by Jon Ronson
304 pages, Riverhead Books
Review by Pat Black (based on the unabridged audio version, read by Jon Ronson)
We’ve all done it. Or had it done to us.
I’ve done it on this very site. To my shame.
Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed looks at people who have been dragged onto the social media stage and torn to pieces, for perceived slights against humanity which really weren’t anything of the sort.
Public shaming isn’t a new thing, as the office sociopath in your life will readily demonstrate, but its instant global effect thanks to Twitter and Facebook is more potentially devastating than ever before. Seemingly innocuous things posted without an ounce of malice can generate ripples which grow into tidal waves in a matter of minutes, drowning careers and swamping whole lives.
“My god, this could have been me,” is something you’ll say to yourself a lot in reading this book.
Ronson starts off with his own example of a time he publicly shamed people. One day, he discovered a sockpuppet account had been set up on Twitter under his name. It focused on the writer’s food snobbery and, it seems, a predilection for “cock” – both of which came as something of a surprise to Ronson. Understandably annoyed by the masquerade, Ronson set out to find, identify and shame the perpetrators.
He discovered that they weren’t people with grudges or internet shut-ins, but academics. They claimed that the doppelganger Twitter ID wasn’t an idle mickey-take of a public figure but in fact some form of sociological/philosophical experiment. Ronson confronted these people and lambasted them in public, voicing his anger at their jaw-droppingly juvenile stance and clear indifference to Ronson’s feelings.
How would anyone feel about such things? There’s no doubt Ronson felt vindictive – stuffed with righteous fury. There’s a time to shrug things off, and there’s a time to bring out what we call in Glasgow The Good Shoe. Isn’t there?
After witnessing the backlash these lecturers received, at his instigation, Ronson comes to realise that publicly shaming people can have far-reaching consequences which might outstrip that of the initial “wrong” many times over. Ronson takes what I would hesitatingly call a Christian outlook. Does anyone deserve to be publicly shamed? What is it that drives Twitter shamers to tear people apart in mobs – or worse, to stand on the edge of the circle and smack their lips at the executioners’ handiwork?
Ronson looks at some well-known recent cases of public shaming. The first of which concerned the neuroscientist and author Jonah Lehrer. A journalist read a quote in one of Lehrer’s books, supposedly from Bob Dylan. The reporter was a Dylan fan, and the quote – which appeared in the book Imagine – sounded “phoney” to him. “When the hell did Dylan say that?” Suspicion began to grow. The journalist, Michael C Moynihan, after a lot of digging and some suspicious prevarication from Lehrer, eventually found out that the author had fabricated the quote.
A promising career came crashing down as Lehrer’s work went under the microscope, with several additional journalistic malfeasances unveiled in brutal fashion. Nothing in Lehrer’s background served notice that he was a fool, and certainly he’d been no slouch academically. He won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, reserved for the brightest of the bright – but Ronson isn’t so much interested in why Lehrer did what he did, so much as what he went through as a result. Ronson interviews Lehrer several times, gaining a harrowing insight into how his life was torn to shreds. This leads to Lehrer making a speech at a high-profile event, ostensibly to apologise, which was broadcast live on the internet.
Ronson captures a moment of farce that wouldn’t disgrace one of the great sitcoms. Lehrer delivered his mea culpa before a digital backdrop showing live tweets to the event. So the speaker as well as the audience could see, in real-time, people’s reactions to his shame splattered across giant screens, in letters bigger than he is.
Some of these tweets were sympathetic, if not exactly supportive. But the vast majority were not.
Ronson also looks at the case of Justine Sacco, a young PR executive who was shamed to the four winds in a case you will certainly have heard of. In a dream job travelling the world, Justine made an off-colour Twitter joke about the incidence of Aids among black people across Africa. Justine’s comment was widely retweeted, with predictable cultural commentary attached, across the world. Hundreds of thousands of people called for her head on a plate… and much, much more besides. The witch hunt took a matter of minutes to gain international momentum.
What made this case particularly horrific was that the whole thing unfurled quicker than wildfire, hotter than hell, while she was in the air. Sacco was flying back to the US, oblivious that her reputation was headed for the gutter based on a joke she sent while she took her seat on the plane. Bear in mind that it was only a joke – poorly judged and in bad taste, but certainly not knocking black people or Aids victims. It had a satirical point to make about white privilege, which seemed to fly over the heads of most of the shrieking, frothing ragers who bullwhipped her to the top of global trending topics. The numbers involved are mind-boggling; the online world knew who she was almost instantly. This all unfolded before she’d even touched down, opened her phone… and Saw. Journalists were waiting for her at the arrivals gate.
