Jon Ronson is someone with whom you could sit down and just start up a conversation like you have known him for years. In fact that happened to me a few years back when Jon sat down beside me at a conference, I introduced myself and we started chatting. I feel I could always just start chatting to Jon. This is why his books are so enjoyable to read and how he gets people with interesting stories to talk to him.
The last time people were subjected to such public backlash, Jon writes, was almost 180 years ago. Stocks meant you were on display in the public square. You could not hide. The media does this very efficiently now but social media, namely Twitter and Internet search engines, are the most destructive of the current shaming tools.
I was very eager to read his newest book, So You’ve been Publicly Shamed, because I was sure he would tease out some amazing insights into this phenomena of the 2010s – the age of perpetual outrage.
Jon writes that public shaming is like mirrors in the funhouse – the image is so distorted that it makes the individual look monstrous. The small indiscretion gets blown far out of proportion; we overreact to the distorted story. I had a shaming attempt imposed on me one time years ago when a then-notable female skeptic with whom I was only casually acquainted decided that I should be “ashamed” of following a satire account on Twitter, one she felt was personally degrading to her and her friends. She announced this out of the blue in public to her followers. Who the hell did she think she was?
“Follow crime” became a thing. I tried to be helpful and conciliatory but it didn’t work. Jon’s book showed me why. I suspect this person wanted me to fully support her personal mission and brand. When she sensed I was clearly not going to do that – that I was not a fan of her agenda and I was going to independently stand for my own ideas – I was a threat and she tried to take me down a notch through public shaming. She only wanted an apology if I was going to acquiesce completely and buy into her narrative and values.
The narratives in Jon’s vignettes show that the public doesn’t want an apology from people like Jonah Lehrer or Justine Sacco, they just wanted them destroyed. The boundaries had been crossed and those people must be torn apart. (I’m not clear why people get their jollies out of being mean or what the value is in creating drama and judging others so harshly.) Then, the feedback loops of our social scenes provided positive reinforcement and eliminated any alternative voices of reason. Any dissent is construed as an “attack” against the “correct” viewpoint. The individual who may have started it can hide behind the masses. All hope for resolution is lost.
Ronson’s book (as have his others) showed me how complicated and bizarre human society is. It has always been so and we fool ourselves to think it can be made neat and tidy. My favorite tasty bits in the book related to the questions over the Zimbardo prison experiments, the classic psychology textbook example.
The case of Adria Richards who took a picture of guys at a tech conference sitting behind her after they made a “dongle” joke was complex with a feminist narrative. Both sides in that story suffered and lost their jobs. Who was at fault? It became difficult to tell.
Even when the men came to understanding that they messed up, and regretted the horror that Richards was put through, she still blamed them! The book hints how this feminist tactic of shaming backfired as the Donglegate men now steer clear of women colleagues. How is public shaming and then shaming the shamers helpful at all? It’s not. It’s more like public entertainment for people who have little self-awareness and sense of empathy.
Mike Daisey, the guy who promoted a false story about the safety of Apple manufacturing plants in China, says that we ourselves construct the narrative of who we think we are. Public shaming creates a conflict between the person’s own narrative and society trying to overwrite that narrative with their own oversimplified, distorted version. If you believe society’s narrative, he says, it will crush you. This is a really compelling view that I think has some merit.
Another bit that may have importance is the allegation from Jon’s interviewees that acts of violence are fueled by experiences of being shamed, humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed (p 247). How many times have we heard that a mass shooter had been an outcast, a loner and wished to take revenge. You can gain instant respect by holding a gun to someone or taking out your rage by beating the weak into submission. How critical is it that shaming, bullying and harassment are still rampant in our society? It’s torture to be publicly shamed and it messes you up.
I wish the book ended with Jon’s assessment of what he learned. I’ve since heard him say that the best response to a public shaming is to disappear for a year and not respond at all. There are other options that seem to depend on the individual’s circumstances. It seems you can avoid shaming by REFUSING to be ashamed or to be a tireless defender of yourself. (Donald Trump comes to mind. I don’t think this guy has ANY shame.) You can also avoid shaming if no one really cares about what you did. Obviously no one cared much about who I followed on Twitter, nor should they, it was ridiculous and it was disregarded.
While the book can be a bit hard to follow in places with the jumping narratives, it was thought-provoking and enjoyable. Pick it up and then reflect upon it. I do hope we move away from the idea of public shaming; it’s vulgar, cruel and unproductive.