Internet Outrage, Public Shaming, and the Modern-Day Pharisee Phenomenon


New York Times writer Tim Kreider coined the term, “Outrage Porn,” to describe what he sees as our culture’s insatiable search for things to be offended by.

Based on hundreds of comments and letters to the editor, Kreider says that many contemporary people feed off of feeling 1) right and 2) wronged. “Outrage Porn” resembles actual pornography in that it aims for a cheap, temporary thrill at the expense of another human being, but without any personal accountability or commitment to that human being.

It often escalates into the public shaming of groups and persons. Labeling, caricature and exclusion occur as offended parties rally together against a common enemy.

There are many forms of online shaming: The angry blog, the critical tweet, the vicious comment on Facebook. Whatever the method—people try to hurt people. Sometimes the shaming escalates into a mob, a faux-community that latches on to the negative verdict and piles on. Under the pretense of righteous indignation, the mob licks its chops as it goes about demonizing, diminishing and destroying its target.


Andy Stanley once said in a sermon that it would take just five poorly chosen words, spoken in the wrong setting, to destroy him personally and professionally. This nightmare came true for Justine Sacco, a PR consultant who posted an offensive tweet—just 12 words to her 170 followers—while boarding a flight to South Africa.

When her plane landed, Sacco discovered that her tweet had gone viral. In a few short hours she had become the headline, the inhumane bigot and common enemy to tens of thousands of people. On the basis of those 12 words, she lost her career and the life she once knew.

Looking back on the incident, Sacco reflected“I had a great career, and I loved my job, and it was taken away from me, and there was a lot of glory in that. Everybody else was happy about that.”

Imagine for a moment. Your entire life, all you had ever done or worked for, reduced to a single, 10-second lapse in character and judgment. And those who brought you down? They never met or heard of you before today, and will never again think of you after today. To those who brought you down, your name was never sacred. Rather, it was a product—Outrage Porn—to be consumed and evangelized as the latest cheap thrill.

Your character assassins will never have to look you in the eye. Nor will they be held accountable for turning you into a nothing, or for their blatant disregard for your whole, image-bearing person.


Outrage Porn is not new. The holier-than-thou New Testament Pharisees “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and looked down on others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). It’s there in Simon the Pharisee as he shames the woman anointing Jesus with perfume and washing his feet with her tears and hair. She is “a sinner.” Not a person, but a thing. Not a woman, but an animal. Not the image of God, but sub-human trash (Luke 7:36-50).

It’s also there in those who brand the woman caught in adultery with a Scarlet Letter. The mob encircles her, ready to pile on and destroy. Had Jesus not intervened, they would have destroyed her just like the Internet mob destroyed Justine Sacco for her single act, the act that she apologized for through tears. But apologies don’t make good stories, do they? They aren’t as tweetable.


The pious Pharisee’s bravado and righteous indignation is just a mask for self-justification. Forming a mob around a common enemy—around “the sinners”—was the groupthink of deeply insecure, small men looking for a way to medicate their own small egos at the expense of a scapegoat—a scapegoat who was no more shame-worthy than they.

When tempted to join the mob and to shame, maybe we should shift our eyes from the computer screen to the mirror. Maybe we should ask ourselves why we, too, enjoy the caricature and the labeling. Maybe we should ask ourselves why we, too, are prone to “like” and “share” when someone else’s whole life is reduced to their most foolish, offensive and regretted public moment.


As a Christian who is active on social media, I often remind myself that each image-bearing name is sacred. The ninth commandment, which warns against bearing false testimony of any kind about one’s neighbor, must remain in the forefront. I must remove all negative caricature—the exaggeration of someone’s worst features and the censoring out of her or his best ones—from my words, both spoken and written. It is unChristian to bless God while cursing a person with a soul.

What if instead of condemnation, we became known for giving benediction? What if instead of being on the hunt to catch people doing wrong, we went on the hunt to catch people doing right? What if instead of looking for someone to curse, we started looking for someone to bless? What if instead of naming people according to their worst behaviors and features, we named them according to their best and most God-reflecting ones?


And when the damning narrative is true? When the horrible account about a person is more reality than caricature? Even when this is the case, humble restraint and self-reflection should be the starting point.

When Ham exposed Noah for his drunkenness and nakedness, Shem and Japheth did not join in the exposing, but reversed it. Instead of forming a mob based on outrage toward their drunk Dad, the two brothers looked away from Noah’s nakedness and covered him. In doing this, the two brothers also covered and restored Noah’s good name. For this, the two received a blessing—and Ham received a curse.

And we all tremble at the thought of receiving a curse for tearing down a name and doing violence to a soul.

Or do we?

For more on this subject, you can explore Scott’s newest book, A Gentle Answer: Our ‘Secret Weapon’ in an Age of Us-Against-Them. Used by permission from Harper Collins.

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10 responses to “Internet Outrage, Public Shaming, and the Modern-Day Pharisee Phenomenon”

  1. Alan Jamison says:

    A bully’s shaming of others would die if no gave him validation.

  2. Mark says:

    But there are times when evil must be called out and evil people must be held accountable. Giving free rein to those bent on malice and unfettered self-promotion is dangerous indeed.

