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.

Published by R.L. Stollar

R.L. Stollar is a child liberation theologian and an advocate for children and abuse survivors. The author of an upcoming book on child liberation theology, The Kingdom of Children, Ryan has an M.H.S. in Child Protection from Nova Southeastern University and an M.A. in Eastern Classics from St. John’s College.

4 thoughts on “Recentering the Shame Conversation

  1. That might be true – but what about people like me? I’m gentle and quiet and I practically cringe whenever I read someone calling me out – sometimes the way they do it isn’t very nice. I feel my stomach curl in and I become afraid and do everything I can to placate, even if I have a valid point. I am very afraid of people and their reactions. They’re sometimes very mean when they correct you.

    1. Crystal, gentle quiet persons like you are usually responsive to the first hint of presented problems. That is a dear quality to be given respect and kindness.

      What you see here is what happens when the person being called-out ignores and/or spurns those who are presenting the problem. First, hints were given, then open direct complaint, then chiding—but all ineffective, leaving “unnice” anger as a last try.

      When the only response to this loud anger is to claim personal victimhood (“You are shaming me!”), betrayal of relationship occurs. Then people exit the relationship.

      Somehow I doubt that you’d ever find yourself in a place like that.

  2. Crystal, Have you chosen to build a ministry empire? Be a Christian celebrity? Thosse who choose that path which entails a constant mode of “look at me!”, buy my books, attend my conferences, had better be prepared. If they participate in shameful things they had better be prepared to be shamed.

    What CT is promoting is nothing short of ignorance. There are negative truths. They are using spin to promote lying by omission. I lived in that world of Chrisitan platitudes meant to cover over evil, wrong doing,e tc that really hurt people. There is no “nice” way to call out evil. Why? Because no matter how you approach it, the perps won’t like it. By giving them any voice at all in how to “name the wrong” we are complicit. Have people forgotten Driscoll? Look at the damage! It is so wide spread that even the little old ladies in SBC churches were paying for Acts 29 church plants where little Driscoll clones were churned out and did not even know it! The powers covered for Driscoll for years making every excuse under the sun for him. When he fell like a house of cards and they were pressed to respond they said, “he is flawed’ like all of us. Sorry, I am NOTHING like Driscoll.

    . Reading the Gospels over and over gives us a clue how this was handled by Jesus. He had major issues with the “religious leaders” of His time, too. And they were always trying to rewrite the narrative, too.

