Our Basest Instincts: On Jon Ronson’s ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’

April 1, 2015 | 4 books mentioned 3 5 min read

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I was working at Brookline Booksmith in Boston when the allegations surfaced that James Frey had fabricated large sections of A Million Little Pieces. It was a fun week. Frey had done a reading at the store a few years earlier, and any staff that were there for it remembered him as a jerk. That, combined with the general rarity of interesting literary scandals, meant that we were all enjoying ourselves. I also remember how many customers seemed to come in specifically to talk to us about it, their eyes aglitter with excitement. The impression I got was they just wanted to be involved. If someone was going down in flames, we all wanted to watch.

coverThat universal urge to take up your pitchfork and join the screaming mob is the focus of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, the latest book by Jon Ronson (The Psychopath Test). Public shaming has always been a part of the human experience, but 21st-century technology, specifically social media, has given it new life. Ronson first took notice when three academics from Warwick University created a spambot Twitter account using his name and picture, and then refused his request to delete the account, spouting some nonsense about layers of identity and how algorithms run the world. They did, however, agree to a filmed interview, in which they come across as the world’s biggest barfheads, the pretentious academic version of SNL’s “Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation with at a Party.”

Ronson couldn’t convince them to delete the spambot, or even admit that he had a right to want them to, but when he posted the interview on YouTube, the Internet took up his case, posting hundreds of comments on how infuriating these guys were and how much physical punishment they deserved.

Ronson felt liberated, vindicated. “Strangers all over the world had united to tell me I was right,” he writes. “It was the perfect ending.” (Three years later, the video is still being viewed and garnering comments, my favorite recent one being: “It would be great if at the end of the video the sofa just ate the three of them.” It would be great.)

But the power of social media outrage went beyond Ronson’s trolls. As he says: “Something of real consequence was happening. We were at the start of a great renaissance of public shaming…Hierarchies were being leveled out. The silenced were getting a voice. It was like the democratization of justice.” And so he decided that the next time somebody big was publicly shamed, he would watch carefully, and a few months later Jonah Lehrer happened.

Lehrer, the bestselling author of pop-neuroscience books and a staff writer for The New Yorker, was exposed as having fabricated quotes that he attributed to Bob Dylan in his book, Imagine. I remember this scandal as being less fun than James Frey, but only slightly, as Lehrer was annoyingly rich and successful for a 31-year-old, and once people started digging they found instances of plagiarism in more of his work.

The apex of Lehrer’s shaming came when he was asked to give a speech at a conference as an opportunity to explain what happened and presumably apologize. The speech was live-streamed, and a screen erected above the stage displayed the live tweets of anyone using the conference’s hashtag. What this meant was that as his speech went on, and became less about apologizing and more about justifying, outraged tweets began scrolling behind his head. Tweets like:  “Rantings of a Delusional, Unrepentant Narcissist” and “Jonah Lehrer is a friggin’ sociopath.”

Not only was this shaming brutal, it was sort of cutting edge. People all over the world were watching his speech live, and their reactions were being instantly displayed both alongside him and, cruelly, in his sight line. It’s the sort of next-gen shaming Ronson was starting to notice everywhere, but it’s not used exclusively to fell the prideful.

Sometimes it rains down like hellfire on people who make jokes about sensitive topics. Justine Sacco tweeted a thoughtless joke about AIDS before boarding a plane to Africa, and was the most reviled person on Twitter by the time she landed. Lindsey Stone was tagged in a Facebook photo flipping off the camera at Arlington National Cemetery, which eventually came to the attention of the online veteran community. An anonymous man, who goes by Hank in the book, made a “dongle” joke at a tech conference that offended the woman sitting in front of him, who tweeted the joke with a picture she took of him. Ronson spends time with Sacco, Stone, and Hank, all of whom were fired from their jobs after their e-floggings.

Jonah Lehrer, like James Frey and Mike Daisey (who lied in a monologue about the Apple factory in China that he performed on This American Life, and who also appears in the book), broke a public trust. They asked for our time and money, and then delivered a fraudulent product. Daisey posits that “public shaming or humiliation is a conflict between the person trying to write his own narrative and society trying to write a different narrative for the person.” Sacco, Stone, and Hank weren’t public figures, weren’t consciously presenting a narrative for judgment, and never expected their mistakes to be picked up and broadcast by Gawker. They each admittedly acted carelessly, but the speed and totality of their downfall seems out of proportion.

Unless we’re all public figures. If 21st-century technology has made public shaming easier, faster, and more random, it’s also made us all targets. We put an enormous amount of our lives on public view, expecting it to be ignored, but this book makes it clear than anything you say or do can be held against you in a court of opinion, by people who don’t know anything about you, in perpetuity.

(Like all of Ronson’s books, this one is hard to put down, but you will absolutely do so at some point to Google yourself.)

Ronson’s specialty has always been exploring hidden worlds, and in that way this book is what we in the business call “a departure.” While his previous books have let us spy on the world’s weirdos — clucking our tongues at those taken in by a psychic or gleefully taking and failing the psychopath test — this one is about us. He does chase his fascination with public shame down a few classic Ronson rabbit holes — visiting the set of disgrace porn, taking a truly stupid workshop on “Radical Honesty,” and talking to the guys who run Reputation.com — but while they provide the comedy and light voyeurism we’re accustomed to in one of Ronson’s books, they can come off as a little kooky and inconsequential next to the incisive and slightly terrifying stories of public shame finding the common man.

The topic of shame is a much larger umbrella than Ronson has chosen in the past, and as a result, the book can read more like a series of loosely connected essays than a single argument. That hardly affects the enjoyment of the book, but the sections that hit home the hardest have the most staying power.

Someone Ronson told about his book replied that it must be about “the terror of being found out,” how we’re all scared that our worst sins could be exposed to the world at any time. This must be part of the thrill of watching a public shaming — beyond the gratification of seeing a just punishment, it’s seeing it happen to someone else, and being affirmed that you are in fact the decent person and they are not. Maybe we all deserve to be shamed for something, but pointing our finger at someone else keeps us on the other side of that line.

Because, I have to say, even after reading the entire book, and having my basest instincts dissected for me, when I watched the video of Ronson’s spambot trolls, I had a powerful urge to leave a nasty comment about them. I barely stopped myself.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Janet is a freelance writer and semi-professional baker living in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The Awl, The AV Club, the Chicago Reader, and Chicago Magazine. She is the co-host of YouTube's The Book Report and blogs about presidential biographies at At Times Dull. Follow her @sojanetpotter.

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