Shame, Empathy, and Online Behavior

I (Michael) recently watched a TED talk by Monica Lewinsky.

I figured that statement might be enough to hook you in. I wondered what your first thoughts were to seeing that name. I imagine there would be a range of reactions. Personally, I hadn’t seen her name for a while, and when I saw the title of the talk: “The Price of Shame,” I was impressed with her bravery.

I should give some context (not on Lewinsky, but on how I ended up watching this talk). I am a creature of routine. I hate to admit it, but it’s true. Recently I decided I needed a more useful breakfast routine and I realized morning shows on TV are not useful at all. Instead, I started watching TED talks while eating my breakfast. This routine led me to watching Lewinsky’s talk, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what she shared. Take the 23ish minutes now and watch it. Then we can continue.

I was in my late teens when the news of the scandal broke. I was in a place where I was not mature enough to empathize with what she must have been going through. I instead joined in on the jokes, and probably thought she was getting what she deserved for pursuing a married man. Also, because I am at the top end of the Millennials, for me social media is still something that came along well after my frontal lobe had finished much of its development. At that time, bullying was a physical reality, never cyber.

Before watching this talk, I was aware of the significance of cyber bullying, but Lewinsky made me realize just how much a culture of humiliation has developed in the last decade or more. After watching this talk, I mentioned to Helen how some of the sites I visit most often, benefit from this culture: sites which use humiliating situations caught on a smartphone camera without permission, to make us all laugh. Slapstick humor is nothing new. I grew up watching America’s Funniest Home Videos, but you had to submit those videos with permission to have them aired, and hopefully with an ability to laugh at yourself. My guess is that many of the people in the Youtube videos and gifs on sites like Twistedsifter did not give permission for those images to be posted. Sites are making money from ad dollars tied to views of people’s shame. What I just described is how I find myself supporting the online culture of shame, but for those of a generation growing up on social media, there is an even deeper level of experience and a more devastating one.

Tyler Clementi, a young man who ended his life after he experienced cyber bullying at its worst, is a very public example of what is going to become all too common unless work is done to change how we engage the culture of shame. Humiliating others is no innovation, but Lewinsky puts it well when she says,

“Cruelty to others is nothing new, but online, technologically enhanced shaming is amplified, uncontained, and permanently accessible. The echo of embarrassment used to extend only as far as your family, village, school or community, but now it’s the online community too. Millions of people, often anonymously, can stab you with their words, and that’s a lot of pain, and there are no perimeters around how many people can publicly observe you and put you in a public stockade. There is a very personal price to public humiliation, and the growth of the Internet has jacked up that price.”

Technology is not the root of the problem, but a way for the fruit of a deeper value issue to be exposed at a terrifying rate. The root is a complete lack of empathy in our culture. When I say “our culture” I mean the one I find myself in here in Canada in the 21st century. Lewinsky nails it when she says, “The shift begins with something simple, but it’s not easy.”  Many of my darkest thoughts and actions towards others only survive because I avoid thinking of that other person as my equal. If I see a woman as the sum of her body parts, for example, then it is easy to view pornographic images, but the moment I even start to think about her being someone’s daughter or sister, it becomes much more difficult to look. If I think that my culture is superior to another, it’s easy for me to write of a person’s behavior as ridiculous from that place of superiority, but as soon as I think about how his/her culture has shaped him/her in the same way I have been shaped by my own, I am forced to think about how ridiculous I might seem to others. Gender, race, sexual orientation, and many other factors create a sense of “other,” and in that otherness, we can dehumanize, allowing for the culture of shame to thrive. Empathy breaks these barriers down, and to be honest, Jesus died to see those barriers torn down.

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28).

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Ephesians 2:14-16).

I know these passages are written in light of the Jew/Gentile tensions in the church of Paul’s day, but they point to a principle of oneness that is a big part of what the Kingdom of God is about. I think it is Philippians, however, that speaks best of our need for empathy in body of Christ:

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:3-11).

What is the appropriate response to Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf? To consider the interests of others above our own. I cannot think of a more biblical way of describing empathy.

Lewinsky states, “We talk a lot about our right to freedom of expression, but we need to talk more about our responsibility to freedom of expression.” The Scriptures make it clear that the freedom Jesus earned for us on the cross is not one that makes us free to say or do whatever we want. It is a freedom that actually makes us slaves to a Master who, while we were His enemy, died for us. Jesus should be our example of sacrificial love, even when it comes to how we behave online.


One thought on “Shame, Empathy, and Online Behavior

  1. Wow… Thanks Michael for your insight on this topic. I try to instill the importance of empathy in my teenager’s life but I am met with much resistance :(. I have gone to the extent of taking certain social media sites off her phone for this very reason. This generation is in for some trying times for sure if nothing changes. Of course, my teenager doesn’t see the harm and I am just being an over protective misinformed mother in her eyes. I pray she will open her mind soon but as her brain is still not fully developed, I doubt that will happen any time soon. I will share your post with her to open the conversation again…. Thank you!!

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