I recently read a curiously nuanced guest post about public shaming in the self-named evangelical Christian blog Jackson Wu.
Titled “Flipping the Script on Shame and Shaming,” the piece was written by Gregg Ten Elshof, an author and professor of history at Biola University, a private evangelical Christian institution in La Mirada, California.
What seemed curious to me about the essay — penned by an evangelical Christian who kept alluding to “the soul” — was that it castigated certain coercive aspects of public shaming in current U.S. culture when that same strategy has been essential to ruthless Christian indoctrination since the faith’s inception. That’s hypocrisy.
What were medieval burnings of “heretics” at the stake if not the ultimate public shaming and rejection of a person when all else fails. It begs the question: “Is Christ “love?” which Professor Elshof repeatedly posits to the affirmative?
When the then-struggling faith really got going in the Middle Ages it was fear of damnation that lured converts to church and ruthless shaming (if they weren’t fearful and cowed enough by the church and its dogma already) that kept them there.
So for an evangelical Christian academic to try and finesse shame as a positive force in a religious context strikes me as a bit rich.
The difference between bad and good shame, Elshof contends, is the difference between the act of public shaming and the private feeling of shame.
The problem with this philosophical hair-splitting is that without awareness of potentially being publicly shamed as a consequence of their covert behavior or overt thoughts, many if not most people might not feel much shame at all.
I suggest that true shame is what one should feel only when they do something that is intrinsically and unjustifiably harmful to the health, peace and dignity of others. And heresy is clearly not that.
So when religious people try to soft-pedal shame, it seems more like an attempt to distract attention away from their own coercive culpability in applying shame as a tool of indoctrination and control.
Yet, as Elshof tries to explain:
“Something strange is happening when it comes to how people perceive shame. On the one hand, there is a growing and passionate consensus that shame is toxic and we do well to eradicate it from the range of routinely felt emotions. A large and rapidly growing body of empirical research correlates felt shame with anxiety, depression, suicide, eating disorders, rage and other manifestations of disfunction. So resources abound that aim to inoculate us from the painful experience of shame.
“On the other hand, we seem increasingly friendly to shaming other people as a strategy for pursuing social agendas. Overt acts of public shaming fuel movements like #MeToo and the laudable fight for racial equality. The rise of social media makes it all too easy to effectively shame those who violate the relevant standards/norms.
“And the shame experienced by those on the receiving end of those events is sometimes utterly life-destroying. Even those who don’t actively shame perpetrators evince a seemingly insatiable appetite for accounts of public shaming, and tacitly endorse these public shamings by unceasingly consuming the stories and sharing them with friends.”
What seems essentially relevant to me in this context is not the shaming, per se, but what behavior or mindset is being shamed. For purposes of this discussion, note that Christianity shames members for not believing absolutely enough in its dogma (and behaving in accordance), when the faith worships a gospel of ancient, mythical fantasies, not verifiable truths.
In that case, if you’re a humanist, it would be unquestionably immoral and cruel to shame someone, and dump on them the panoply of psychic and emotional pain that entails, for not embracing fully enough an idea that cannot even be substantiated in reality.
On the other hand, shaming a sexual assaulter or abuser of women, for example, is entirely appropriate because — unless there’s an irrational rush to judgment with inadequate evidence — an actual illegal act.
As such, shaming is defensible when what is being shamed must be stopped or punished. Like pedophile priests. Serial killers. Coronavirus anti-vaxxers. Donald Trump’s sociopathic mendacity. Certainly not aborters of human zygotes, blastocysts, 10-week-old embryos or even a two-and-a-half-inch, one-ounce embryo late in the first trimester’s 12th week (the cutoff for legal U.S. abortions under the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v Wade decision).
A better case might be made sometimes, perhaps, for shaming women and their doctors collaborating in non-therapeutic abortions significantly after the first trimester, but the new Texas anti-abortion law bans all abortions after 6 weeks, well before the Supreme Court’s legal cut-off. That’s before most women even know they’re pregnant.
In fact, it’s the Texas Legislature that passed the bill and the governor who signed it into law who should be shamed in this case — for ensuring a load of fear, anxiety and zero good options for pregnant Texas who would choose to have abortions going forward.
As if this is going to reduce abortions, which tough anti-abortion laws have never done. Women find a way, usually far more expensive, unsafe and fraught with angst than what is now available through Planned Parenthood and other providers of legal abortion. This is simply Christianity forcing its religious morals on the rest of us, a practice that must be stopped.
Consider the irony of all this. If Texas’s evangelical and social reactionaries really wanted to reduce abortions, they should have just accepted their already codified legality throughout the country. Studies show that legal abortion drives down abortion rates everywhere. A 2018 NBC-TV news story reported:
“Abortion rates have fallen over the past 25 years, even as more countries have made the procedure legal and easier to get, according to a new report released Tuesday.
“Countries with the most restrictive abortion laws also have the highest rates of abortion, the study by the Guttmacher Institute found. Easier access to birth control drives down abortion rates, the report also finds.”
Why still force women to forgo them? Because for religious reactionaries it’s biblical, not rational. And that’s a problem, because “biblical” is another way of saying “made up.” Is this really how we want to base our most important societal decisions, when effective practical solutions exist in the real world?
What’s really shameful is the huge number of Americans who order their lives around invented “supernatural” ideas (that’s in quotes because such a realm does not manifestly exist) and then force others to undergo unjustly inflicted miseries if they don’t submit to their religion-based edicts.
Decrying that would be good shaming, in my view.
Professor Gregg Elshof in his essay explains that it’s false to insist that shame is “intrinsically toxic and soul-destroying.”
“Instead, we should be more suspicious of public shaming and less suspicious of felt shame,” he wrote.
That would certainly work well for Christianity, which could continue to publicly shame heretics, backsliders and other damned heathens without consequence, as they have for centuries, while jettisoning any responsibility for the excruciating felt shame the shamed themselves must then endure.