  3. Dear Riot,
    Sorry for coming to this conversation so late, and feel free if you want to PM me or email me on what I say below, instead of dialoguing here. I think the whole call out culture issue is somewhat of a vexed one, and I can sympathize with both your position and some of the critics of callout culture.
    To be honest, one of the reasons I’ve been distancing myself from social activism on behalf of evangelically mentally ill and abuse victims in recent months has been because of my inability (which is perhaps my fault) to deal with the current callout culture within not just evangelical society as a whole, but within our wider society. Its not that I disagree particularly with the political goals of groups like HA. I think you guys do incredibly courageous work, and people like you and Jason Benner are doing a ton of good things, I’m sure. And part of my reasoning is simply personal problems that others’ have no responsibility to address.
    But some of the issues I’ve seen with evangelical call out culture I do think are extremely counterproductive. One problem with a lot of the activism being done right now, as far as I can see, is that its way too grounded in what I would call therapeutic, rather than skeptical, feminism. Much like the consciousness raising feminists of the seventies, evangelical anti-abuse activism is centered in testimonial politics, where “bearing witness” and “telling my\our story” is exalted as the highest political ideal. I can totally understand the impulse here; indeed, given the often hidden, unpunished nature of much abuse, such testimonial politics may be the only recourse many abuse victims have.
    But I think there are serious flaws implicit in this kind of politics as well. The one that bothers me the most is that increasingly I’m encountering advocates who want to throw out empiricism and sometimes even constitutional protections in their quest for an “end to abuse”. I, for instance, frequently fear being “called out” for stating positions that are both defensible and simply empirically obvious: for instance, that the anti-cult\spiritual abuse literature that seems to dominate middlebrow forms of evangelical anti-abuse activism is utter crap, has no empirical support, and was often written by Reconstructionist and NAR writers. I have no idea why I should have to feel guilty about this, since a simple glossing over Ken Blue et. al would convince any knowledgeable person of that position, but its something that unofficially, one “officially” can’t say. The same is true, too, for instance, when one attempts to challenge trauma focused treatments that the professional literature clearly says do not work particularly effectively (or at least not for the reasons people suggest): the mystical glorification of EMDR is a major case in point here. Similarly, even if false conviction rates are 1% or 2%, I don’t think one can throw out the legal presumption of innocence, yet that viewpoint is increasingly becoming verboten in anti-abuse activism.
    I totally understand evangelical anti-abuse activists’ aversion to false memory activists. Since most abuse charges that HA and other watchdog groups are dealing with primarily center around organizations that engaged in biblical counseling\Gothardite or other shaming therapies, there is little reason to believe false accusations played any significant role – indeed, probably no role – in the major scandals that have arisen in Reformed and fundamentalist circles in recent years.
    But in Charismatic circles, false charges are a real problem, because of the widespread belief in not only SRA, but RMT therapies so questionable they would not pass muster with even the most disreputable secular therapists. For that matter, to me, the whole debate between the FM movement and anti-abuse activists seems like a massive waste of time, because its based on very dualistic assumptions about abuse and totally antiquated ideas about memory. Indeed, this is one of my big problems with non-skeptical FM supporters. Take someone who has experienced sexual abuse and someone who has had a memory of abuse “implanted” that did not “happen”. The whole question of whether abuse actually happened here, though forensically and legally of great significance, should therapeutically be of no significance at all. If someone has memories of abuse that they sincerely believe (and I have met very few people who were “retractors” who did not sincerely believe; I’m sure the same is true for those who still believe ), the psychological trauma they suffer will likely be identical or nearly identical to a person who has “literally” experienced sexual abuse. Thus, to me, and to most of the more thoughtful people I know who write on this issue, getting bogged down on the issue of whether abuse did or did not “happen” is, therapeutically, an irrelevancy. Either way, one has to treat the symptomology one exhibits after one’s exposure to the event\claimed event. Moreover, anti-abuse activists’ contention that RMT therapies are a minor issue rests on the same faulty assumptions about abuse that characterize many FM supporters. If memories of sexual abuse are created that exactly mimic the psychological effects of sexual abuse, than sexual abuse still has occured. The difference is that the abuser is 1) the therapist\facilitator, not typically the accused and 2) the abuse in this case may not be undertaken out of malicious intent, which is untrue of cases not involving “false” accusations. To people like me, therefore, claiming that RMT therapies should not be of concern is pretty much like saying we should ignore certain rape charges because they are politically inconvenient. If a claim is believed in sincerely, and I have seldom found that it is not, then for me the issue is no longer whether abuse happened. IT DID. The question is merely whether its a product of physical sexual coercion or therapeutic sexual coercion. But this does not mean that the forensic question of who was the abuser is not important; it is, and precisely because one does care about the victim. If one claims therapeutic coercion when there is physical sexual coercion, victims’ welfare is ignored; and the same is true, if to a minimally lesser extent, if one flips that paradigm. Again, this is not a criticism of HA or you at all, or of the evangelical anti-abuse movement’s quite laudable goals.
    And to me, this brings up the other issue which evangelical call out culture ignores, which is that sometimes different advocacy agendas clash in ways that are deeply uncomfortable for the movement as a whole. The perplexing fascination that dissociation\DID has for too many advocates is a prime example of this. Diagnosis of schizophrenics as suffering from DID or “demonic DID” is virtually ubiquitous in the Charismatic world. But because Charismatic and mentally ill sufferers have much less advocacy pull than abuse survivors, the uncomfortable fact that advocates’ promotion of the discredited junk science surrounding DID hurts many Charismatic schizophrenics is completely swept under the rug, if advocates’ even realize this problem exists. And I feel that much evangelical advocacy work’s cry of “always believe the victim” takes on such extreme characteristics that common sense is thrown out the window. So, if I hear of a circumstantial charge of sexual assault done by an African-American man against a white woman in the South, I should treat that the same way we would treat a charge of sexual assault by a white woman against a white man in San Francisco? That requires a degree of credulity that I simply do not possess. Similarly, while HA is totally right to decry Farris and company’s bogus anti-CPS agenda, that agenda did not simply appear out of nowhere. The reason why many working class families find it attractive is because historically social workers and CPS have disproportionately targeted working class families.
    In any case, none of this is meant as a criticism of you Riot, or anyone else. I would like nothing better than to see abuse stop. I have little tolerance for the misogyny or anti-feminist politics that characterizes the Christian patriarchy movement. And at this point, perhaps Christian call out culture is necessary. I just wish it would aim to be more rigorously logical than it currently is. In any case, I hope I have not offended you or anyone else in any way. Its just its very sad to see the movement being torn up by, what to me, seem fairly easily resolvable tactical divisions.

    John Weaver

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