Social Media Objectification

Bearing False Witness Online

A few days ago, I saw a social media post with side-by-side photos of two accomplished young women: Kendall Jenner and Alyssa Carson. In case you aren’t familiar with one or both of them, Jenner is a 25-year-old model, fashion designer and reality TV star; Carson is a 20-year-old space enthusiast, writer and speaker whose dream is to be the first human on Mars. They both have sizeable Instagram followings. The point of the social media post, which showed Jenner in a tiny swimsuit and Carson in a space jumpsuit, was to contrast the two, upholding Carson as the example more worthy of respect and emulation.

There are two big problems with this post, which last time I checked, had received thousands of shares. First, it demonstrates the folly of trusting social media to provide you with the truth. The post describes Carson as an “astronaut who became the youngest person in history to pass all NASA aerospace tests and who is now preparing to be the first human to travel to Mars.” But a quick internet search reveals that none of those claims are true. Carson is not an astronaut, nor is she affiliated with any space program. The viral post (which doesn’t appear to have originated with Carson) is a great example of how readily and quickly false information travels (and also how easy it is to check its accuracy if only we try).

But, more important, the post exemplifies how easy it is to objectify people on social media. In this case, one person is belittled in order to uphold another and what she purportedly represents. Yet even if the post accurately reported Carson’s accomplishments (which are indeed impressive), there is no good reason to pit her against someone else in order to celebrate those accomplishments. Why not just praise Carson? Why drag Jenner into it? Both women are no doubt more complex than two cherry-picked photos might suggest. The use of the photos to make sweeping generalizations in order to “prove” a point (and thereby elevate the one making the point) objectifies the subjects of the photos, taking away their humanity and turning them into nothing more than tools.

Objectification harms people

Such objectification of human beings — seeing others or even ourselves as objects to be used for our own purposes rather than as souls created by God and precious to Him — is endemic to a fallen creation. We all do it in our daily, non-virtual lives, in a variety of ways, when we ignore God’s will for both ourselves and our neighbor.

But there is something about social media that takes the sin to which we are already inclined and amplifies it, leading us into fresh opportunities for dishonesty, vanity and idolatry. As we work to create and sustain our own carefully crafted public images, the temptation is great to highlight the failings of others through both overt and covert means, direct attacks and veiled ones.

The temptation is also great to use others as pawns to further our agendas. I have frequently winced at seeing those with whom I share a similar world view share social media posts that are decidedly unkind to those deemed the enemy. (One that comes to mind is the viral photo of an angry woman at a pro-abortion rally, accompanied by unflattering comments about the woman’s appearance.) Once shared, these kinds of posts take on lives of their own, with the consequences quickly and exponentially going beyond what we have the power to address. But what does such a post accomplish other than to make the one who shared it look bad? What if that young woman regrets and has repented for that day? What if every new share takes her painfully back to it? Our carelessly chosen words and thoughtlessly propagated memes have the capacity to harm in ways we will never know. They also ultimately harm us in hardening our hearts to the humanity of others.

The Eighth Commandment (or the Ninth, depending on what numbering system you follow), states: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor."

Martin Luther, in the Small Catechism, explains the commandment’s meaning this way:

We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.

Luther further expounds on the Eighth Commandment in the Large Catechism:

[266] For there is a great difference between these two things, judging sin and knowing sin. You may indeed know it, but you are not to judge it. I can indeed see and hear that my neighbor sins, but I have no command to report it to others. Now, if I rush in, judging and passing sentence, I fall into a sin which is greater than his. But if you know it, do nothing else than turn your ears into a grave and cover it, until you are appointed to be judge and to punish by virtue of your office. …

[285] Thus we have now the sum and general understanding of this commandment, to wit, that no one do any injury with the tongue to his neighbor, whether friend or foe, nor speak evil of him, no matter whether it be true or false, unless it be done by commandment or for his reformation, but that every one employ his tongue and make it serve for the best of every one else, to cover up his neighbor’s sins and infirmities, excuse them, palliate and garnish them with his own reputation.

[286] The chief reason for this should be the one which Christ alleges in the Gospel, in which He comprehends all commandments respecting our neighbor, Matt. 7:12: Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.

[287] Even nature teaches the same thing in our own bodies, as St. Paul says, 1 Cor. 12:22: Much more, those members of the body which seem to be more feeble are necessary; and those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. No one covers his face, eyes, nose, and mouth, for they, being in themselves the most honorable members which we have, do not require it. But the most infirm members, of which we are ashamed, we cover with all diligence; hands, eyes, and the whole body must help to cover and conceal them.

[288] Thus also among ourselves should we adorn whatever blemishes and infirmities we find in our neighbor, and serve and help him to promote his honor to the best of our ability, and, on the other hand, prevent whatever may be discreditable to him.

Those who highlight another’s supposed failings on social media are usually not helping him to promote his honor or explaining everything in the kindest way but, instead, seeking to further their own self-centered aims. As Luther so thoroughly outlines, if an accusation of offense is truly called for, there is a God-pleasing way to handle it and a proper time and place to do so. Sometimes there is even occasion to call out sin publicly. But tearing someone down to build up another or further an agenda is not such an occasion. It also doesn’t matter whether the object of our mockery is a celebrity. Our neighbor’s status, or lack thereof, has no bearing on God’s command to protect him.

I don’t follow pop culture, and before I saw the social media post in question, I didn’t know anything about either Kendall Jenner or Alyssa Carson. What I do know is that they — and all the other imperfect human specimens daily getting judged, censured and canceled on social media — are fellow sinners who, whether they realize it or not, could use our prayers more than our oversimplified social media judgments.

Cheryl Magness is managing editor of Reporter, the official newspaper of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. She has written for a variety of publications, including The Federalist, Touchstone and The Lutheran Witness, and is a contributor to the book He Restores My Soul from Emmanuel Press. She has degrees in English and music and enjoys playing piano in her spare time.

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