In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, journalist Jon Ronson meets people who’ve had their lives turned upside down by public backlash after various degrees of wrongdoing. He poses the question: is Twitter the new town square where we hang criminals while jeering and throwing rotten eggs at them from our comfortable place in the crowd?
Ronson considers the case of Max Moseley who managed to masterfully ride out a tabloid shaming after what was reported as a Nazi-themed sex orgy. At the other end of the spectrum, we hear the heartbreaking story of Lindsay Armstrong who committed suicide after she was subjected to intense public humiliation during her attacker’s rape trial (truly a horrible story). He also covers a lot in between: like Justine Sacco who got fired from her PR job after an ill-advised and insensitive AIDs joke went viral, and Lindsay Stone who ended up hiding in her house for a year after taking a picture of herself with her middle finger up next to a military cemetery sign and getting destroyed for it online.
Some of Ronson’s subjects were easier to sympathise with than others. One man made a joke about dongles at a tech conference to the person sitting next to him and was publicly shamed by the woman in front of him; she posted his picture on Twitter and put him forward as a kind of misogynist poster boy. He was, to me, an obvious victim of someone who just wanted to be angry and offended. (His attacker then found herself the victim of a vicious backlash and ended up being shamed worse than the original shamee. And as usual, the mob took it way too far with mind-bogglingly awful threats and so on.)
Ronson then considers why, during these social media shamings, people yell for men to get fired and for women to get raped and murdered. Just writing that feels crazy. But that’s what happens isn’t it? Ronson suggests this is because we measure a man by his worth as a worker and provider and a woman by her sexual ‘market value’. In a proof of this book he wrote something that a friend suggested he should take out – it seemed to equate women getting raped to men losing their jobs. Ronson duly removed the offending text, only to get embroiled in a public shaming of his own when a reviewer quoted it from the proof. When Ronson said that he’d already thought better of including it in the book, he was told he should never even have thought such a thing. It’s an interesting idea – that we shouldn’t even be allowed to think stupid and insensitive and embarrassingly overprivileged, moronic things. Isn’t the brain the place where we’re supposed to sort the sensible stuff from things that should never be vocalised?
There were shamees in this book who I felt probably should have understood in the first place that what ended up happening to them was a possibility. Lindsay Stone posing with her middle finger up in a military cemetery was dumb. And not funny. And you’ve got to be immature and sheltered and myopic not to think that might create bad feeling. Or to think that the internet is a private place – and that doing something stupid there is any different from doing it at a public event where there are photographers.
Do I think we need to be hounding immature teens to the ends of the earth and ruining their lives over it? No, that’s horrible. And I’m glad that when I was at my stupidest, social media was just a twinkle in the intenet’s eye. But I do understand the irritation of people seeing that kind of thing and knowing they’ve never been overprivileged enough to expect the benefit of the doubt for these kinds of actions. I sort of understand why Ronson pissed people off with that quote even though he’d taken it out of the final book. We live in a world that is calling for men to lose their jobs for the same “offences” that it’s calling for women to be gang-raped over. So when white middle-class journalist Jon Ronson appears to make that same equation, it touches a nerve for some people.
He’s right, though, to ask us to take a look at our knee-jerk emotional reactions. Are we interested in changing people’s hearts and minds or just punishing them for a perceived infraction and enjoying ourselves while doing it? Is Twitter still a place of free speech or somewhere you better make sure you stick to safe and popular messages or risk being dragged through the mud? If we make the shame of messing up too great, the consequences too dire, we’ll all quietly keep our stupid opinions in our heads, unchallenged, won’t we? But if we want a better world, Ronson suggests, we have to hold fire before we jump to shaming, and first ask ourselves what we’re trying to achieve here and whether it can be achieved by other, less problematic, means. That is if it’s really change we’re after and the joy of shaming others isn’t the endgame in itself…