  3. Robert says:

    I find Outrage ‘Porn’ a distracting and confusing term. How about Outrage Addiction… more focused and accurate… though not as clever I suppose.

  4. David Learn says:

    Here’s a quick question: What do Richard Czik, Rachel Held Evans, Ronald Moore, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rob Bell and Jen Hatmaker all have in common?

    They were all victims of what we now call cancel culture, only they were progressive voices being canceled by conservatives.

    Czik was the head of the National Alliance of Evangelicals, a lobbying group that professes to speak for evangelicals in the United States. Under his leadership, the NAE named climate change as a lobbying priority. That didn’t sit well with conservatives, who pressured the NAE to reverse its position, which it did with an embarrassing swiftness. Something similar happened to World Vision when it announced it would extend health benefits to same-sex partners of employees. Canceled.

    Rachel Held Evans, Rob Bell and Beth Hatmaker ran afoul of evangelical cancel culture and found that major Christian bookstores would no longer carry their works. All three solid Christian writers, well researched and articulate. But there was no room for their voices, and they were canceled.

    Ronald Moore called out Donald Trump for his lack of character, scruples and morals. The powers that be decided they liked the idea of a Trump presidency and decided that the character issue they’d touted for 40 years was less important than feeling like they had access to the White House and the president’s ear. And Moore? Canceled.

    And Dr. King? Sure, we love him now, now that we’ve had time to forget how disruptive he was; but at the time he was assassinated, he was one of the most hated men in America. It wasn’t just Hoover’s FBI that saw him as a communist agitator. He was hated in the North and the South alike and denounced for stirring up trouble and racial unrest.

    The church has had no difficulty censoring and driving out people who don’t toe the line. The SBC purged liberal voices years ago, and now it’s driving out moderates as well. Think about what happened when the NAE named climate care as a priority, or the salt that hit the fan when world vision announced it would extend health benefits to same-sex partners of employees. No one has a problem with “cancel culture” when they get to call the shots.

    But let a minority or traditionally non powered group speak up, and suddenly we have a crisis,and we need to hold it in.

    No, we need to stop. We need to listen. We need to learn. It takes courage for someone from outside the halls of power and privilege to say “This is wrong,” to declare “This is an injustice.” Christ came to call us to repentance; in his kingdom mountains are canceled so that valleys can be raised up, and crooked roads are canceled to make straight pathways.

    In his name, we must extend grace to those who are declaring their injury and see that justice is done. If we’re more concerned that the victims of racism and racial injustice are being rude than we are that four hundred years after their ancestors first came to this land, they’re still in substandard schools, still living with a lower life expectancy, still earning less for the labor, and still fearing for their lives when they see red and blue lights in their mirrors, then we’ve already declared our priorities not to be Christ’s.

    And as the scripture warns, “He who troubles his own house shall inherit the wind.”

  5. […] were all victims of what we now call cancel culture. Cancel culture is a bugaboo among conservatives right now, particularly conservative evangelicals, but you’re not likely to encounter much outrage over […]

  6. Kathleen Eavenson says:

    My answer when someone writes something truly hateful or unsympathetic is –
    “May you receive the exact same understanding and kindness that you extend to others ” That could bee seen as a blessing or a curse, right?
    Is this inappropriate? I have *yet* to receive unpleasant pushback and we all know I definitely could be targeted, right? Any thoughts? Should I just stop responding??

  7. Ed White says:

    Rob Bell ????? Solid ???? — Not so sure of that after reading one of his books .

  8. Greg says:

    It took a fellow freshman in college who had become a Christian that year calling me a “hypocrite” that helped me to recognize my sin against a Holy God in order for me to recognize my need for my Savior Jesus! If that friend in his demeanor would be unjustly labeled as part of the “cancel culture” then this world needs more of him anyway. During my wallowing in self righteousness and immorality, had a person or group instead come alongside me w “7 helpful tips to be more effective” or with another form or two of junk food positive thinking information, i might still be dead in my sin today.

    I emailed this friend who called me out and pointed me to Jesus those many years ago recently to thank him for leading me towards Jesus and His gospel. And yes he was brutally honest with me that freshman year in college, and as i repented of my sin and received grace and salvation and a new life, this person and i became best of friends. He had no interest to cancel me as a person but rather to find my sin cancelled and be nailed to the cross so my personhood could take new life empowered by the Spirit of our Living God!

    So yes, our world has gone haywire and the cancel culture has gone nuts. And yes as Christians we need to be walking in the Spirit, applying Biblical wisdom w love in understanding about the truest sense of loving neighbor with truth and grace.

  9. Christine says:

    Perhaps comparing internet outrage to the “cancel culture” is not the intent of the author?

    The vitriol of our words on the internet is clearly a problem.

    Truth is truth. But truth spoken in love is our mandate. We often do right the wrong way. When Moses lost his temper and was impatient ONCE publicly, God took away his privilege of entering the Promised Land.

    This thought makes me mourn my own sins and seek Jesus as a mom. Please don’t let my example hinder another from seeking You! Set a watch over my lips.

  10. […] This article about public shaming originally appeared here. […]

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