Monday, September 14, 2015

Online shaming

"With no one but the online mob as guide, it (is) all too easy for people to throw stones, while claiming the moral high road for themselves."

A modern twist on an ancient story

It's a modern twist on an ancient story.

Our modern story concerns some scandalous behaviour that occurred during a summer festival in Alberta. 

The ancient story, recounted in the Gospel of John, goes something like this. Some Scribes and Pharisees, accompanied, I imagine, by a crowd of onlookers, brought a woman caught in the very act of adultery to Jesus. Their motives are questionable. Not terribly concerned about adultery, they want to trap Jesus with a tricky question. 

Rembrandt: Woman Taken in Adultery
National Gallery, London

They ask him if they should stone the woman. Jesus, who is in no hurry to answer, bends down and writes in the sand before he looks at the womans accusers and says, Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.   Beginning with the elders, the crowd slowly disperses as individuals slink away in embarrassed, guilty silence. 

Left alone with the woman, Jesus asks her, Does no one condemn you?  to which she replies, No.  Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more, responds Jesus.

The modern version of the story goes like this. 

A young woman and two male friends were cavorting in an alley when a Peeping Tom spotted them, filmed their tryst and posted the video online where it went viral. Viewed by several million people, the woman became the object of online shaming, while the men were applauded.

There are lots of things wrong here, as others have pointed out.  Some point to an invasion of privacy. Others focus on society's acceptance of online shaming. Still others draw attention to the misogyny inherent in the shaming that slams the woman and high-fives the men. All of these concerns point to the precarious condition of the collective moral compass.

Lets return to the crowd in Johns story.

A few individuals had probably whipped up the moral outrage of some in that ancient crowd. Others may have just been along for the ride, not wanting to miss out on a good spectacle. And a spectacle it was, although not the kind they were expecting. 

Jesus silenced everyone, effectively asking, Are you sinless?. He created space for people to think about their own behaviour.  With the moral compass swinging away from the woman towards their own shortcomings, people in Johns crowd had the good sense to shut up and go home. 

Not so for todays online crowd. With technology providing an instant platform to condemn someone elses bad behaviour, our crowd was neither predisposed nor inclined towards self reflection.  And with no one but the online mob as guide, it was all too easy for people to throw stones, while claiming the moral high road for themselves.

Without even realizing it, the online crowd called its own moral credibility into question. It was, you might say, caught in the very act of voyeuristic tendencies, which are hardly a hallmark of integrity. In shaming, the group restricted moral conduct to the breaking of sexual taboos . They forgot that the way we treat others outside of intimacy also speaks to the content of our character. 

The collective moral compass is in need of repair.  No one involved in this sad and sordid affair can claim the moral high road. Everyone - the threesome, the filmmaker, and those who viewed and commented - sullied themselves with their failure to respect the innate dignity of the human person.

Our ancient story teaches that sin is not excused, but forgiven. Moral slip ups are not a cause for condemnation. They are an opportunity for tweaking a wobbly moral compass and getting back on track.

 Compass image: courtesy of

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