The problem isn’t call-out culture; it’s sin culture

You’ve heard about it, I’m sure. Them young’uns are back on the lawn, destroying civilization with their opposition to casual and institutional prejudice, care for the well-being of trauma victims, and belief they can effect meaningful social change. The latest fad in finger-wagging at the young people with their loud music and baggy pants is articles about the terrible oppression of “call-out culture,” which allegedly is silencing people with the fear that if they stray from an ever-shifting, impossible to keep up with orthodoxy, they will be inundated with accusations of various forms of bigotry.

But that’s really not the problem. Shaming people for certain behaviors is a powerful tool for social engineering. People don’t like feeling ashamed, and tend to modify their behavior to avoid it. If we could create an environment in which people were generally ashamed to express racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic views, that’d be a huge victory for social justice and a step toward a better world.

The problem isn’t that we shame people who support, intentionally or otherwise, systemic injustices. The problem is that we then don’t allow them to change. Shame doesn’t work to change behavior if you cannot escape the shame by changing your behavior!

And that’s where sin comes in. Sin is a toxic concept endemic to Western society which posits that undesirable behaviors–“sinful” or “wicked” acts–create a permanent stain on a person. That, in other words, doing something bad alters who you are; that, in short, once you have done bad things you are a bad person, and everything you do thereafter is tainted by your badness. This idea originates with Christianity, of course, but it can be found throughout secular culture as well: it’s the basis for our retributive system of punishment for crimes, it’s the reason that, in Star Wars, “once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.” Countless other examples abound.

This is, of course, absurd. Human beings possess agency; there is no necessary connection between what I’ve done before and what I’ve done next. I’ve always tried to embrace diversity, but tomorrow I could change my mind and become a white supremacist or an MRA. I mean, I almost definitely won’t, but I could, and what’s more it’s impossible to say for certain whether I will. I certainly have no intention of doing so now, but human beings are, as I said, free-willed agents; I could do literally anything that is within my physical capabilities. (Which is not to say that people don’t have personalities or moral restraint that somewhat limit their behavior; just that they can act contrary to those if they really want to.)

I know I can suddenly do something out of character or evil, because I have done so before. (Hell, my morals and politics now are wildly different than they were 15 years ago.) And if that’s the case, certainly someone who has, in the past, done a great deal of evil could suddenly start doing good?

Every few days or so, I see someone on Tumblr link to or reblog a clever, insightful, or enlightening post by someone else, and then a third party messages them to say “That person you reblogged is evil because [bad thing(s) they did before].” To which, well… so what? They did bad stuff, but now they’ve done something good. I can walk and chew gum at the same time; praising a good action does not mean that I think the person I’m talking about is (to use the Tumblr parlance du jour) a cinnamon roll, anymore than shaming a wrong action means I necessarily think that person is worthless trash capable only of evil.

I’m not saying you have to forgive people. That’s your choice, and frankly I think forgiveness is overemphasized and overrated in our culture. I’m saying that when someone does something wrong, shaming them can absolutely be appropriate response–but when they do something right, shaming them because they did something wrong before is counterproductive. It doesn’t mean saying “Okay, they’re a good person now,” it means saying “This person who has done a great deal of wrong actually did something right for once.” You don’t have to forget or forgive what they did before, you don’t have to give them cookies or a medal–but if you choose to praise something good they did (and again, I’m talking about shaming or praising actions, not persons), you shouldn’t have to apologize or retract it when you find out they also did something wrong.

4 thoughts on “The problem isn’t call-out culture; it’s sin culture

  1. You mention in passing that forgiveness is “overemphasized and overrated in our culture” without noting the direct connection between that and sin culture – Christianity draws a direct line from the stain of sin and the necessity of Christ’s forgiveness, expressed in purification rituals. I would expect ritualized begging-forgiveness to appear in any stable culture that treats misconduct as a stain.

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