The Outrage Culture, Christianity and the Battle for Freedom of Speech and Conscience
By Michael Anderson
“If the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb
and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
George Washington, March 15, 1783
It is nearly impossible to read the headlines today without being confronted with the increasing hyper-sensitivity of America and the outrage culture it has engendered. College campuses are at the vortex of this phenomenon; it is a tall task to keep abreast of all the instances of “disinvited” commencement speakers and banned speakers, impeached student government officers, and fired professors, let alone the countless students dragged before disciplinary panels. All of these accused offenders are swiftly punished for the sin of voicing often widely-held opinions which, nevertheless, a few empowered individuals have deemed “offensive,” and thus violations of university civility codes or “safe spaces.” The culture of hyper-sensitivity has become so prevalent that President Obama dedicated several minutes of a speech to college students in Des Moines, IA, in late 2015 to address it: “I’ve heard of some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative. Or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans, or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women…I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.” Even comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock refuse to set foot on college campuses anymore due to students protesting their appearances and interfering with their acts.
This outrage culture has spread well beyond college campuses, however. It has penetrated corporate America through carefully worded, but liberally interpreted, codes of conduct (especially as applied to religious and political speech). The outrage culture applies external pressures through boycotts and public shaming of organizations which employ people who dare to harbor “offensive” personal beliefs. For example, Dr. Eric Walsh, a public health expert and pastor, was fired by the Georgia Department of Health after his colleagues downloaded his online sermons about health, marriage, sexuality, and world religions and demanded his removal on grounds that he was unfit for employment based on his personal beliefs. The outrage culture is not content to sit on the sidelines in professional sports, either, where league offices seem to be competing to reach higher heights in the “outrageousphere.” The National Football League, in particular, has been an active participant, both in giving offense (the Washington Redskins’ mascot is considered particularly offensive) and taking offense (the recent threats to withhold business opportunities to teams located in states whose legislation offends the league’s leadership).
Even Hollywood is not immune to this phenomenon. The entire screenwriting team and cast of the movie Zoolander 2 came under fire when its trailer was released due to Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of a non-binary (i.e., neither male nor female) fashion model, which was described as transphobic and a “cartoonish mockery of androgyne/trans/non-binary individuals” in a Care2 petition set up to boycott the movie. This, despite the fact that one of the main individuals drawing attention to the offense, Jennie Kermode, Chair of Trans Media Watch, acknowledged all the characters in the movie were meant to be shallow and that it was “difficult to form a clear impression of what Benedict Cumberbatch’s character is like from the trailer alone.” Nevertheless, that a non-binary character was played by a cisgendered actor (i.e., someone whose gender conforms with his or her – or zir – biological sex) and might be a negative stereotype, was enough to cause outrage. Will Ferrell pleaded the movie’s cause, stating, “We are making fun of a bunch of things,” and that people should not take comedy so seriously. This explanation did not suffice. Social media picked up on the outrage, and the petition to boycott the film was signed by over 25,000 people. One of the screenwriters, Justin Theroux, responded to the criticism with an ironic defense by saying it “hurts my feelings,” especially since he is “all for letting words be ugly when the target is correct.”
Such a mindset begs the question, what is the “correct” target? By what standards should offense be judged and offensive people punished? According to Mr. Theroux, and many who enable the outrage culture, the standard of judgment is personal preference. They support the policing of words and ideas, as long as the words and ideas they find offensive are punished. To complicate matters, it is not one bright line of offensive thought society is being asked to mind, but rather hundreds of millions of opaque, inconsistent, and evolving lines that, together, create a formidable minefield in which the freedom to pursue truth through discussion and reason gives way to timid submission to the feelings and desires of the readily offended.
The end goal of the outrage culture is not a more civil society. Freedom of speech is a manifestation of freedom of conscience. To regulate the words we use is to frame the way we think, and thereby influence how we interact with our world. It is no wonder that a battle is raging over the right to voice an opinion, particularly between those who wish to push the ideas of popular society and those who choose to adhere to Biblical standards.
THE LACK OF ABSOLUTE STANDARDS CAUSES CONFUSION
A lack of absolute standards causes instability. This is why United States foreign policy champions the rule of law, a legal principle considered a fundamental building block of free societies. The principle states that a clearly spelled out set of laws should govern a nation, and every citizen (including the law maker) should be subject to that same set of laws. When the rule of law is employed, society is freed to make rational decisions protected by a known set of principles, rather than being at the mercy of arbitrary, fickle, or biased whims of government potentates. It frees people to make decisions based on reasoned deliberation, not fear.
Without absolute standards, society is susceptible to demagoguery, which is what fuels the outrage culture. Demagoguery gains momentum by pandering to emotions and triggering gut reactions, rather than relying on facts, statistics and civil discussion. It extols and empowers whomever shouts the loudest and makes the sharpest accusations, regardless of the message or its underpinnings. It appeals to the worst sides of human nature – self-interest and self-preservation – in equal measure. Inconsistent standards cannot be corralled as a tool to effect beneficial social change, but rather are employed as convenient weapons to achieve personal gains. As a culture becomes susceptible to demagoguery, there will be many unexpected casualties along the way. This was evident during this year’s Oscars awards ceremony.
