The social dynamics of our modern culture often feel like a strange new game with new rules that often invoke odd behaviors. I have heard many people lament things like our culture’s victim mentality, the weakness of our generation’s men, fragility of young people in general, and how lazy and unintellectual our culture is. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has studied cultural phenomena like these and does an excellent job of identifying and describing our modern cultural habits. He has terms to describe behavior that we typically only know when we see them.
Haidt laments with many of us over the state of fragile young people and blames a mixture of what he calls “Call-Out Culture” and “Prestige Economy“. I find his description to be the closest to reality that I have heard, but what is unfortunate is that his description of our culture includes some of the foremost in church authority.
First, his description: he says that with the rise of technology, social media, and over-protected children, it birthed a phenomenon he named “Call-Out Culture”. This is a generation who has been raised to feel rewarded for “calling out” others; that is publicly looking for, identifying, and bringing great attention to the moral and ethical failings of another person. In other words, this describes the iPhone justice we see so much of, where one person captures video of another in the act of some malicious behavior, broadcasts it to the world, and the malicious person receives the scowl of social media. And our culture has learned this behavior because we have, what Haidt calls, a “prestige economy”. This means that since our basic needs are typically met (food, clothing, shelter, etc.) the only thing we are in want of is prestige; recognition or notoriety. We get it from accomplishments and relationships, but also from public acknowledgement for acts such calling someone out on their failures. Many people enjoy the recognition of being a social justice warrior and like the feeling of defending the “oppressed” or “marginalized”. But we have created a culture that enjoys the means more than the ends.
This is why many people in public eye (or people who think they are) are so quick to publicly condemn immoral behavior. You can see it any time some story hits the national level, and it plays out like a script. Mass shooting — the senators, and principals, and pastors, and twitterers say “we condemn violence”. Sexual misconduct — “we condemn taking advantage of women”. Any story involving race — “we condemn racism”. “Virtue Signaling” or “Grandstanding” are more terms to describe this behavior. Its simply waving the banner of the correct ethical position in order to receive the prestige a person, or an institution, needs to maintain a healthy account in the prestige economy. It should be obvious, by this point, that the goal of prestige and recognition have no place in the Church and its people.
The recent story of students from Covington High School humiliating an elderly Native American tells the sad tale of when “Call-Out Culture” hits the Church. I won’t recount all the details, you can read a very detailed collection of accounts in this Atlantic article, but what seemed to be a video showing young men racially mocking an elderly man, became much more complicated. There were multiple parties involved, special circumstances (it occurred at a pro-life rally), and multiple viewpoints. After the dust settled, it is impossible to say that the boys were simply racist villains looking for someone to taunt. But that is exactly what many individuals and institutions accused the boys of; following the script to be relevant in the prestige economy. The most disheartening voice came from the Diocese of Covington, in which the boys belonged to. Here is a statement that has since been removed from their website:
Obviously, it was taken down because it was an overreaction. But isn’t this overreaction sickening to begin with? That the boys’ own hometown ecclesial leaders would be so hungry for recognition and social clout that they would sacrifice these young men on the altar of public relations. What used to be a phase in high school or college — being quick to condemn anything that someone interprets as offensive — is now part of the playbook of the Church?
I know that across all Christian denominations, approval and enthusiasm for the Church is lower than, say, 50 years ago, but are we so hungry to appear relevant, so desperate to say the right things, and to signal the right virtues, that we’ll throw our own high school students under the bus to earn a few social brownie points?
In the real child sacrifice of various civilizations, past and even present, there is evidence that in addition to its religious purpose, it also had a social aspect that contributed to maintaining the status of the elite. What else can describe the Covington Diocese’s actions? It looks like they were just following the actions of the other elites of our culture. Like producer Michael Green (who produced Logan, and Blade Runner 2049, among others) tweeting that no one should ever forgive the boys. Or like producer Jack Morrissey (Beauty and the Beast) tweeting a cartoon of the boys being thrown into a woodchipper. And all of this because, what? The boys did a few hand gestures that offended native Americans? Or one of the boys made offensive facial expressions? Seriously, people are devoting articles to the kids “smirk”.
The point is not that all Christians are good and couldn’t possibly offend anyone. Nor is it to suggest that all Catholic leadership is bad. The point is that the culture is powerful to influence not only individuals but entire institutions. When you start playing the culture’s game, seeking fortunes in the prestige economy, you are going to play by its rules. Perhaps this is a result of the Church in the United States being obsessed with things that have no value in the sight of God. You could argue that evangelical churches are too entwined with the Republican party and President Trump or which celebrities attend their congregation (is Justin Bieber really a Christian?). I just don’t understand why parts of the Church care so much about being culturally relevant; I really don’t.
Perhaps, there is a temptation to appeal to the culture’s purview as a way of being a light unto the world. But we may forget that light is distinct from darkness. Like salt is distinct from the food its applied to. Their power is in their distinction. If the modern Church looks just like the political leaders and public relations executives in our culture, we have lost our distinctiveness. What are we calling the world to? More of the same?
We live in a socially connected world that exacerbates this problem. The more time we and our families and our communities spend valuing the prestige economy, the more it will guide our actions. We can’t assume that we are unaffected by our culture if much of our time is spent in its realm, listening to and learning from them. Our families and communities will easily start to value the recognition of calling out others. If you are in social media now, take a look at how much of the activity is their to simply build our image. I don’t think anyone signed up for Facebook or Twitter saying, “I cannot wait to make myself look good by making others look bad”, but here we are. We must understand the implications of living in a connected world and weigh the cost of spending more time in this sphere than we need to.