We’re Addicted To Judgment Porn

We’re Addicted To Judgment Porn

Social media networks have become the number-one distributors of judgment porn, where people get high on another person’s low.
Hans Fiene
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“Reality TV is pornographic.”

I don’t remember how we started discussing “Fear Factor” in my eighteenth-century British literature class, but I still remember my professor speaking those words. It was early 2002 and Fox was jumping on the “Survivor”/“Big Brother”/“Bachelor” bandwagon in typical Fox fashion, enticing audiences with the sight of contestants schlurping down cow eyeballs for an outside shot at a year’s salary. In class that day, one of my fellow students must have recalled watching the show with giddy horror, prompting my professor to state her views on the genre bluntly.

At first, I didn’t understand what she meant, as most people I knew didn’t particularly want to snort rancid yak cheese or whatever Joe Rogan was barking at contestants to do, while nearly all human beings have a biological urge to do the thing depicted in sexually explicit material, even if they don’t want to carry it out in Larry Flint-inspired fashion.

But when another student asked her to explain her words, my professor did something that Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously admitted he couldn’t. She perfectly defined pornography. “Reality TV is pornographic,” she said “because the audience is finding satisfaction in another person’s humiliation.”

In other words, in order for something to be truly pornographic, the people on screen don’t need to take their clothes off, although that helps. They just need for us to watch in salivation as they embarrass or debase themselves. And when the public’s addiction to porn in reality TV form was so strong that it effectively killed the early 2000s sitcom, it shouldn’t surprise us that the same lust for our neighbor’s humiliation has spilled over into every cyber corner of the Internet.

It shouldn’t surprise us that social media networks have become the number-one distributors of judgment porn, the form of pornography on display every time we share and link and tweet the latest story or video intended to fill us with satisfaction by exposing a fellow human’s moral failings.

The New Village Stocks

In November of last year, when hackers leaked a number of Sony co-chair Amy Paschal’s emails, we tweeted screen shots of the damning correspondence because we found perverse enjoyment in her humiliation over typing what we never would have typed. Last week, when footage surfaced of ESPN reporter Britt McHenry berating a tow lot employee, we hashtagged our insistence that ESPN can the uppity blond because, not perceiving the irony, we won’t stand to look at pathetic, inferior human beings like her.

After the high of moral superiority wears off, we look for another humiliated subject to feast upon, and we begin the cycle again.

A couple days later, we woke up bored with McHenry and pointed our wagging fingers at Ben Affleck, insisting that he was a typical Hollywood elitist for pressuring a PBS show not to air the rather humiliating piece of information that one of his ancestors was a slave owner.

This is the general formula for the distribution and consumption of judgment porn: Person A does something he or she shouldn’t have done and that transgression is somehow made public. We, then, unable to control our desire for satisfaction at his or her expense, make that humiliation even more public and justify doing so with feigned outrage and how-dare-they-isms. Then, after the high of moral superiority wears off, we look for another humiliated subject to feast upon, and we begin the cycle again.

Feasting On Other People’s Shame

At its core, judgment porn is no different than the traditional kind. Just as we know that countless women who have left the porn industry would give anything to scrub the Internet clean of the sins they committed during their years of brokenness, we also knew that Paschal would have done anything to cover up the record of those humiliating emails. But we still refused to avert our eyes because, like all forms of pornography, it felt good to get high on someone who had fallen so low.

In that moment, she was the judgment porn equivalent of a dirty skank and dirty skanks don’t deserve to have their sins covered.

Just as we know that a girl who texts naked pictures to her boyfriend wouldn’t have done so if she’d have known the entire school would see them, we also knew that McHenry never would have insulted the appearance and education of that tow lot employee if she’d known that her words would end up on YouTube. But we still publicized her sin all the more because, in that moment, she was the judgment porn equivalent of a dirty skank and dirty skanks don’t deserve to have their sins covered.

Just as teenage boys are ready for a new object of lust ten seconds after feasting upon the shame of the latest girl to show up naked in their texts, so the judgment porn addicts will be ready to find a new target immediately after decrying the last one. Affleck’s perfectly understandable family-whitewashing will be forgotten the next time a hot mic catches someone body-shaming Kelly Clarkson or crassly body-affirming Kim Kardashian, whichever transgression appeals to us more that day. Then we’ll lustfully share a video of people who didn’t know they were being filmed doing something racist before lasciviously hashtagging our outrage at someone who kicked a dog on a security camera.

How to Break the Judgment Porn Addiction

How then, should a society that is hooked on our neighbor’s humiliation get clean? How do we detox from our judgment porn addiction? Not by going cold turkey, but by understanding the right way to judge. Quite predictably for a Lutheran pastor, I believe that proper understanding is found in the words of Jesus.

Our immediate reaction to our brother’s sin should be to judge that he’s in spiritual danger, and seek to rescue him with as few people as possible finding out that he was ever lost in the first place.

Although it may come as a surprise to those who quote “judge not, that you may not be judged” every time someone questions their decision to start a fourth extramarital affair, these words from Matthew 7 are not an absolute prohibition against judgment. In Matthew 18, for example, Jesus commands Christians to judge when he gives them instructions for carrying out church discipline, the act of declaring an unrepentant sinner to be outside of the faith.

When your brother has sinned against you, Jesus teaches, go to him privately first with the hope that he’ll turn away from his sin without anyone else finding out about it. If he won’t listen, go back with just two or three witnesses and aim to restore him again. If that doesn’t work, only then should you bring his sin before the church with the hope that he will listen to the entire assembly.

Balancing his words in both Matthew 7 and 18, Christ’s teaching on judgment becomes clear. Christians are called to judge each other, but not in the way of the Pharisees, who found satisfaction in exposing the sins and humiliation of those around them and who thanked God that they were not like other, unrighteous men. Rather, our immediate reaction to our brother’s sin should be to judge that he’s in spiritual danger, and seek to rescue him with as few people as possible finding out that he was ever lost in the first place.

While the sins of people like Paschal and McHenry have become more public than the ones Jesus addressed in Matthew 18, the general principle of seeking to restore your brother and cover his sin should still guide our response to salacious stories of this nature.

Delete the URL and do your part to conceal his transgression.

If you’ve shared a video of a drunk celebrity burping out racist epithets in order to revel in his humiliation and your superiority, delete the URL and do your part to conceal his transgression. If raging against someone’s indiscretion on Facebook isn’t going to bring that sinner to repentance, and it most certainly won’t, avail yourself of the other thing the Internet is good for and post a picture of adorable kittens instead. If the guilty party has already tweeted an apology but you want to keep drooling over her self-inflicted indignity, do what you would want the world to do if the lowest moment of your life had been captured on film, and treat the footage like it doesn’t exist.

My British lit professor was right. Pornography is found wherever we get satisfaction in another person’s humiliation. The only difference between laughing at a desperate woman on “The Bachelor” and lusting after a desperate woman on a porn site is that the latter is more likely to infect your computer with spyware. And the only difference between sharing pictures of sixteen-year-old girls who foolishly sexted their boyfriends and sharing McHenry’s anger-induced snit-bomb is that the former is illegal. But while finding joy in a fellow human’s shame may give us a brief moment of euphoria, a far holier and more lasting joy awaits us when we make our neighbor’s dignity more important than our anger by letting love cover a multitude of sins.

Hans Fiene is a Lutheran pastor in Illinois and the creator of Lutheran Satire, a series of comical videos intended to teach the Lutheran faith. Follow him on Twitter, @HansFiene.

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