Mozilla’s Brendan Eich, the Miami Dolphins’ Don Jones, HGTV’s Benham brothers: 2014 has been a good year for those seeking to enforce the new moral orthodoxy by depriving others of their livelihood. It’s bad enough to see people joining these bandwagons without pausing to reflect on the dark side of such feeding frenzies, but even more dispiriting are those who argue, in the cold light of their own reflection, that such tactics are righteous.
Josh Barro of the New York Times is the latest media figure to have endorsed vigorous online shaming. He wrote that “Anti-LGBT attitudes are terrible for people . . . and we need to stamp them out, ruthlessly”—but others of a less provocateurish bent have made similar arguments. Wired magazine ran an article last year titled “Why You Should Think Twice Before Shaming Anyone on Social Media,” and the response from the left was so hostile that the author took to her own blog to clarify that she in no way meant to “silence people from calling out sexism, racism, and other bad behavior on the internet.” Her proposed rule of thumb was that shaming should be permitted when some imbalance of power favors the shamed.
In cases where the object of the frenzy is a defender of traditional values, a strong undercurrent of the progressive attack often seems to be that it’s all right to hound such people from their jobs because Christians were doing the same kinds of things to them only the day before yesterday. This rationalization rests on a belief that every slight deviation from the white-bread norm resulted in hysterical ostracism until sometime around 1968. The particulars of this picture are usually vague, except for the detail that Christians were leading the charge.
There indeed was a time in recent history when Christians were as systematic as today’s progressives in deploying public shame against the private actions of private persons. It was a specific moment, with a beginning and an end, and a name—the Nonconformist Conscience. The name was thought necessary precisely because such a deliberate, programmatic, and privacy-invading shame campaign was seen at the time as an anomaly in the modern history of Christianity in the English-speaking world.
The term “Nonconformist Conscience” arose in Britain in 1890 to refer to the non-Anglican Protestants (mainly Methodist, Baptist, and Congregationalist) who pressured Prime Minister Gladstone into disavowing Charles Parnell when the latter was named in the divorce suit of his lover and her husband. The same faction had earlier derailed the parliamentary career of Charles Dilke, another divorce co-respondent. Having established a precedent for adulterers, the Nonconformists proceeded to assist in the toppling of Liberal prime minister Lord Rosebery, whose well-known fondness for horse racing made him in their eyes scarcely better than a casino operator in his relation to the sin of gambling.
With such scalps in hand, many Nonconformists dared to hope that an elevated moral standard could be permanently established if they kept their dudgeon high. “Rational Christians can already see that debauchees, drunkards, and gamblers are utterly unfit to make the laws of England,” declared Rev. Hugh Prices Hughes. “We must agitate for the rigid exclusion of such enemies of mankind. . . . When we have cleansed Parliament of their polluting presence the task of cleansing minor public bodies will be comparatively easy.”
One did not have to be a PM or a PM-in-waiting to fall foul of the Conscience. Small fry were also fair game. A Welsh backbencher named Tom Ellis shared a platform at a public meeting with Dilke in 1891 and shortly afterward received a letter from the editor of a Nonconformist weekly informing him that, in the absence of a very good explanation, the magazine would be “publicly condemning you.” To his relief, Ellis narrowly persuaded the editor that no one had told him in advance that Dilke would be present.
Down at the local level, a Manchester alderman whom the city council selected to serve as Lord Mayor found himself pilloried by local Nonconformists who did not want to see a brewer and tavern owner in that office. This was a bridge too far for one Mancunian, James A. Newbold, who wrote a short book in the alderman’s defense, The Nonconformist Conscience a Persecuting Force. (This followed the publication four years earlier of the splendidly titled anonymous polemic The Nonconformist Conscience Considered as a Social Evil and a Mischief-Monger, by One Who Has Had It.)
Parnell was one thing, Newbold argued, but once you start going after upstanding aldermen who have violated no law and none of the Ten Commandments, where will it end? He combed the Nonconformist press and found two schools of thought on this question. The first, as expressed by one Rev. J. Kirk Maconachie, suggested that “a line may properly be drawn between the reasonable supply of a reasonable demand and the anti-social practice of persistently thrusting a dangerous trade upon places that do not want it.”
