Every medium has an inherent vice. While any form of media can be misused, there is a flaw lurking in the fundamental nature of each medium. Television exaggerates fear, as it transmits the worst events or most scandalous entertainment from the outside world into our homes. Movies indulge our self-deluding fantasies of escape or celebrity. Radio encourages the presumption, in the secrecy of our private chambers, that we sing and dance every bit as good as Milli Vanilli. The inherent vice of the Internet is shame.
The Internet instills shame in two ways. The overflow of information lets us compare ourselves to others without limit, and the limitless prospects of comparison means that there is always someone else who is more successful, better qualified, or more respectable than we are. We are ashamed when we compare ourselves to them. In the other direction, there is an overflow of information about us. On the Internet, everybody knows youâ€™re a dog, and no one hesitates to share their opinion about dogs. Our daily media consumption now includes multiple opportunities to consider just how failed and stunted we may appear to everyone else, and to be ashamed of who we are.
We usually discuss the great and spacious building from Lehiâ€™s Vision in the Book of Mormon primarily as a warning against pride, but this may be a mistake. The angelic interpreter tells Nephi that the great and spacious building represents not only pride but also â€œvain imaginations.â€ The danger that the great and spacious building poses for those in the general vicinity of the iron rodâ€”for us, more or lessâ€”is not only pride, but also (or even especially) shame.
For Mormons, shame tends to take two different forms. The â€œliberalâ€ temptation is to be ashamed of the church, of its teaching or institutions or history. While there are some things I might wish had been different, there is a short, slippery slope from being ashamed at how things once were before 1890 or 1978, to concluding that the only honorable place before 1890 or 1978 was outside of the church, to discovering that the church still teaches unfashionable things about marriage and restricts priesthood participation, to deciding that the only place for any right-thinking person today is outside of the church. A little shame will get you a long way. Intellectual pride is a chronic but manageable condition, I think; the real problems start with intellectual shame.
The â€œconservativeâ€ temptation is to be ashamed of other church members. One of the most tiresome parts of online Mormon conversation is the regular accusation that someone or another is not a real Mormon. Itâ€™s arrogant and presumptuous and, again, itâ€™s a short slide from â€œHeâ€™s not a real Mormonâ€ to â€œI donâ€™t want him in my churchâ€ to â€œI donâ€™t want to be in his church.â€ These uncharitable accusations are unnecessary. We already have a formal system for judging who is and is not a good Mormon, if such a judgment becomes necessary. It is true that people really can do or say things that take them outside of the Mormon community, but we have a fine-grained scale of outward signs for appraising other Mormons, online or off. If someone holds a temple recommend, serves in his or her ward, and attends church, he or she can hold any number of foolish opinions but remain part of the body of Christ, and I separate myself from him or her at my own peril. Some of the largest and most important parts of our body are periodically full of crap, but they too are essential.
As with the easily exploited emotions of hate and fear, there is no lack of people willing to exploit othersâ€™ shame. Some people would like us to be ashamed of what Mormons believed or used to believe, while others want us to be ashamed of fellow Mormons. And thatâ€™s where I get off the bus. The resolution to live shamelessly may not be particularly admirable, but the alternative looks worse.