Essay: The New Puritan Shame Culture


In the April 1886 issue of The Atlantic Monthly Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel, reviewed his father’s The Scarlett Letter. Towards the conclusion of his stunning, 9,000+ word essay, the younger Hawthorne reflected on the moral irony of  Hester Prynne’s world:

 This [the scarlet A] is her punishment, the heaviest that man can afflict upon her. But, like all legal punishment, it aims much more at the protection of society than at the reformation of the culprit. Hester is to stand as a warning to others tempted as she was: if she recovers her own salvation in the process, so much the better for her; but, for better or worse, society has ceased to have any concern with her.

“We trample you down,” society says in effect to those who break its laws, “not by any means in order to save your soul,—for the welfare of that problematical adjunct to your civic personality is a matter of complete indifference to us,—but because, by some act, you have forfeited your claim to our protection, because you are a clog to our prosperity, and because the spectacle of your agony may discourage others of similar unlawful inclinations.”

But it is obvious, all the while, that the only crime which society recognizes is the crime of being found out, since a society composed of successful hypocrites would much more smoothly fulfill all social requirements than a society of such heterogeneous constituents as (human nature being what it is) necessarily enter into it now.

At the center of our cultural moral identity today is a paradox; we are an ever-increasingly permissive and simultaneously intolerant society. Even as millennials are the first generation in American to history to celebrate the transgenderism of a public figure, they are also caught in a vicious cultural mire of shaming, vindictiveness, and postmodern puritanical preening that rivals their 17th century ancestors.

It seems that we have a dysfunctional American conscience. As a culture, our shared moral vocabulary offers neither a reliable narrative of transcendent human dignity and purpose, nor a consistent ethic of tolerance and compassion for those unlike us. We are like the Laodicean church in the book of Revelation, neither hot nor cold, merely lukewarm.  Americans may celebrate their evolved sense of “Tolerance” one moment, only to savagely shame and belittle someone who disagrees with them the next.

Owing largely to the recent publication of Jon Ronson’s well-reviewed book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, some light is being shed on the cavernous world of social media “shaming,” a merciless phenomenon that is more common and more serious than many—perhaps most—believe. Of course, few people would be surprised to learn there are dark corners of the internet or that  digital anonymity can bring out the worst in people. But the problem of public shaming goes beyond meanness. In its worst manifestations, shaming is a weapon wielded by volunteer morality gatekeepers to, as Julian Hawthorne put it, “trample you down.”

Even the most astute social commentary on public shaming seems unable to either understand its fundamental motivations or offer a realistic, virtuous alternative to shame-culture. Readers are usually asked to take for granted (understandably) that what happened to Justine Sacco, for example, was immoral, unfair, and avoidable. Of course that’s true. But it’s also true that Sacco and many others who have seen their lives upended by a public shaming campaign have, in fact, said or done something shameful. It is not enough to appreciate how public shaming can ruin a life. We need more, specifically, a viable, morally authoritative worldview of relating to those who offend us or others.

Julian Hawthorne’s insights into his father’s novel might be helpful in remedying our deficient understanding of contemporary public shaming. Hawthorne is on to something when he identifies the public shaming of Hester Prynne as non-redemptive and merely the removal of a “clog” from the engine of the culture. The hypocrisy of the moral authorities of Puritan Boston was not only that they were guilty of sin as well, but that they turned sinners away from the society and the hope of redemption under the pretense of holiness.

In the case of online shaming, this is even more apparent. What happens in social media is far from the reconciliatory purpose of confrontation as taught by Jesus in Matthew 16. As Ronson notes in his chilling accounts, the purpose of social media shaming seems to be to deluge an offending person(s) with enough derision and scorn that they are forced to disappear from the public eye in a kind of enforced penitence. Social media shaming is not at all meant for reconciliation or personal healing; quite the opposite, in fact—the more offense and outrage can be generated, the better.  Exacerbating all this is a communication medium that rewards participants not for temperance, patience and forbearance, but for immediacy and cleverness. If outrage is the currency of social media, than shaming is a blue-chip stock.

Hawthorne writes that the well-being of Hester’s soul was irrelevant to the culture that shamed her. What was important was not making sure Hester was right with God and others but ensuring that the civic machine could continue to operate in a shared illusion, namely, the illusion of societal salvation. Cutting off the diseased limb (a la: social shaming and exile) was essential to preserving people’s trust in culture as a moral and authoritative body. This is why, as Hawthorne commented, the only real crime to which society responds is the crime of being exposed.

