I just finished Jon Ronson‘s delightful new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Only Ronson can chronicle the online destruction of peoples’ lives, and make it delightful. He is witty and develops rapport with apparent ease. Somehow, he convinces all these press wary strangers, bitter from their public shamings, to reveal their experiences with online humiliation.
He speaks with people you’ve heard of, or if you don’t recognize their names, then you’ll vaguely recognize their transgressions. He spoke with Jonah Lehrer, who padded his book on creativity with some Bob Dylan quotes and then lied about it. Justine Sacco, who tweeted a joke about white people not getting AIDS (a joke, though! a joke!) and then trended worldwide on the internet for her callousness. He talks to the dongle guy who lost his job after making a dongle joke at a tech conference, and then he speaks to the woman who complained about said dongle guy, who also lost her job after she was shamed for shaming dongle guy. And finally, he talks to Lindsey Stone, who took that unfortunate picture next to a sign at the Arlington National Cemetery.
As he seeks to better understand the nature of both shame and group madness, he goes on digging expeditions and ends up in the strangest nooks and crannies. Ronson reminds me of a fearless navigator, puttering about the earth in a vehicle of curiosity, braving mountains and seas to arrive in airport cafes and regional parks to meet with hesitant subjects. He meets with an angry guard from Zimbardo’s prison experiment–did he really get carried away with groupthink, abusing prisoners and all that? He goes inside a public shaming at Kink.com’s studio in San Francisco, exploring the idea that porn stars possess some sort of immunity to shame. He meets with Max Mosley in London, who survived his own incredibly cringe-worthy sex scandal (involving hookers, German uniforms, and shaving!) without any shame.
Jon Ronson comes to the realization that online, we are a vicious lot: “I suppose when shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be. The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche.”
And this is on our minds a lot lately. This is something people are talking about. Monica Lewinsky just gave a TED talk about this very subject, bringing herself and her audience to tears. We are shaming people to death. Her mom made her shower with the door open for fear she would kill herself. Geez.
The only thing I wish Ronson would have broached, and he didn’t put a toe in the water, is the issue of where the anger on Twitter is coming from. Twitter is allowing minority groups a place to speak out after the mainstream media has constantly ignored them. On Twitter, everyone gets an equal voice in a world where most of the voices that get the microphone are white. It makes sense, then, that jokes about white privilege made amidst an AIDS epidemic might be called out as not okay. That women might call out the creepers making them uncomfortable at a tech conference. That those men might then be like “Wow, I didn’t even know that was making you uncomfortable and now I’m fired, lady!” All over the internet. All in public. People are finally able to challenge behaviors they’ve had to put up with since forever, on a global level, on a platform where they have a voice. That doesn’t mean anyone needs to be tarred and feathered, but there is definitely a repositioning of power going on here that Ronson isn’t acknowledging.
The book ends on a powerful note, with Ronson going into prison alongside former governor of New Jersey Jim McGreevey (also the subject of HBO documentary Fall to Grace). And really, this is a book about forgiveness. McGreevey resigned as governor amidst a public shaming of his own. Drowning in scandal and a sexual harassment suit, he came out as gay and radically changed his life. He is now a priest who works with incarcerated woman, tirelessly forgiving them of their past errors and campaigning for them to succeed in life. Ronson watches McGreevey advocate for women guilty of much worse offenses than a bad joke. McGreevey charges up to a kid in a cafe, urging him to study hard at math, stoked to be a positive influence. McGreevey is exhaustingly, insanely loving. He suffers no shame. He shames no one.
And it is quite a juxtaposition, McGreevey’s love compared to the internet’s fire and brimstone. McGreevey’s compassion compared to Twitter’s anger.
Ronson is poking the back of a wild beast here, an ugly internet beast unafraid of rearing up and consuming anyone into its yawning, stinking maw. He’s just one little (?) man, coming at a huge issue, from a people-focused perspective. Is there more to say? Absolutely. But props to Ronson and Monica Lewinsky for starting this conversation.
- Jon Ronson on Monica Lewinsky and Cybershaming – In this interview, Ronson says he’d love to work with Lewinsky. Go there, Monica. Do it.
- Jon vs Jon Part 2 – Escape vs. Control – Scenes from this YouTube vid open the book, as Jon struggles against some academics, attempting to get his spambot deleted.
- Them: Adventures with Extremists – This is my favorite Ronson book, and the audiobook (narrated by the author) is both hilarious, bizarre, and fascinating. The shenanigans Ronson gets into are unbelievable. Highly recommended.