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America Is Intolerably Intolerant

A nation devoid of grace immiserates its people.

When you think of the sheer vindictiveness of what happened to Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, it takes your breath away. On the very night of his greatest career triumph, a reporter dug up his old tweets (composed when he was a young teenager), reported on the most offensive insults, and immediately and irrevocably transformed his online legacy. Now he’s not just “Kyler Murray, gifted quarterback and humble Heisman winner,” but also the man who was forced to apologize for his alleged homophobia. And for what purpose? Which cause did the reporter advance? Where was the cultural gain in Murray’s pain?

The incidents happen so fast, and the firings are so quick, that they start to blur together. Can you remember November’s victims? October’s? Who lost their jobs this summer? Who was forced to apologize this spring?

In other words, if you’re in the middle of the shame storm, you can only take it. Even the act of self-defense magnifies the incident and magnifies the harm. It’s as if one doesn’t just wear the scarlet letter: It’s tattooed on one’s forehead in ever-brighter and bolder shades the longer the controversy endures.

I know that complex social phenomena have multiple and complex causes, but consider the terrible surge in teen depression and suicides — a surge that led Jean Twenge to ask in The Atlantic, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” She tracks the tipping point at the moment when smartphone ownership became ubiquitous with young Americans. In 2012, the percentage of Americans who owned smartphones passed 50 percent. In 2012, the mental health of teenagers declined dramatically.

Of course, the “smartphone” is a stand-in for what’s on the phone, and what’s on the phone is a stunning amount of fury and intolerance. Look, for example, at this chart of political hatred in the United States, from the new book Prius or Pickup: How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide:

Teen depression, adult political anger, adult “deaths of despair,” shame campaigns — I don’t think we can look at any of these things entirely in isolation. Instead, I see them as symptoms of a post-Christian America that has become intolerably intolerant. It is a society without grace. It’s a society that’s all too often devoid of mercy — or in which the merciful don’t have nearly the same cultural power as the merciless.

Human beings need forgiveness like we need oxygen. The thing that is so shattering about the shame storm is that it is usually grounded in something a person did wrong — even if it’s a minor transgression. Even if it’s just momentary thoughtlessness. Even if it’s just a tweet. In her essay, Andrews described how the attack from her boyfriend was grounded in her very real mistreatment of him during their relationship. Take any given controversy, and you’ll usually find that the person at the center isn’t proud of what they did. They wish they hadn’t done it. At some level, the person at the center of the shame storm is also ashamed of themselves.

Oh, we can “do justice” — with vindictive glee. But are we kind? Do we have the slightest trace of humility? As any Christian who grew up in the bonds of fundamentalist legalism can tell you, justice untempered by mercy grinds the human heart into dust. And now we’re besieged by a secular fundamentalism that positively delights in inflicting pain on its enemies.

Of course we can and should disagree — even sharply — with bad ideas, but we should take very great care before any person uses the power of their platform — great or small — to attempt to humiliate another human being. Criticism can be conducted with respect and with the humble awareness that our own mistakes are ample and easily found. In fact, it’s hard to improve on Helen Andrews’s wise counsel:

The solution, then, is not to try to make shame storms well targeted, but to make it so they happen as infrequently as possible. Editors should refuse to run stories that have no value except humiliation, and readers should refuse to click on them. It is, after all, the moral equivalent of contributing your rock to a public stoning. We should all develop a robust sense of what is and is not any of our business. Shame can be useful — and even necessary — but it is toxic unless a relationship exists between two people first. A Twitter mob is no more a basis for salutary shaming than an actual mob is for reasoned discussion. That would be true even if the shaming’s relics were not preserved forever by Google, making any kind of rehabilitation impossible.

Or, perhaps it is better to end less with an exhortation than a warning — one grounded in ancient truth: “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” An intolerant nation is a miserable nation. Only forgiveness can light the trail out of the darkness.

By David French and published in National Review on December 12, 2019 and can be found here.

 

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