Recentering the Shame Conversation

This evening Christianity Today hosted #CTShame, a Twitter conversation about online shaming and public criticism. There was significant dialogue and debate about the purpose of shame and when it is appropriate or inappropriate. I think it’s an important conversation to have, but there’s a problem here: by focusing the conversation on the shame that often occurs from being called out, we are neglecting to consider the fear often experienced by the person calling out.

When these conversations unfold, we get caricatures about people who call out. They are rabble-rousers, wielders of digital pitchforks, an angry mob, or — in the ultimate Internet insult — trolls. And granted, Internet trolls exist. Online bullies are a phenomenon. But when we start the conversation with those caricatures, we are already centering the conversation on those being called out. We’re centering it on their feelings and their demands. We’re perpetuating a cycle that led us to the conflict in the first place.

But does that accurately capture the heart and soul of a person who calls another person out? I cannot speak for anyone but myself, so I’ll simply speak to my own experience. Through my work with Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out, Homeschoolers Anonymous, and my writings about Tony Jones and my alma mater Gutenberg College, I have certainly created a public image of being someone who participates in call-out culture. My internet persona is often antagonistic.

But offline, I am an introvert, shy, quiet, and avoid controversy like the plague. If I take a personality test like the Enneagram, I get the result of “peacemaker” or “helper.” I am anything but a revolutionary.

This doesn’t mean I live a double-life: quiet offline, loud online. What it means is that when I do speak up online, when I call someone out, it is extraordinarily uncomfortable for me. It takes great effort. I do not enjoy it. I do not like it. I am not sitting at my laptop, troll-like, cackling hysterically at the pain I hope to cause others. I am, rather, clutching my stomach because it makes my stomach sick to think of what responses I might get if I dare to strike at someone’s golden calf. I am frightened at the thought of the potential backlash.

I don’t want to be anyone’s enemy. I don’t want to make people mad. I want love and peace and compassion for everyone. Controversy gives me panic attacks. That’s why I have to take anti-anxiety medications right before I publish something I know will be controversial.

So that’s what happens when I call someone out. My hope is not to ruin someone else’s day. My hope is to make people see that their actions, ideas, or language are damaging and hurtful, and it takes a whole hell of a lot of courage to say that. I don’t come bearing pitchforks or torches; I come with trembling hands and the hope of being heard from someone that has a far more powerful voice than I could ever dream of.

To me, deconstruction is a work of love, not a declaration of war.

This is one aspect of what gets lost in translation when we focus on the person being called out and that person’s shame. We lose the perspective the person calling out and the fear that calling out can entail. (Note: not everyone who calls people out is fearful; this is, again, simply referencing my own experience.) Progressives often (and rightly) discuss the fact that the marginalized are rarely heard in the circles of power. But what we don’t often hear is how brave people are for speaking up. It really can be scary.

I am daily overwhelmed with the courage of homeschool alumni who share their voices with Homeschoolers Anonymous. And I see how brave LGBT* people within the American Christian Church are when they speak up, too. I see how difficult it is for people of color to share even their most basic experiences with white privilege. These are just a few examples. These individuals — and many others — who participate in “call-out culture” are just as much flesh and blood as our darling celebrities with tens and hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers who denounce that culture. They, too, cry tears. They, too, go to sleep fearing the next morning when the s@#$ hits the fan.

There may be ways that we can improve call-out culture. But centering that conversation on the shame experienced by those called out should not be how we start it. We should start it by centering those calling out and respecting the fear (or even anger) they often experience doing so. We need to work to create a world where people are not fearful of speaking truth to power. That’s a world in which we can have productive conversations — productive conversations that can also better contextualize shame within a newborn sense of community.

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Rob Chandanais.

"There Will Be At Least One Riot — In My Soul."

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