There are occasions when my past as a professor of Religious Studies comes back to haunt me. I left academics just as social media began to overwhelm our culture. In fact, one of the seminal moments for me as a teacher came one day when I noticed that all of the students immediately began to engage with technology as soon as class ended. Cell phones popped out; laptops opened; Ipod earbuds were inserted (this was 2007 or 2008, I think). Not a single student engaged another student or me in conversation. I realized then that not only was an enormous cultural shift occurring, but that we were seeing a transformation in the very nature of community (and this was at a liberal arts college that claimed to value community).
Many people much smarter and insightful than me have had a great deal to say about the effects of social media on culture, community, discourse, and religious life. I agree with much of that analysis. Clearly, tectonic shifts are taking place. What I want to focus on here is what I want call “rituals of outrage.” That’s not quite an accurate descriptor, for what I’m pondering are not precisely rituals, but rather internet memes; and not necessarily memes, but the way in which certain images or stories become identity markers.
Others have pointed this out in different ways. For example, Elizabeth Drescher has written insightfully about the way “prayer” is used on the internet during times of national crisis (Newtown, the Boston Marathon bombings, as examples). There was discussion of how many people turned their twitter avatars or facebook profile photos into the equality symbol after the Supreme Court struck down DOMA. But what I’m interested in is something just a little bit different.
Last week, my twitter and facebook feeds were lit up by outrage after Fox News host Megyn Kelly declared that both Santa Claus and Jesus were white. Now, none of the people voicing their outrage on either feeds were regular consumers of Fox News. My guess is that the only time they accessed Fox was on occasions just like this one—when someone said something outrageous enough to rile them up. The same is true of this week’s controversy over Duck Dynasty. Perhaps of my around 2000 facebook friends and twitter followers a half-dozen or so have actually watched Duck Dynasty; but that didn’t prevent them from posting their displeasure in what whoever said in an interview with GQ.
Why is outrage of this sort posted on the internet? To take the example of the equality symbol that became ubiquitous after the Supreme Court’s ruling. It seems to have been an identity marker, a way of associating oneself with a historical event and marking oneself on the side of change. In the case of Megyn Kelly or Duck Dynasty, something similar seems to be in play. By sharing the post, one easily identifies oneself for everyone else (even though it’s likely that everyone who follows you on twitter or has friended you on Facebook pretty much knows where you stand on such matters). To fail to like or share or retweet such things calls into question one’s integrity as a progressive. Such things—memes, if you must—have become identity markers, necessities to maintain one’s membership and purity in the group.
But as identity markers, they also help to separate. They become identifiers of the division between right and wrong, sacred and profane. They are boundary markers for those who belong and those who don’t. And because they are overwhelmingly visual in nature, they emphasize outward conformity and non-conformity. They simplify and gloss over nuance. And they also arouse emotion, indignation, and outrage. Whether or not what Megyn Kelly and the dude from Duck Dynasty said were incorrect or inappropriate, my question is why do those of us who don’t watch or listen or pay attention to them in normal circumstances, why do we feel a need to take a public stand on them? And more importantly, if we do express our outrage about such statements publicly, are we alienating those who might feel uncomfortable when hearing such statements like those of Kelly’s, but aren’t able to articulate or even imagine what a different approach might be? If we are so concerned to establish our progressive bona fides, do we shut the door to people are struggling to find a way out of fundamentalism and bigotry?
I suppose that what I’m trying to get at is the implications for evangelism of participating in these sorts of memes. Where’s the good news in jumping on the bandwagon of the latest Fox News outrage? The easy thing is to distinguish oneself or one’s church from bigotry and homophobia. The more difficult task is to reach out to those who are struggling to break free from the confines of their closed systems, that they may experience a broader and deeper love of Christ encompassing all of humanity and all of creation. The boundaries and markers we establish and maintain do not make such transitions easy.