This contra-benevolent desire to keep the community free of anything that disturbs a narrative of cultural holiness is remarkably descriptive of much of our culture-warring today. Consider the astonishing absolutism with which some proponents of same-sex marriage engage those who disagree with them. In many cases, the motivations are made explicit: Opinions which contradict a majoritarian view on sexuality must be exiled out of the public square. What is this, if not a Puritanical impulse to keep society “pure” and maintain the citizenry’s religious faith in it?

The Scarlet Letter’s context was, of course, a Christian-Puritan one. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s choice of the minister Arthur Dimmesdale to be the secret co-operative in Hester’s sin was not only a literary stroke of genius but an identification by Hawthorne of where the balance of power was tilted. The apparatus of Hester’s shame was the nominal Christianity of cultural Puritanism. But nominal Christianity is, as Russell Moore argues in his upcoming book Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, no Christianity at all. The civic religion of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Boston was merely an unholy hybrid of spiritual jargon, political influence and socioeconomic identity.

We find ourselves in 2015 without a sociopolitical Christianity ruling the day,  yet we still have an undeniably ruthless apparatus of public shaming. So what is the fuel of the outrage machine today? Certainly it is not the assumed, civic Christianity that Hester Prynn and Arthur Dimmesdale encountered. Instead it is an assumed, civic secularism. Civic secularism is the cultural morality of society that is “progressing” beyond the assumptions of God, transcendent morality and human worth that buoyed Western civilization for more than a millennium. Rather than stories of divine design and objective moral goodness, civic secularism trades in narratives of personal autonomy, scientism, and utilitarian ethics (“Do you what you desire but harm no one”).

What the architects of this New Morality miss is the irony of substituting one puritanism for another. The Sexual Revolution promised that all who trusted in its promises would experience perhaps discomfort at first but afterwards a generation of happy, autonomous individuals rid of the socially constricting irritants of religious morality or transcendent truth. It also warned that those who resisted its march would find themselves on “the wrong side of history,” rendered irrelevant to the culture at best and an obstacle to progress at worst. The promise of the Sexual Revolution has yet to be fulfilled, but the threat has fared better. Julian Hawthorne said the society depicted in his father’s novel desired to “trample you down” when you have “forfeited your claim to our protection.” If that is not an accurate description of what’s happening with Gordon College, than I don’t know what is.

The simple fact is that our grade-school literature classes were wrong. It was not American Puritanism that designed shame culture, it was Puritan Americanism.  We no longer have the kind of national, tacit, civic Christianity that The Scarlet Letter depicted, yet we still have the shaming scaffolds (they’re called social media now) and we still have ineffable moral codes that must not be trespassed. These codes may not be Levitical but they are indeed legalistic: laws about privilege, sexual autonomy, “trigger warnings,” and much, much more. Violation of these laws can and do result not only in public shame but legal prosecution.

It surely must befuddle those on the inside track of our transforming culture—just as we seem to be learning what true progress is, we rebuild the shaming scaffolds of our Puritan forefathers. Can we not have a culture that embraces the moral equivalence of all forms of sexual expression, the existential (read: non-transcendent) nature of love, and the casting off of ancient beliefs about God and the universe, while simultaneously widening the margins of civic life to include all kinds of beliefs, even those that discomfort us? Cannot we live out the promises of the Sexual Revolution while saving a place in our midst for those who opt out?

No, we cannot. The reason is simple: A broken American conscience cannot be trusted. Compassion is a class that secularism doesn’t offer. Exchanging the Puritanism of Arthur Dimmesdale for the Puritanism of Alfred Kinsey is not progress. Cultural elites may say we are becoming a better people because we break with human history on the meaning of marriage or the dignity of human life, but a glance outside suggests otherwise.

Author: Samuel D. James

Believer, husband, father, acquisitions editor, writer.

9 thoughts on “Essay: The New Puritan Shame Culture”

  1. I don’t really see the material you presented justifying your conclusion. When traditional Christian culture was dominant it used shaming to maintain it’s ethical standards. Institutional racism maintained itself for a hundred years after the civil war the same way. This phenomena is implicit in human nature and no set of ethics or beliefs, Christian or otherwise, is likely to rescue us from it. I sympathize with being on the receiving end of a dominant cultures shaming wrath, entering the public square with a liberal opinion 35 years ago in Texas was certainly fraught with personal risk for me. The fact is we all have a right to the public square but the dominant culture has never had an obligation to welcome us. You should continue to advocate for your values in the public square, vigorously. But, at least for now, you might have to pick up a cross to do it.


  2. I am a high school teacher; there is a Twitter war going on here because a boy wore a “meninist” shirt. The kid recapping the twitter war waxed very philosophic about it, regarding how people express support for tolerance often in a hostile way. I mentioned this post and am giving him a copy. You never know who you’re going to affect.


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