It’s difficult to comprehend what a nightmare this must have been. Who had she hurt, really? Who was even offended?
Then there was Lindsey Stone, a care worker who appeared to be making crude gestures in a photograph taken outside Arlington Cemetery. Middle fingers, the flag, war dead, the military, and a young woman in the fullest bloom of life, laughing and enjoying herself… my god, she came pre-packaged for every right-wing lunkhead in white America to tear open with their teeth. And they did.
No matter that it was largely down to her not having her privacy settings correctly calibrated on Facebook; no matter that, again, there was a running joke attached, where Lindsay and a friend had a habit of taking pictures of themselves disobeying signs to “show respect”, “no smoking”, “no ball games”, etc.
Stone and Sacco’s lives were ruined as a result of silly light-hearted remarks which were picked up, misinterpreted, dipped in sh*t and smeared all over the internet. They both lost their jobs; they say they can’t even go dating, because their potential dates will be able to look them up on Google. Their lives will never be the same.
Ronson theorises that people are motivated to publicly shame because they thought they were doing something good. An underlying sense of morality was tweaked, and perhaps perverted. He examines analogue shamings of the past, such as the stocks, and concludes that they were banned because authorities realised they simply weren’t very effective in big cities. Why we might want to shame is examined, with a refreshingly critical look at one of the great psychological studies, the Stanford Prison Experiment. Ronson seems to suggest that the guard who went particularly off the rails in the landmark study thought he was fulfilling a role and proving the hypothesis, rather than turning into a monster when handed a uniform and a big stick. That he was doing good, in other words.
Ronson also looks at those who survive shame, such as the ex-Formula One boss Max Mosley, whose kinky sex life was exposed in harrowing detail by a British tabloid 10 years ago. Mosley won unprecedented damages over the case, but even more impressive, to Ronson’s eyes, is Mosley’s recovery from his shaming. It hasn’t stuck to him. He simply refuses to accept his lot: he refuses to be humiliated. I am unashamed, Mosley says. He even strikes back, getting righteous about his right to a private life, and his grim, implacable campaign in the courts.
Ronson examines services which seek to remove shame from the one public record which seems to matter these days – Google – and then looks at the ways in which people can be rescued from shame in less technological ways. There’s one anecdote by a leading US psychiatrist about a murderer in his care which chilled me. He began to kill people in his life as a pimp because shame instilled in him at a young age had stripped him of his humanity. Beatings and sexual abuse left him dead inside – numb. A robot. Not a person. Violence was the only way for him to cope, or even to function, in a world which had decided he wasn’t worth bothering about.
You don’t have to go far to find examples of public shamings. Somebody is being shamed as we speak. Hey, it might even be you. The example that really struck home with me was the two guys at a tech conference who shared smutty jokes with each other about “big dongles” and what have you. They were amusing each other – not the world’s most mature jokes, but so what? It wasn’t for public broadcast.
Except that it was. A woman sitting behind them overheard them, tweeted what they’d been saying, took a photo of them, then posted it on Twitter – to catastrophic effect. Again, both men ended up losing their jobs after a worldwide internet sh*tstorm. One of them had a wife and a baby daughter. They’d done nothing wrong. I had little sympathy for the smug-sounding woman who did the shaming, and found myself wishing for her to suffer a backlash in kind.
She got it, from 4chan users. Once these and other online attacks on people by 4chan were spelled out, I felt queasy at my own motives in wanting the initial shamer to be… punished.
Punishment is what it’s all about. And our anger. Sitting there, at our computers, hammering at the keys, our fingers tap-dancing across the touchscreens. Offended by a world which we cannot control by deleting, resizing or reformatting.
Imagine some nightmare future where your brain is synched with an interface of some kind, without even a gap between a thought in your head and its expression on the internet, or whatever will follow the internet. Jesus!
I’ve indulged in public shaming on Booksquawk. The one I grew so ashamed about that I asked our editor to delete it was about a football player whose chief misfortune, really, was to have played for a team I dislike. But he was also guilty of a transgression which saw him scapegoated for a while in the national press and shamed six ways to Shanghai. I feasted on this event, the worst moment of someone’s life, more than 30 years after it happened.
