & Technology, News & Politics, Social Trends