On Out-Group Shaming

The internet is used to shame people. This should be news to no one.

The internet is also a space for discourse. From this arises the practice of out-group shaming.

What do I mean by out-group shaming? On issues where there are different sides/groups/camps/positions, one side can point out and shame the other side whenever members of that other side do something wrong or bad. So, for example, Right Wing Watch is a website dedicated to “monitoring and exposing the activities of the right-wing movement.”

One immediate critique of this activity that comes to mind is that, by only focusing on negatives, it can skew perceptions and misrepresent the reality of a group. This is a fair critique, but it does not exclude all reasons for out-group shaming. For example, when discussing complementary and alternative medicine, detractors will point out that the evidence shows alternative medicine has no effect. A response to this point is to ask: “What’s the harm?” To answer this response, the website What’s The Harm? chronicles examples of harm done to people because they used alternative medicines and modalities.

What’s The Harm?’s dedicated out-group shaming has a purpose. It cannot be faulted for focusing on the negative because the point it is making is one in which that negativity is important. The website is literally pointing out harm. It is demonstrating that one cannot simply dismiss critiques of alternative medicine by claiming it is harmless.

Most websites dedicated to drawing attention to religious harm come from a similar position. Their aim is to rebut the argument that religion is needed because it has a positive effect by pointing out its ills.

Although out-group shaming can be useful, it is clearly prone to abuse. When not done with a good purpose or intent, out-group shaming basically devolves into the worst kind of schadenfreude. Moreover, if one is not careful, it is easy to try and justify pointless out-group shaming by referencing good reasons.

With this in mind, I want to point out two articles from the Friendly Atheist blog that, to my mind, fall under the category of pointless out-group shaming. The first was a post about a 14 year-old girl in Arkansas who found a valuable diamond and named it after God. The girl chose to name the diamond after God because, according to the girl, God helped her find it. The post points out that God probably didn’t help her find the diamond.

The story is that a young teenager found a diamond worth a lot of money. That’s what Fox News and the New York Daily News focused on. The fact that the young woman named the diamond after God because she feels God helped her find it is simply a part of personalizing a personal interest story.

Had the headlines been “God Helps Teen Find Valuable Diamond,” then there would be reason to address the claim. But that’s not what happened. This was a small story about one girl’s lucky find. Nothing more. Lauren Lane, the author of the Friendly Atheist post, acknowledges that she’s critiquing a young person, but she misses the general irrelevance of the story. The issue isn’t that she’s 14 years old. The issue is that you’re simply picking on someone for being religious.

The second post is about a “creepy bible teacher who recruited teenagers for his secret sex society.” In short, a teacher at a Christian academy coaxed a couple teenagers to join his made up secret society where he sexually assaulted them. This is a sad story, and the guy is a sick fuck who deserves more than the 12-year sentence he received. But the only reason the story appeared on the Friendly Atheist blog is because of the irrelevant point that the guy was religious.

Yes, the guy tied Christianity into his made up secret society, but this point is purely and obviously circumstantial. As such, an atheist blog that wants to draw attention to real harms done by religion has no reason to mention this story. Yes, this story needs to appear in the news. It is more than the space-filling personal interest story of the young woman and the diamond. But it has no place on an atheist blog, at least as I far as I can see.

Both of these stories, to my mind, are pointless acts of out-group shaming. They are mere schadenfreude. In fact, I would go so far as to call them onanistic Christian-bashing. Yes, bashing the other side can help solidify in-group bonds, and it is a guilty pleasure all groups participate in from time to time. However, these examples feel gratuitous to me. Especially since they appear on the Friendly Atheist blog. As the name implies, the mission of the blog seems to be more than base Christian bashing.

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5 comments

  1. tmso · October 25, 2013

    Interesting…I do see your point. But I don’t see why either case shouldn’t be on their blog. I didn’t read the original articles you are referring to (I know, I will, right after I post this comment making a fool out of myself for not pre-reading your referenced material, but…), but I can kind of understand why they posted about a young girl naming a diamond after her god and a religious leader who preyed upon his students. They each point to what some would think is a harmless mentality or harmless figure of authority.

    In the first case, the girl’s sentiment that her god helped her find the diamond illustrates just how pervasive those kind of thoughts are with the religious devote. I mean, if she had said, her god helped her find the cure for cancer, wouldn’t that be a similar sentiment stemming from a similar dogmatic view of life? The fact that she would automatically attribute her finding *anything* to a deity shows a lack of understanding of the world that is frightening. Reminding us all why we don’t like religion because it masks the true reasons for finding anything (random coincidence or hard science).

    In the second case, I think an article that reminds us why blind faith in our religious leaders (whose whole premise demands unquestioning adherence from their followers) can lead to extreme abuses and long-lasting harm.

    I do see your point, though. I’ll definitely try to read future articles with your (this) post in mind.

    • thecaveatlector · October 25, 2013

      My primary issue with the first case is that it is a story about a girl who found a diamond. Nothing more. It turns out that the girl thinks God helped her find the diamond, but this is not the focus of the story. This is just who the girl turns out to be. The girl could be any girl and the story would be the same: girl finds diamond.

      Now, this story could have been used to illustrate how seemingly rare occurrences can be quite common. However, that is not the approach the blog post took. This is why I wanted to differentiate between purposeful and purposeless out-group shaming. When purposeful, it can be having a laugh at someone, but it will also be informative. When purposeless, it is just having a laugh at someone.

      The second case, to my mind, is the more egregious case. The only reason this story is brought up is because he is religious. Again, his religiosity is irrelevant to the story, and the blog post does nothing but repeat the events. If there was a rash of Bible teachers using made up secret societies to sexually abuse teenagers, I would understand bringing up this story. However, it seems to me that the post could have been: “HA HA, look at this stupid Christian.” with a hyperlink to the news article and it would have accomplished the same thing.

      On Reddit? Fine. Whatever. Schadenfreude has its place. But on one of the hub blogs of the atheist community, I think they can do better.

  2. Jaco van der Byl · October 26, 2013

    Being a former Christian myself, I try hard not to bash religious people, and to debate and engage with them with civility. Attack the idea, not the person. Most people deserve respect, even if their beliefs might not.

    So I think you have a point. The first blog post for sure. The second, I’m not sure I agree with you. It looks like religion did have some part to play..

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