Then I read an article about the guy. He wasn’t from an era when footballers got rich, or anything like it. Sure, he had some medals on the mantelpiece but only he knows what their true worth is. He maybe bought a pub or something once he retired from football. I thought: this guy has been whipped around the public square thanks to a mistake he made – possibly even in good faith – decades ago. He’s had enough. Why don’t you take the sh*t-faced comments out and leave the guy alone? So I did.
I like to think I knew what Jon Ronson experienced when he got the flame-thrower out on the dipsticks who mimicked him on social media. A shame all of its own. The shame of kicking people when they are down.
This was years ago. But there are more recent shamings carried out on big, obvious, and easy targets. You won’t have to click back too far to find my opinions on phone-hacking by the media, or on the ultimate British bogeyman, the late Jimmy Savile. Now, there’s hardly anyone in their right mind who would defend these people - in particular Savile, whose wickedness will reverberate for generations. A lot of them deserve all they get (or didn’t get, in Savile’s case). What Jon Ronson’s book did was to make me examine my conscience, and look at my own motivations for leathering these people, no matter how much they deserved it.
What kick did I get from acting all self-righteous? What purpose did it prove in parading these transgressors’ heads around in public? Was I telling people things they didn’t already know? Was I pleased with myself on some level? Did I feel noble? Did I think I’d done something good?
As I remarked earlier, Ronson has a pseudo-Christian outlook: no-one really deserves shame and humiliation, no matter what they’ve done. And even if they do, who are you to shame anyone? Let the shamers look to themselves before they unload on people who, in some cases, haven’t actually done anything wrong. Or, as another guy put it a long time ago, let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Looking beyond Bible Cringe, it’s not bad advice, all told. I felt suitably chastened, upon reading this book. It’s better to leave these mob events well alone.
Ronson misses out on the anthropological aspect of his analysis; that it’s mob behaviour, deciding what social norms are and enforcing them, brutally, on a global level. This idea reminded me of a study I once read about guys on building sites who make sexist remarks to passing women. There was a clear pecking order among the men, with much of the unpleasant remarks made by the younger members of the group, tailing off the older the men got. The study concluded that the reason for this was that the younger men were trying to gain entry to the group, and also to show social alignment with the elders. It’s horrid to think of ourselves as pack animals, but we are. Ronson seeks to debunk historical studies on “the mob” and apparent loss of control during mob behaviour. But there’s no denying a flocking instinct is at play in many public shamings.
Technology is the line driven right through the centre of all this. I wonder if this shame-based digital consensus will lead to a new kind of puritanism? Certainly I tire of all the hand-wringing and sanctimony on Facebook and elsewhere, even when it comes to seemingly worthy causes. When it comes to Justine Sacco and Lindsey Stone, I can sometimes see where I might have been these poor people, on the turn of a card, on a bad day.
Off-colour jokes? I think I’ve made enough of them on this site to get run out of town. I often talk about how my friends and I should have a killswitch on our email chat just in case we get hacked – or if one of us dies suddenly, sparing our partners the full horror of discovering What Men Banter About Without Women.
I’m not sure I’m even joking. Some of the poor bastards in this book could easily be me if the wrong button is pressed.
What about criminals who seem more deserving of public shaming? Ronson interviews a Maximum Bob-style US judge who punishes criminals by making them carry signs and billboards revealing their crimes to passers-by. One thief was made to shame himself in front of the store he took items from, every day, for months.
Then we hear that the punishment worked. The criminal himself saw it as a form of redemption. Crime rates around about the store where the shaming happened fell significantly.
The ghastly question arises: Does society need shame?
There are laugh-out-loud encounters, first of all when Ronson attends a “have no shame” therapy session where people are invited to say what they feel without hiding it. This descends into a multi-player flaming session where people say how much they hate Ronson, leading to him losing his temper and revealing how much he hates them in return.
Ronson also interviews people working in the porn industry who make a living out of being publicly shamed and degraded. I “read” this book in its audio format, and I understood shame of a different sort when Ronson described the action in a porn shoot just as I opened the car window to flash my pass at the office car park sensor, while a couple of colleagues walked past the open window.
You may have gathered from the many reheated reviews I’ve put up of late that I don’t get as much reading done these days. Audiobooks played in the car are a godsend in this regard – I wish I’d moved over to this format two years ago. So now I partly “read” while I’m driving during my long commute. Ronson himself narrates the audiobook, and you certainly get a little more nuance in the spoken version than you would on the page.
The book left me counting my lucky stars that I’ve never been publicly shamed, and offering up a prayer or two to Google algorithms that I never will be.