So You've Been Publicly Shamed, a Book Review
Jon Ronson’s book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” came out in 2015. It may be the first in depth series of interviews on people who have had their reputations and lives ruined by the return of public shaming through the internet, social media and Twitter.
What are the pros and cons of this modern text, equal parts sociology text, biography of victims, history lesson and psychological treatise?
Pros of “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”
Jon Ronson’s book shares the wicked humor that laces his TED talks. The starting story that ignited this book, arguing with programmers about a spam bot that was taking over his digital identity, is hilarious – and the online shaming that made them finally turn it off is what launched this book. The hilarity of the situations he put himself in researching shame culture and how to survive it led to him, in professional clothing, standing around in an adult movie shoot.
The book starts with an in depth report on the story of Jonah Lehrer’s made up quotes of Bob Dylan discovered by an aspiring journalist and escalation to one of the earliest demonstrations of personal humiliation and professional devastation via Twitter enabled trolls.
“So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” addresses some of the history of public shaming like people being whipped publicly for their crimes as well as the reasons it petered out in the West by 1850. He states that public shaming disappeared as we urbanized, but not because we stopped liking it, though later stories from his interview with Max Mosley show we never really gave it up, just shifted to tabloids.
Ronson states shaming went away as an official punishment for the most part because once someone was publicly shamed and seemingly forever branded that they were impossible to rehabilitate, and authorities wanted to redeem people, not just punish them. He interviews Judge Ted Poe, famous for giving punishments that shamed the guilty, sometimes for years. Then he interviewed some of those who were on the receiving end of the punishment for their perspectives.
Mr. Ronson’s book addresses perhaps every major social media digital hate mob even from 2012 to his book’s publication. It covers Dongle-gate. And unlike all the interviews of Adria Richards, Mr. Ronson actually interviews one of the men in the story for his side. He interviewed Ms. Richards as well. This book is very balanced, whereas many articles about these same cases are infected by the initial bias of the scandals.
Mr. Ronson’s book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” offers some of the only interviews the victims of these digital hate mobs have given since their experience, and he said in one TED talk that he’s been the only person to interview them long after the event. He’s the only one who cared enough to follow up, and that is a tragedy – and reason to read his book. He balances these stories with interviews with those who made the discoveries or triggered the viral outbreak of the stories, many of whom were surprised at the reaction they caused.
The interview with Clive Stafford Smith is fascinating if nothing else. This leads into the next chapter into how shaming is part of the deliberate discrediting of witnesses. The author’s first hand accounts in the training for would be witnesses should be common knowledge but isn’t as of yet.
Does continual and severe shaming create a self-fulfilling prophecy for the young it is inflicted upon? Does an atmosphere of shame and fear lead to people who shut down their emotions to cope and are now capable of any evil act? The later chapters of Jon Ronson’s book take you to meet prison psychologists whose answer to this is “yes”.
Cons of “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”
The irony that many liberals condemn employers being able to screen for felony status want to employ the same “red letter” status available to an internet search that mars ones job search, dating prospects and social relationships is not as pointed out by Mr. Ronson, though hinted at in his quotes from Justine Sacco. Instead, he gives one happy ending he himself created for the victim of online hate mobs and interviews psychologists trying to create similar, better fates for criminals while the victims of online bullying are mostly left to piece their own lives together.
I was introduced to Jon Ronson’s book through mentions of it in his TED talk on the online hate mobs indiscriminately tearing down the target of the moment, periodically threatening to rape and kill the target all to the accolades of their peers; the target’s offense might be breaching one of the ever changing politically correct standards, seemingly having privilege, daring to express a politically incorrect opinion (the modern blasphemy) or simply a joke that fell flat.
His TED talk on online shame / hate mobs can be seen as a summarizing of this book, though the book goes into far greater depth on the psychology of shaming, the long term harm it causes psychologically and socially for the people targeted, and impact on the victims of modern, predominantly liberal hate mobs.
Jon Ronson’s plea for perspective, proportion and recognition of the humanity of the targets of this selective, mass shaming and often far worse is desperately needed and should be far more widely read.
Many of the “after the story” stories Jon Ronson provides are telling lessons of the aftermath of public shamings taken to modern excess. Whether you wish to take the moral of these stories as “stay off Twitter and never share anything personal online” or “we should recognize the victims are as human as us and act with the restraint we wish to receive” is your decision. And we should all learn that when you think it is for a good cause or the act is wrapped in a moral label, you can still commit great harm and even evil. Saying it is for good does not mean the actions are good. But Jon Ronson’s book is an excellent morality tale for today.