The #OscarsSoWhite controversy, in which some African American actors and directors publicly denounced the Oscar selection committee for lack of diversity in the nominees, dominated the narrative surrounding the awards ceremony. Chris Rock criticized the lack of diversity from the podium (even while perpetuating Asian stereotypes with jokes and skits, exposing an overt hypocrisy in the philosophy). The ensuing blanket accusations of racism against African Americans leveled at the selection committee (i.e., every voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – all 6000+ of them) were addressed by the swift action of the President of the Academy, Cheryl Boone Isaacs (an African American woman), who quickly offered older Academy members (who presumably contributed the most to this perceived racism) as the scapegoats. She announced that the older members would be aged out of voting as a direct result of the controversy. No period of analysis. No pause for deliberate conversation. Just an immediate gut reaction. Subsequent responses were quick to point out that Oscar nominees are far more a result of the whole system – decisions made by the studios, networks and talent agencies which cast roles and produce films – than any individual voting member of the Academy, yet the outraged mob, along with its media echo, had already extracted its pound of flesh by using implications and accusations to achieve its goal.
The demonization of a group or ideology on such cursory evidence is a staple of the outrage culture. This tactic bypasses the need to prove individual actions are offensive on their own merit by setting up a strawman (a legitimately bad thing, such as racism or hate, generally) and creating the perception that the group or ideas support the strawman. It whips up negative publicity, spurs gut reactions, and issues threatening demands. A society which has no absolute standards by which to judge truth is easily influenced by such strategies.
DIFFERENT IDEOLOGICAL STARTING POINTS LEAD TO DIFFERENT RESULTS
At its core, the outrage movement is not devoid of merit. Freedom of speech can be abused. That is why organizations like MovieGuide are necessary. There are overwhelming statistics that prove over-exposure to profanity, hyper-sexualization, and violence in media – all abuses of the freedom of speech – cause great harm on both a personal and societal level.
It is the duty of Christians to stand against these harmful influences, especially as they effect children. Also, although it is unavoidable that beliefs based on Biblical standards will offend some people, Christians should not be eager to go out of their way to offend others. Everyone can agree with these basic principles. Nevertheless, there are ideological differences behind the Christian motivation to stand against abuses in freedom of speech and the motivation that drives adherents of the outrage movement. These differences lead to dramatically different results:
1. Christians are to protect freedom to dissent. God granted humanity freedom to dissent. He does not force anyone to believe or follow Him or His way. It stands to reason that God believes that freedom of conscience is an essential component of humanity. The outrage culture, as we’ve seen, has waged a war against freedom to dissent, which is ultimately an effort to rein in freedom of conscience.
2. Christians have an absolute standard. God has set clear boundaries of right and wrong as set forth in the Bible. What offends us personally is of little relevance. The Biblical standard is to be applied consistently and fairly, and not solely when it is to our own benefit. The Biblical standard will convict us, as often as it convicts those outside the faith. It focuses on discrete sins, rather than vague feelings. Hate it or love it, it is a clear standard.
The outrage culture does not yet believe in an absolute standard. Instead, this “new” culture is in a period of discovery where all are invited to pursue what seems right in their own eyes, explore their feelings, and search out their complaints against others. As such, there can be no absolute standard until every non-offensive feeling has been accounted for, or certain special interests have secured a strong enough position to enforce a new standard, which, of a necessity, will be at the exclusion of the feelings of others.
3. Christians are commanded to show grace. Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek in the face of offense. To forgive. To love our enemy. And to bless those that curse us. Although it goes against human nature, we must strive to be gracious and fair to those who hold differing philosophical beliefs, including those we find offensive. To the outrage culture, grace represents a lost opportunity. Watch the YouTube videos featuring crowds of angry students shouting down professors, as the students at Yale University did recently when an ideologically-aligned professor had the gall to defend freedom of speech. Christians do not have the right to treat anyone in this manner. We have been forgiven much and must, in turn, be ready to forgive others whatever grievance they may have committed against us.
4. Christians are required to do unto others as we would have them do to us. Biblical standards are often at odds with both the world’s standards and our desires. Even as we want the world to abide by principles that are beneficial to society, so we also should hold ourselves to the same high standards.
The outrage culture often applies inconsistent standards to achieve its goals. For instance, attempts to eliminate racism (a noble goal) increasingly have employed other forms of racism, such as the nefarious concept of “white privilege,” where people are shamed and silenced based on nothing more than the color of their skin. As an African-American, I would be thrilled if the day came where skin color was a non-issue, but creating a new “stigmajority” and silencing and discrediting people based on the color of their skin is not the way to achieve that goal.
In addition, picking just one of many potential types of “privileges” is disingenuous. For instance, how can we talk about privilege without mentioning that citizens of the United States, regardless of race or socioeconomic background, are among the most privileged people in the world? Also, people who are born into two parent families, or with household income in the six figures, enjoy more privilege than those who don’t, regardless of categorization? Or that anyone who has attended college is privileged above those who haven’t had the opportunity? There is no attempt to silence these demographics. The outrage culture is not interested in self-examination of its own privileges, only using the concept of privilege as a weapon to achieve its own self-interests.
