Jon Ronson’s latest book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed begins his enquiry with a completely engrossing account of the onslaught of public shamings that have become increasingly popular on social media, Twitter in particular.
Chances are you’ll remember at least some of them. Jonah Lehrer is his first Twitter victim, a clever hotshot writer who embellished six of his Bob Dylan quotes in a book he wrote about creativity. For this he was virtually flogged in the online streets. When he attempted a public apology, he had to give his speech in front of a screen displaying an audience Twitter feed that quickly turned vicious. Under such circumstances, Lehrer froze emotionally, and that was enough to convince those tweeting that he wasn’t really sorry and his apology wasn’t good enough. They didn’t say it quite so nicely. His reputation in the three subsequent years has never recovered.
Then there was Justine Sacco, a PR person who made a regrettable joke tweet about AIDS before getting on a plane to Africa. By the time she landed there were photographers at the airport, ready to catch the look on her face when she turned her phone back on and was hit by hundreds of thousands of 140-character judgements of bile and hate. And Lindsay Stone, who had a silly photo taken of herself being disrespectful at the Arlington National Cemetery and posted it on Facebook. Oh there are more (Cecil the lion being one of the most recent) and in every instance jobs were instantly lost, reputations ruined, families destroyed, people thoroughly shamed. And the twitterers lapped it up; scarcely a day passes still without social media turning into judge and jury on some unlucky idiot.
‘It felt,’ Ronson writes ‘like we were soldiers in a war on other people’s flaws, and there had suddenly been an escalation in hostilities.’ Was it a sort of hysteria caused by group violence, he wondered? He looked into public shaming and discovered that it had been outlawed as a practice back in the 19th century because it was considered too brutal. The law has its limits, after all. People, alas, once unleashed do not. And once shaming has begun, it spreads contagiously. Ronson thought that his stories ‘only revealed that our imagination is so limited, our arsenal of potential responses so narrow, that the only thing anyone can think to do’ is shame, and shame again.
Ronson’s book is brilliant at pointing out the outrageousness of such behaviour (I was certainly spitting feathers at some points), but understanding the motivations of social media is a lesser goal in his book. He does argue, though, that even the most extreme shamers feel they are doing good – and the paradox of a million-strong crowd of self-righteous tweeters, all thinking they are on the side of the angels but looking from the outside like an avenging mob of bullies has the ring of uncomfortable truth about it.
Instead, Ronson goes on to explore what can be done about shame in the aftermath – how is it possible to recover from the public trashing of one’s reputation? After the fire and brimstone of the first half of the book, the second falls a lot flatter, but there are some crucial discoveries made. The most important of which is what terrible psychological damage shaming inflicts. Ronson talks to the psychologist and prison reformer, James Gilligan, who was sent to some of the worst US jails in the 1970s where murders and suicides occurred daily. After spending time with the most violent offenders he realised there was an obvious origin to their behaviour. ‘I have yet to see a serious act of violence,’ he told Ronson, ‘that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed or humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed.’ The more horrific their early experience of shame, the more violent they became in adult life. Shaming is profoundly destructive. It certainly does not achieve its intention of bringing a person to heel, or if it does, the cost is excessive.
But obviously, it must make the shamer feel like the good and acceptable side of the interaction. Ronson doesn’t talk much about the wider media, except to say that ‘in our line of work the more humiliated a person is the more viral the story tends to go. Shame can factor large in the life of a journalist – the personal avoidance of it and the professional bestowing of it upon others.’ And yes, the professional media offers a powerful model of misconduct that has filtered down to social media, showing us that this is how you behave in the presence of perceived wrongdoing.
But it doesn’t really explain the excessiveness of the threats on twitter in comparison to the perceived crime. You have to wonder why such outrage could be created by a writer who adds an innocuous half-sentence on the end of a Dylan quote? Jonah Lehrer’s case is the most perplexing of all.
Ronson never really comes up with answers either to why shaming is so tempting, nor to how we recover after being shamed. Unless we count hiring a specialist internet firm to bury the offending material under a ton of bland google entries. And I was surprised that he never went to talk to an ordinary psychotherapist, who would have told him some useful basic information about shame.
Shame only happens when an accusation chimes with a deep-seated fear that the criticism is correct. So the worse we feel about ourselves, the more vulnerable we are to being shamed. The answer, you might think, is to feel good about ourselves. But that urge is what provokes much of the thrashing around on social media that we see; the act of shaming is part and parcel of the need to tell others how ethical we are, what fabulous things we do, what great lives we are leading.
Funnily enough our entire culture seems to have forgotten the unbeatable antidote to shame and never once is the word mentioned in Ronson’s book: humility – and for all concerned. Humility is the recognition that we are flawed, that we are going to make mistakes, that we do not have all the answers, and never will. It’s a gentle acceptance of the reality of the human condition, in the awareness that we can and do learn. It’s a kind thing and a quiet thing (which is probably why it’s in short supply on shouty social media).
Although Ronson’s book is essentially about shame, it’s the parts about the internet which are by far the most fascinating. If you travel here regularly, you know that the virtual world is ruled by energy and entropy, and given there are so few attempts to control what happens, we get a pretty accurate portrait of what unrestrained human energy can do. It’s essentially a junior school playground without enough dinner ladies. We know the internet is a place where wonderful things can happen, but it can be vicious and spiteful too. We need laws here, not least because this book shows us that the law is much kinder than we are.
In the absence of those laws, though, perhaps all would-be online shamers might consider one important distinction: attack the issue, and not the person.