So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

Author: Jon Ronson

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Published: 2015

I read it: March 2017

so you've been publicly shamed

Consider me convinced.

Ronson’s book about public shaming is instantly fascinating; it’s a perfectly modern subject matter to pair with his light and accessible writing style. He’s funny, of course, with dry quips dropped here and there:

In fact, ever since I first learned about confirmation bias, I’ve been seeing it everywhere. Everywhere.

[Puritan settlers] really should have spent more time on paragraph breaks back then and less time on the letter f.

But it doesn’t take long for the content to make you queasy. Several stories are interlaced and they all focus on unfortunate hashtag victims: Jonah Lehrer, Justine Sacco, and Lindsey Stone are the most notable. Not being a Twitter user until 2013 and even after that only ever stumbling through the medium, I don’t have personal experience with any of these stories. But they sound horrendous.

The book veers into some strange alcoves of people acting incredibly weirdly. (Sparking the back-of-the-mind thought, did this really have to do with your core pursuit, Ronson, or are you just going on another loopy adventure for the sake of it? But like kindred spirit Chuck Klosterman, he needs to unturn every tangential stone.) Overall, the author’s genuine curiosity and humanity has him asking the right questions and coming to his own realizations. He notes that “the snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche” (a line he attributes to Jonathan Bullock) in capturing the essence of what’s happening in these public pile-ons. The punishments far, far outweigh the (often imaginary) crimes.

It also dawns on Ronson that the people he analyzes in this book are quite different than his previous subjects:

I suddenly became aware that throughout our conversation I’d been using the word they. And each time I did, it felt like I was being spineless. The fact was, they weren’t brutal. We were brutal.

The powerful, crazy, cruel people I usually write about tend to be in far-off places. The powerful, crazy, cruel people were now us.

Like a modern day Mark Twain attempting to talk the crowd out of their pitchforks, Ronson takes on a reluctant leadership role with this book. What are we to do? A lot of us are already trying one option: cut back on Internet use generally and Twitter and Facebook use specifically. This partly feels like a sad retreat, as if we are “creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland.” That is, if you try to stand out or proclaim your opinions too loudly online, it could all backfire. I find it depressing that employers would spend time combing through social media before making a hiring decision, but I’m told it happens regularly. So, unplug?

Avoiding strangers online is now pretty easy to me. I’m just not that interested in what they have to say. But I often think about interactions with people I know (or knew) from real life. And I don’t mean just online—I’m talking about all interactions combined, even in person. It seems like during this chapter of my life, with the exception of my wife and kids I know people only in hints and glimmers. If a friend or family member offers a take on a subject, I don’t know if they are just riffing on an article they read recently or summarizing something they’ve thought through and feel strongly about. Regardless, I’m tempted to slightly adjust my dramatically incomplete picture of this person based on whatever tidbits of opinion they happen to vocalize that day. Then I don’t see them for eight months and we dance the same dance again. So it would be absurd for me to jump to some grand conclusion about their core personality based on one off-color comment they made. Only knowing someone on a more intimate basis gives you a clear picture of what the person is really about.

There are enough real issues out there that should prevent us from getting worked up about nonsense we can’t instantly contextualize. For example, I remember a couple years ago when the “news” item broke about Rachel Dolezal. Even though I wasn’t obsessing over the Twitter blowup, it became popular enough for coworkers to mention out loud. I remember feeling instantly exhausted at the prospect of even speculating about the topic. It’s as if we are forced to take a side one way or the other, but I just wanted to abstain. I didn’t know anything about the person or the controversy, and it had all the hallmarks of something that should really matter to only the local group of people that it affects. All the rest of us weighing in: snoooooooze.

Well, as Ronson mentions in conversation with one of his interviewees, maybe things have to reach a “brutal nadir” before they start to get better. Or maybe we just refuse to engage in pointless debates. Maybe it’s okay to abstain.

End note: The book has a mention of what it felt like when people like Donald Trump created a Twitter account, allowing the chance for the public to now be “keenly watchful for transgressions.” How’s that working out? Have we watched the transgressions keenly enough to shame someone who might actually deserve it? Ah, but here Trump tests one of the hypotheses in the book: perhaps you can’t be shamed if you choose not (or simply lack the capacity) to feel it.

Update: Some friends and I went to see Ronson at a talk here in Des Moines. The guy is seriously funny and a heck of a storyteller. The moderator prodded him for more details about his history with conspiracy nutter Alex Jones. Ronson says that in retrospect he was kind of the Simon Cowell for Jones, having “star-spotted” him back in the day. But that’s just another day in the life for someone who has also trailed Jihadists and KKK members in pursuit of a story.

Update: I deleted my Twitter account.

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