Some people are doomed to live as Internet footnotes. They’re reduced to Google trails of ferocious commentary and invective that age poorly but never disappear. Here all fame is infamy, but if it can’t be escaped, maybe it can be monetized—cheaply, fleetingly. For them, it will be a defining life moment, the period of their public shaming, which often coincides with them being held up as the symbol of some malady of the age. But for the rest of us, they will probably be remembered, if at all, as a blog item we shared on Facebook or a name argued over at a happy hour because everyone needs easy small talk.
Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a tour through this world of the briefly controversial. Prepare for appearances from Justine Sacco (the “hope I don’t get AIDS” tweet heard ’round the universe); Adria Richards and “Hank” of Donglegate; pop-science writer–turned-plagiarist Jonah Lehrer; and Max Mosley, the eccentric British Formula One boss who was accused in a splashy tabloid story of participating in a Nazi-themed orgy. (Mosley’s needle-threading explanation—that it was a German military-themed orgy with no identifiable Nazi symbols—earned him a win in England’s plaintiff-friendly libel court. He’s since become an unlikely leader in support of the right to be forgotten.) Ronson says this is a personal undertaking: He’s participated in some public shamings, allowing himself to feel the righteous fury of the Twitter mob. Why? That’s what he’s trying to find out, along with the answer to another question that inevitably pops up: How are these people doing now?
For many people, Lehrer will remain beyond redemption, but Ronson does an able job of advancing the story. He finds Lehrer pitiable and mostly sympathetic. He was “totally destroyed,” Ronson explains. “He sounded exhausted, like he’d been inside some spinning machine designed by aliens to test the effects of stress on humans.” Ronson offers some fresh reporting from Lehrer’s much-mocked appearance at a Knight Foundation event, for which Lehrer received $20,000 to speak about his downfall. Lehrer eventually cops to Ronson that he didn’t want to do it, but he needed the money. And it’s news to me, at least, that while speaking, Lehrer was able to see a screen on which appeared tweets from people watching the event’s live stream. In a kind of vertiginous reactivation of the shame cycle, Lehrer was able to read comments blasting him for his apology speech while he was still delivering it.
Ronson frequently refers to the people doing the public shaming as “we,” some disembodied public that apparently acts out of shared consensus. Ronson’s part of this we, but he declines to quote himself or to examine the kinds of people he might have targeted. While he looks at historical roots of the practice, he also doesn’t consider the important role that the media, especially viral media, play in public shaming. Tabloids, cable news, and reality TV have long specialized in helping to make ordinary people objects of brief, coruscating interest. Usually this involves humiliating them in one way or another—sometimes, as is the case with reality shows, with the consent of the subject. Now the role is often played by big news sites and content producers who know that they can play on audience outrage or the desire for a fool-of-the-day in order to boost traffic. A more thorough investigation of public shaming would examine how the media is complicit in this process of raising people up for ridicule.
It might also look at issues of class, particularly at how many of the people shamed—though not those in this book—are often guilty of nothing less than being dumb or low class. (Think of the notorious “Florida man” archetype.) Ronson considers the 2011 London riots as an example of possible social contagion, a violent form of groupthink spreading among a crowd, but he doesn’t ponder the much more germane issues of wealth inequality and police violence that helped start the protests. Instead, he’s relieved that the riots stopped at the bottom of the hill he and his wife live on—the tallest hill in London, he tells us, straining the metaphor.
It’s not that Ronson isn’t aware of issues of class or gender or politics; it’s just that he doesn’t consider them deeply enough. (It’s clear, for instance, that Mosley’s riches insulated him from real harm, but this goes unmentioned.) When he speaks to Adria Richards, who used Twitter to report some men at a tech conference for jokes she considered sexually inappropriate, he’s surprised when she quotes Margaret Atwood’s famous line: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them and women are afraid that men will kill them.” Thinking that she had nothing to fear at a large tech conference, Ronson offers a reply that feels dismissive: “People might consider that an overblown thing to say,” he tells her.
Another useful insight comes from a woman named Mercedes, who identifies as an active user of the chaotic message board 4chan. Mercedes tells Ronson that 4chan’s goal in shaming is “to degrade the target.” For men, that amounts to trying to get them fired; for women, it means rape threats. Both are based on cultural stereotypes about gender roles: that an unemployed man feels emasculated and that rape is one of the “highest degradations” a woman could suffer.
This is the moment when a more politically attuned writer would dilate on the issue and further explore the connection with the Adria Richards case. Wasn’t Richards talking about some version of this—that men fear embarrassment and that women fear violence? What might it mean then that public shamers often threaten to commit these very offenses?
