Have We Brought Back the Freak Show?


I have some questions for Christian and/ or socially conservative friends on social media. It's not my intent to rebuke anyone, but to raise an issue for reflection. This is probably too heavy a topic for the middle of Easter Week, but it's on my mind because as we try to get a handle on how to oppose the "transing" of America's youth, all my social media feeds have become visually very disturbing, as everyone seems to feel the need to document the deranged people caught up in this movement. It strikes me that every time I have seen a deeply disturbing picture or video of an obviously disturbed individual in the past several years -- the kind of image for which I try to practice old-fashioned custody of the eyes out of protection of my own heart and the other person's dignity-- it has been in the feed not of my progressive friends flaunting sexual transgression and imposing their libertine ways on me (I say that tongue in cheek) but in the feed of "pro-family" or Christian authors tut-tutting the latest outrage. Yes, I am telling you my lefty friends' posts are in a certain respect more wholesome and PG-rated than many of my Christian and pro-family friends.

Here are my questions, in no particular order.
1) I understand the need to educate people about threats or potential threats to civil society and family life. Does every troubled person doing something weird rise to the level of cultural threat? Is it possible that some practices are so isolated and bizarre that they will never catch on as a trend, and it would be better to pass over them in silence than to publicize them? 2) What was wrong with the old-fashioned circus freak shows? Anything? Aren't many of the photos and videos that accompany weird practices of merely prurient interest? What good is served by thrusting those photos in the faces of those who see your posts? 3) Is it possible that that certain notorious transgressive accounts have been exposed enough and don't require further documentation -- we now get what these people are about? Is there a point at which we cross the line from reporting to marketing for the transgressive? 4) When we invite people to gawk at disturbing behavior, often behavior we know or reasonably assume is associated with serious mental illness, isn't that use of a person, betraying his or her human dignity? 5) Similarly, if we illustrate our stories and posts about trends we think are harmful with (possibly) prurient pictures, aren't we guilty of using people?

6) When we easily pass along images that are deliberately intended to shock and disturb, do we have any responsibility to shield our audience in some way so they have an option not to see them? (Twitter, for example, allows you to tag your own photo as possibly disturbing). (Tangentially related: not so long ago a certain sector of Christian twitter got into a discussion about the prudence of the use of foul language if you're an influential evangelical or Catholic writer. Interestingly, some of the folks most adamant that the F-bomb does not befit a professing Christian's social media page are pretty blithe in passing along images that cannot be unseen and I would argue probably shouldn't be seen. Isn't it possible sick images are more powerful and therefore more potentially soul-damaging than an F-bomb?

I suppose the objection will be that these things are news and people must be informed. And I agree, sometimes they are. But I wonder what the criteria are for such things? What constitutes a moral threat that must be understood and resisted and what constitutes plain old-fashioned gossip and staring at the circus freaks? (I also have in mind as I write this a family I know who have a loved one who suffers from bi-polar depression. This person made national news and became a source of great laughter for the late night comics more than a decade ago when her oddball sexual scandal was revealed. If she'd been a healthy person in her right mind, she would have been rightly mocked and rebuked for her behavior. But knowing as I do that she was in the throws of a manic episode and how deeply tormented her entire family was throughout, I didn't find it funny. It was a national laugh at a seriously mentally ill person.) So, I would like to know -- do you think about the impact of the images that accompany the news you pass along when you pass them along? And what are --or what ought to be-- the standards for such things?