5. Christians are just passing through. Christians are to think of themselves as pilgrims passing through this life, with sights set on a different citizenship. As such, we have no realistic expectation that this world will conform to our ideologies of its own volition and without God’s intervention, and should feel no entitlement toward that end. Being in the world, but not of the world lends us a perspective that is somewhat detached from the stakes of this world. Not so of the outrage culture. It is very passionate about shaping this world. For many, this life is all they can look forward to; anything that prevents their pursuit of happiness is, therefore, a grave threat.
These ideological differences highlight why the outrage culture has spread so quickly; it is fueled by an almost religious zeal to protect its adherents’ sovereignty over their own lives and the seduction of realizing an effective means to achieve self-interests is in their hands. Unfortunately, Christians have been less zealous (complacent, even) in advocating God’s sovereignty over ours.
AN UNCHANGING MANDATE GUIDES OUR PATH FORWARD
What is the correct response to this cultural phenomenon of hyper-sensitivity and its war on the freedoms of conscience and speech? The role of a Christian in this environment is no different than it has always been.
1. Process situations through the lens of our absolute standard. Without relying on our absolute standard, it is easy to get sucked into the confusion of this world. We must read our Bibles daily. We must commit to zealous prayer lives. For the past four months, encouraged in part by the movie War Room, my family has committed the first hour of our day, seven days a week, to prayer and Bible reading. Wisdom yields clarity. Only in making a serious commitment to understanding God’s principles will we be able to correctly assess and respond to situations as they arise.
2. Prepare our responses with an eye toward grace. Hyper-sensitivity often is expressed in accusations and dismissals, especially if opposition is shown. Our natural reaction may be to respond in kind, but we must reject that urge. Jesus is our best example for responding to such behavior. He prayed for God’s forgiveness of his murderers as he hung on the cross, noting that they didn’t understand what they were doing.
Many in this world are blind to truth. They are groping in darkness, trying to find their personal version of absolute truth, even as they attempt to keep their standards synchronized with the world’s evolving concepts of what is morally and socially acceptable. It is a confusing, sometimes scary, place to be in. This is all the more reason for Christians to strive to always be compassionate and respond in grace to those around us.
3. Accept our responsibility to be salt and light. Christians must not avoid standing for truth in order to seek the world’s approval. We are called to be lights in a dark world; the darker the world, the more our light should shine. We are called to be the salt of the earth. If we don’t stand up for God’s gift of freedom of conscience, perhaps our salt has lost its savor.
4. Be resolved to carry our crosses. Because so much is at stake in this fight for freedom of speech and conscience, Christians must not expect the opposition to be gentle. There will likely be name calling and labels assigned. There may be some embarrassment, or friendships lost for the sake of standing for freedom and truth. There may be opportunities and jobs lost, as in the case of Dr. Walsh, mentioned above. But Jesus said if we aren’t willing to lose everything for Him, we aren’t worthy of Him.
A PRACTICAL APPLICATION OF THE BIBLICAL MANDATE
As an author and screenwriter, one of the ways I fulfill this mandate to be salt and light is by telling stories that point toward truth. My most recent novel, The Civility Code, confronts the growing aversion to all things deemed offensive and the dangers it poses to the freedom of conscience. It is meant not only as a social critique to encourage readers to think critically, much like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, but also as an encouragement and blueprint to those who are willing to stand up for freedom of speech and conscience.
The Civility Code is set in the United States of the near future, a dystopian world where it is illegal to offend others. Over 14,000 words and phrases have been added to a Prohibited List, and anyone caught using them is prosecuted by the Civility Commission (CivCom) led by the zealous Commissioner Collis Lafferty, a man driven to expunge all offense from civilized society. A small group of hacktivists, X, are the last remaining civil dissidents. When their leader Sid the Squid, the world’s most famous hacker and CivCom’s most vocal critic, is arrested, the responsibility of preserving freedom of opinion falls on the pseudonymous members of X including Sylas the Stylus, Bucky Lastard, and NebuLes. They are plunged into a race against time as they try to stop Commissioner Lafferty’s purge before CivCom uncovers their true identities and prosecutes them under the Civility Code.
There are many reasons why Jesus used story-telling to impart truth. People relate to stories. We see ourselves in the characters and situations. We empathize with love and heartbreak, desires and failures. We long for redemption. Stories stick with us and cause us to process our world in a different way. Unfortunately, our culture is being fed a divisive story framed by the outrage movement.
Story-telling isn’t solely within the purview of artists. Each Christian has a great story to tell. It is about grace and forgiveness. It is about salvation from our own fallen nature. It is about hope and love. It is about a God-given right to freedom of conscience and a responsibility to speak the truth.
There is a battle raging over the right to voice an opinion. I encourage you not to leave that battle for someone else to fight.
Editor’s Note: Michael W. Anderson is a novelist and screenwriter who writes dystopian science fiction.
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