Ronson is a good interviewer, often eliciting astute comments from his subjects, but it seems he doesn’t quite know what to make of them. I attribute this partly to the nature of the project: Ronson is seeking to get out of the public shaming mindset, to be empathic and nonjudgmental. But that leads him to indulge in a roving sentimentality that produces some false conclusions.
Was Jonah Lehrer’s life “totally destroyed”? As Ronson discusses, Lehrer was still able to get a deal for a new book—hardly the mark of someone without a professional future. Was Justine Sacco’s life “ruined”? Perhaps for a time it seemed so. But as shown by a recent article by Sam Biddle, the Gawker writer who played a role in making Sacco’s fateful tweet go viral, Sacco recovered from her hardships and has a new, fulfilling job. Both would probably prefer to go back in time, but, well, some people are able to move on.
Not everyone can. Adria Richards—a black, Jewish woman who had a very harsh upbringing—still can’t get a job. (Recently she’s taken to Twitter to explain how she thinks Ronson misrepresented her story.) She had to move out of her house and says she spent most of 2013 staying with friends and flinching any time she heard her name in public. The man on the other side of her conflict quickly got a new job and has managed to keep his name a secret. That he’s a white male in a tech industry that largely looks like him may be a coincidence, or it may be a useful data point in explaining his recovery.
We don’t need to choose sides here—one of the most frustrating aspects of public shaming is the demand that we all declare allegiances in situations we know little about. But we should understand that complicated (and often, political) issues are at work. Ronson may very well think that Richards’ quoting of the Atwood line is extreme, but he doesn’t give much thought as to why she would invoke it. What does it mean if men really do fear being fired to the same degree that women fear being raped?
This gender gap is key to understanding public shaming. At one point in the book, Ronson signs up to do a story where he dresses as a woman and goes out into the world to see how women are treated. But it shouldn’t take such a stunt to empathize with another person’s point of view. One way of finding out what it’s like to be a woman walking down the street is to talk to actual women.
The conceptual mistake that Ronson makes here is one that dogs the book: He foregrounds his own epiphanic understanding over the pain of his subjects and the issues they stir up. It causes him to seem rather guileless. The point of the kind of identity politics that Adria Richards gestures at is not to be ad hominem, as Ronson accuses her of being, but to recognize that different identities produce vastly different experiences and ways of being treated by others. And we come to understand these different experiences and their unique hardships not by simulating them, minstrellike, but by honestly reckoning with the testimony of others.
I wish that Ronson had also considered why demanding that someone is fired from his or her job has become so central to the public shaming ritual. This demand, I think, reveals several things. First, it reflects how we are all public figures now and all have brands or reputations to protect, and so do our erstwhile employers. We have ported the logic of the celebrity shame cycle—in which corporate sponsors are expected to drop the offender posthaste—to the workaday world. It’s a strange conflation of the public and private, of believing that individuals are always-on representatives of their employers and that an incensed public is in a position to decide when this association should end.
The second thing that these calls for firing reveal is how precious a job has become and how truly punitive public shaming can be. We know that it’s increasingly difficult to get a full-time job and losing one means having to fall back on a threadbare social safety net. Add to that the threat of a permanent Google trail (a feature that Ronson does a good job exploring), and being fired as a result of bringing disrepute on yourself or your employer can be a quick trip to precarity. Do shamers realize the jobless purgatory they might send their targets to? Has that become the singular marker of a “successful” shaming campaign?
Finally, the effort to get people fired reveals one important driver of public shaming—namely, a declining faith in the efficacy of American institutions. The public’s mindset seems to be: No one will punish these people, so we have to do it ourselves. The parallels with the justice system and traditional notions of mob justice are obvious, and it’s one of Ronson’s smarter moves to visit a prison psychiatrist and a former judge who specialized in handing down embarrassing punishments. Yet when he tells the judge, Ted Poe, who’s now a member of the House of Representatives, that “we [public shamers] are more frightening than you” (emphasis in original), Ronson suffers from the public shamer’s lack of proportion. Shaming can be novel, scary, and pernicious, but America’s overflowing prisons are distinct in their cruelty.
Ronson leaves the interview horrified at the power he once indulged in: “We were soldiers making war on other people’s flaws.” The martial language is a bit much. It might be more accurate to say that, like so many participants in mob justice before him, Ronson was disturbed by the unfettered animosity coursing through the crowd. Best for all of us, then, that he has discovered his better angels.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. Riverhead Books.