Sunday, March 29, 2015

Shame is back, baby!

Every once in awhile, I read or hear a theologian say that we've lost our sense of shame. This is another way of saying that we've lost our ability to see our own sins, which is probably true. But I'm here to give those folks some good (?) news: Shame is back, baby!

There persists the very tempting and very dubious claim that the relative anonymity of our online lives only exacerbates our lack-of-shame problem. The social and physical distance created by online space, the argument goes, allows us to behave in ways that are shameful but without any of the repercussions that would make us aware of this fact. But the internet has started to do what it normally does, namely changing in a way that is at once logical and somehow still unpredictable. And it's about public shaming.

I stumbled upon a Tumblr last fall called "Racists Getting Fired." I found it on Twitter during the height of the national debate surrounding the death of Eric Garner at the hands of violent police officers. The gist of the site is that racists are out there posting racist things online, and that these things often don't have social consequences--so let's post them and get them fired (and more). My first reaction to this was, quite simply, This is awesome. I continue to appreciate the motivation behind "Racists Getting Fired" and sites like it. I mostly like it because it shows us what I have long maintained about online space: The internet renders sin visible in a way that few other things can. Social sin like racism and sexism has a way of hiding in the nooks and crannies of our daily pleasantries, and by our own production, we have created a space where we can see such sins on full display.

But internet-shaming should be about more than the visibility of sin. And herein lies my worry. The most recent case of internet-shaming is the public outing of the Oklahoma University Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity's semi-private chanting of a racist song (presumably one of several). Last week, one of the frat brothers, Levi Pettit, apologized in a press conference in front of community leaders, many of them black. NPR interviewed two of them after Pettit's speech, showing the mixed reception. The tone of his voice alone is enough to warrant more than a mixed reception but the problem isn't this kid and his dubiously sincere "apology." The problem is that for all of the public shame that this kid and his friends deserve, we're just scapegoating. We're demanding, implicitly and explicitly, that this one person apologize for this one chant of this one song at this one fraternity. We move quickly past the moment, failing to probe it for its real problems. We fail to talk about the fact that these songs are just symptoms of the racism that persists in our country. We fail to talk about the institutional racism of the universities that fast-track some people to positions of power and others to places of further oppression. We fail to shame ourselves into asking tough questions about where we spend our money, send our kids to school, and how we vote. 

Our technological capacities allow us to render social sins like racism visible in new and important ways, but we don't yet know what to do with it. Shame is back, baby, and it shows us whose thinking is backwards. It's just a shame that it hasn't yet pushed us forward.