So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

Nonfiction – print. Riverhead Books, 2015. 290 pgs. Library copy.

If a chapter of your books ends up being published in the New York Times magazine, odds are I’ll end up adding it to my to-read list. Which is how I ended up reading this particular book – a portion of Ronson’s book was published back in February under the somewhat provocative title “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life”.

I remember seeing the Sacco incident unfolding in real time as people I follow on tumblr reblogged a screenshot of the tweet exclaiming their disgust over it and calling for Justine to be fired. I never saw the original tweet on Twitter, but I did see the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet trending in the United States as I logged on to delete the account I created for a project at work. (We needed a test account and I didn’t want to use the one linked to my book blog, obviously.)

I saw a story in the newspaper a few days later following up on the vitriol explaining that Justine was, in fact, fired after sending out a tweet to about 150 followers. And while I don’t defend what she said, I remember being struck at how one tweet to a smallish group of followers practically destroyed this woman’s life. I mean, while I had heard of people being bullied on Facebook and Twitter, I thought such large scale public smack downs were usually reserved for companies. Oh, the naiveté.

Turns out, others have experienced what Justine Sacco went through and Ronson interviews five others – a journalist who turned out to have plagiarized himself and others by the name of Jonah Lehrer, a young woman named Lindsay Stone whose offensive photography of an inside joke with friends earned her death threats, a world racing guru named Mosely caught having German-themed orgies, a computer programmer who made a sexual joke to a friend in the crowd of a conference and ended up losing his job, and the woman who publicly shammed the computer programmer in a tweet.

Jonah Lehrer’s experience seems rather cut and dry as journalists should be held to high standards and plagiarism and embellishment diminish their credibility. And I’ve seen people claim Justine deserved her public shaming because she works in public relations and should know better than to tweet something that could be perceived as racist, even if she later stated she meant to poke fun at the way most Americans view Africa. (An excuse I don’t buy.)

But the computer programmer and the woman who publicly shammed him were the two cases that really introduced shades of gray to this situation. Should the man have made a sexual joke for anyone to overhear? No, absolutely not. Should the woman have tweeted a picture of him in an attempt to publicly shame him? No. She could have just as easily tweeted her disgust without the picture, and Ronson explains that the conference organizers did investigate her charge of sexual harassment. (Would they have investigated it without the picture? Hard to say.)

The tweet ended up costing the man his job, which seems extreme, but it also ended up costing the woman her job after he posted that her tweet cost this father of three his job, which also seems extreme. He almost immediately went on to another job at a technology startup without a single female employee; she ended up receiving rape and death threats from anonymous internet trolls and men’s rights groups.

These antidotes were certainly food for thought in terms of my own personal, online presence, and I ended up discussing quite a few of them with my father during his recent visit. I do agree with his point that we (mainly Americans, it appears from Ronson’s book) have developed a “pile on” culture that is constantly out for blood. People cannot make mistakes because every misstep is logged online and scrutinized by millions of people they do not know.

Ronson tries to point out that public shaming was an accepted form of punishment for hundreds of years and, in fact, some judges in the South still sentence defendants to some form of public shaming.  At this point, the book starts to lose steam and the premise begins to fall apart. His research into this history is weak, at best, and his attempts to find a solution felt halfhearted.

Basically, a victim of public shaming has three options: (1) turn themselves into a super honest person which will probably land them in even hotter water, (2) refuse to engage or overengage by finding someone to sue for libel like Mosely did, or (3) pay a company hundreds of thousands of dollars to basically “up vote” good things about them to the top of Google’s algorithm so their transgression falls to the second page.

A quick Google Images search shows the latter did not work for Lindsay Stone, which is a shame because I had never heard of her or her picture until I read this book. And it makes me wonder what Ronson had hoped to accomplish with this book. He discusses that question quite a bit in the text, but I don’t think he ever figured it out.

He neither offers solutions for those who have publicly shammed (as one of his interviewers said they wished he would do) nor does he really trace the history of public shamming to provide context for how and why our society works this way. All he really accomplished is providing an opportunity for these people to publicly shammed all over again, and you can gleam enough of that from reading the portion of this book published in the New York Times magazine.

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One thought on “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

  1. What an interesting review! I’ve long been a fan on Ronson and I’ve been debating about whether to buy his new book but it sounds a lot more superficial than his other works. How disappointing!

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