Newbold scoffed at this pretense of restraint: “‘Persistently thrusting’ is a phrase the hollowness of which has already been fully exposed. It simply means applying for a license. . . . The word ‘dangerous’ is a pure appeal to prejudice. To call it a recognised trade would have been more relevant.” He thought the Quaker doctor Vipont Brown had put the Nonconformist position more honestly: “The question has often been asked, ‘Where are you going to stop?’ The true answer is, we are not going to stop. This is only the beginning, not the end.” Brown hoped that eventually public office would be off-limits to all “who take advantage in any way of their fellow-men.”
Where was everyone else while the Nonconformists were staging this offensive? Standing on the sidelines goggling at their sternness, mostly. The divorce decree in the Parnell case came down on a Monday; by the following Sunday, Gladstone had been convinced that he had to go. But even as late as Wednesday he was telling his subordinates not to be too quick to disavow a valuable ally: “We must be passive, must watch and wait.” Home Rule was like a ship, one English columnist wrote, and as its captain Parnell should be allowed to steer it into port before withdrawing from politics. After all, was not history filled with “statesmen whose private lives would not bear the inquisition of Mr Hugh Price Hughes”? The Catholic hierarchy, for its part, withheld condemnation until after Parnell’s fate was decided.
The heyday of the Nonconformist Conscience coincided with perhaps the most famous spasm of Victorian moral outrage, the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde. In that case the chorus of obloquy encompassed the majority of Britons regardless of denomination, it is true. But the essential point of the Wilde tragedy was that he sued the Marquess, not the other way around. There would have been no court case at all if Wilde had not stubbornly (and falsely) insisted on legally establishing his innocence of Queensberry’s charge. Had he not courted ruin so determinedly, he would not have met ruin at all, and respectable England would have been content to see him escape it. Certainly they refrained from hounding countless others whose private lives were known or suspected to be as vulnerable as Wilde’s.
And this is the point, which modern progressives are reluctant to accept: Christianity has always recognized certain limiting factors in its application of shame. And one needn’t go all the way back to the woman taken in adultery to find evidence of this. Devout Englishmen balked at the Nonconformist Conscience for many reasons. It smacked of mob justice; it circumvented the democratic process; it eroded the sanctuary of private life; it claimed a righteousness which humble sinners had no business claiming; it took no account of mercy. It also implied a certain insecurity of belief: If God will deal with sinners in his own way and in his own time, then surely he does not need an imperfectly informed public acting as vice cop for total strangers. These limiting principles have not always prevailed—mercy and justice contend without cease—but they have served as a brake.
The relevant question for the modern left is, what limiting principles does your ideology acknowledge? Several possibilities have been proposed by defenders of Twitter outrage campaigns. One may shame someone out of a job if they are already in the public eye, if they are not just sinners but also hypocrites, if they are more powerful than the group on whose behalf you are attacking them, or if your attack can be said to add to the public discourse. History has shown that there is no situation that cannot, with sufficient creativity, be made to fit these criteria, which makes them rather deficient as limiting principles. Vipont Brown lives on.
In the end, the blow that defeated the Nonconformist Conscience was self-inflicted: By concentrating on politics, Nonconformity weakened the religious commitment that had been the source of its strength in the first place. As David Bebbington explains in his history of the Conscience, secularization
began to contribute to the sapping of the religious vitality of Nonconformity. Week-night services were abandoned in favour of political demonstrations; ministers were even known to ignore preaching engagements for the sake of speaking for the Liberal party. Some commentators began to connect declining membership after 1906 with politicization.
This is a principle well known to all churches, and indeed to every group with higher commitments: Politicization is a solvent and a distraction. But a solvent of what, in the case of modern progressivism? A distraction from what? What is it that cultural progressivism values more than political victory? Here the analogy with the Nonconformist Conscience perhaps breaks down. The howls of outrage, the desperate assertions of moral superiority, the demands that someone lose his job are, if anything, the movement’s constitutive rituals. In asking what progressivism values more than political victory we may find that the answer is: nothing at all.
Helen Andrews has written for the American Spectator, the Weekly Standard, and Books and Culture, among other publications.