We’ve all seen it happen, over and over again. Maybe we’ve participated, or maybe we just took it all in from the sidelines. I’m talking about public shaming, 21st-century style. It goes like this: Someone does something wrong, like making up quotes for their article or book and attributing them to people who never said them. Or someone says or does something insensitive, whether intended or not. Then the Twitterverse descends in a hail of condemnation. Social media is so ablaze with the topic that traditional media outlets notice, too, and now the story appears in prestigious publications and on the TV news. The person who committed the bad behavior, or who authored the insensitive words or deeds, is totally and completely humiliated. They may lose their job, their reputation — and anything that ever approximated peace of mind.
In his compulsively readable So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, bestselling author Jon Ronson wants to know what this new public shaming is all about. He admits he’s participated in the ritual himself, and even enjoyed it. But now he’s wondering — though he doesn’t put it this way — whether we should all be ashamed of ourselves for what we’ve been doing.
Ronson interviews people on both sides of the shame storm: He manages to persuade people who’ve been humiliated by the online mobs to re-immerse themselves in what may have been the most painful episode of their life and talk to him for his book. He also talks to people who instigated some of the shaming episodes, to see how they think and feel about what they did. And he finds some people who were publicly shamed and yet succeeded in escaping unscathed, even as their most embarrassing moments got aired far and wide, and tries to understand how they were different from those who instead felt destroyed.
He also interviews a person who made ostentatious shaming his brand, and does not find what he expected. He looks for a shame-free zone, and finds it in a federal prison that houses some of the most heinous offenders. Ronson also talks his way into the behind-the-scenes, exorbitantly expensive business of reputation management: a cottage industry where a person pays to have their Google results manipulated in the hopes that their moment of ignominy will stop appearing on the first page of search results.
Some of the names in the book are familiar ones, and many of the shaming examples will sound at least vaguely familiar. They include, for example, Jonah Lehrer, the enormously successful writer of popular psychology books who, it came out, fabricated quotes; Jim McGreevey, the shamed former New Jersey governor who, surprisingly, shows up in prisons trying to create shame-free discussion zones; and Phil Zimbardo, famous for his Stanford Prison Experiment, which Ronson treats with unapologetic skepticism.
There is also the woman who tweeted that she was going to Africa but would not get AIDS because she’s white, who is in an emotionally fragile state when Ronson first meets her; the woman who tweeted a picture of herself giving the finger in front of a “silence and respect” sign at Arlington National Cemetery; and the all-too-talented storyteller who described on “This American Life” the horrifying conditions suffered by workers he only said he observed in an Apple factory in China.
The book reads like an engaging mystery, only the question isn’t the traditional “Who done it” (we’ve all done it), but rather “What’s going on here?” Why, for example, do Twitter gangs become so vicious and so relentless? Is it because of the emotional contagion that spreads through crowds? Is it because the shamers are anonymous and not accountable? Could they actually be trying to do good, never realizing just how enduring the impact might be on those they shame? Is it because, instead of creating a democracy, social media has spawned echo chambers in which shamers get applauded and egged on?
Ronson addresses some of these questions, and also leads us through his various notions about why shame sticks to some targets and is shrugged off by others. He wonders whether it depends on what the Twitter shamers care most about — if, for instance, shamers attack those who’ve flaunted their white privilege more than they attack those involved in a sex scandal. He looks at how the target of the shame acts — whether showing deep emotion and remorse changes the course of things. He explores, too, whether the experience of being shamed can actually bring you closer to other people if they come to see you as more human.
The witty Sarah Vowell, herself a bestselling author, said that “Jon Ronson’s writing is so charming, so entertaining and strange I would follow him anywhere, including a maximum-security prison.”
I loved reading the book, too, though I’d stay away from the prison.
And I loved it despite myself. I’m a research psychologist who has published many articles in scholarly journals. I’m an empiricist. I greatly value the kind of case-study approach that Ronson pursues, but to me, that should be just part of the puzzle. I want to know what rigorous scientific research has to tell us about the process of shaming.
But although there is a vast academic literature on shame, it is almost entirely absent from this book. That was both disappointing and baffling.
Also missing were acknowledgments of sophisticated analyses of issues of gender and race and sexuality in the shaming of people, and especially in the threats of violence that target particular classes of people vastly disproportionately. (Marital and relationship status should be part of that discussion as well.) These are available both online and in scholarly publications, and Ronson should have included them.
Still, it is abundantly clear to me why Ronson’s books fly off the shelves. I just wish some of the more in-depth and multi-faceted analyses, authored by people from a diversity of backgrounds, got just as much attention and remuneration.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
Riverhead Books, March 2015
Hardcover, 304 pages