Internet Shaming: Why The End Doesn’t Justify The (Being) Mean

shamedJon 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.

Chronic Fatigue Gets A New Name

So, The New York Times reports that the Institute of Medicine has suggested a new name for chronic fatigue syndrome. The proposal is that it should be called ‘systemic exertion intolerance disease’, which is quite a mouthful. But maybe an almost-unsayable name is appropriate for an almost-intolerable illness. Basically, the name is designed to reflect a significant symptom of the condition: ‘a sustained depletion of energy after minimal activity, called postexertional malaise.’

I used to describe the experience of the illness as akin to having a leaky car battery. You could charge and charge that battery, but as soon as you started doing anything you could feel the energy draining away. Quicker than seemed possible you’d be reaching the point of exhaustion. Sleep makes no difference. So during term at the university, I’d be struggling by about the second week in, watching my symptoms come earlier every day in the third, and running dangerously on empty from the fifth onwards, knowing I was just going to feel sicker and sicker and trying to manage the panic about that.

The harder you try to push through the fatigue and the illness and keep going, the worse it will all be when you finally stop. In fact the worse it is day in day out. I always thought that if it was only tiredness I felt, that really wouldn’t be a problem. The difficult part is that you feel extremely ill. There’ll be symptoms – nausea, headaches, general aches and pains, sore throats, dizziness, all that sort of thing – but the hard part to deal with is a kind of essence of all illness. You lose control of your temperature, your heart rate, your blood pressure. All of these experiences are invisible. The habitual words do not convey the reality of the feelings. No one will understand.

When I finally came off work, the suggestion from medics was that I try ‘pacing’. I began with no more than one hour’s activity a day, and would stick to that for a week. If all went well, then the following week I could increase my activity by five minutes. And again if all went well, five minutes more the week after that, and so on and so forth. There would be relapses. I remember several years ago, Mr Litlove and I were on a beginners’ tango course. This was a big ask for me – three hour sessions every weekend. Towards the end it was becoming too much and I intended to miss a session. My mother-in-law, who had been visiting, couldn’t understand it – I didn’t want to miss out, did I? If I was tired the next day I could just sleep in. Of course healthy people think this way. For me, I knew that completing the session would mean three days or so in bed, followed by a long, slow, increase of activity afterwards. And it’s hard to enjoy things when you are aware how expensive they are going to be.

I still think of energy as money. Some activities are a lot more expensive than others – for me, socialising, travel and stress are the most costly (this differs from person to person). But everything costs a little – being excited about something is as energetically demanding as being anxious. Laughing takes energy. Engaging in an intellectual activity doesn’t come cheap. Television is more expensive than a book. I have an expensive personality – my normal demeanour is bright, cheerful, engaged. Even being myself was more than I could afford some days, and of course the sense of outrage and unacceptability is so overwhelming when you cannot even behave like your own self that you (I) tend to push through regardless, out of frustration and stubbornness, and build up a large debt that then takes forever to repay.

Doctors have long wanted to push for depression as a key part of chronic fatigue, but I think that’s putting the cart before the horses. It’s hard to stay positive sometimes when you have an illness that is like a punishment for living. And inevitably, the sort of mindset you need to get better – calculating all the time what amount of exertion you can afford, always playing it safe, shying away from anything demanding – affects your confidence over time. Doing something new, or something you haven’t done in a while, can be frightening when you have no idea how you will feel afterwards.

I write about chronic fatigue for two reasons. The first is to raise consciousness, because it is still such a misunderstood and stigmatised condition. I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, and I’m motivated to find ways to express the reality of living with it. The second reason is that for a long time, I felt terribly ashamed of myself. I thought it was my fault. I didn’t want to confess to all the things I couldn’t do without severe consequences. I hated not being able to live like a normal person. But you know what? Denial is a very expensive habit, and I came to realise it was far better for me to accept the condition, to understand it was part of me, like it or not. And it still is a part of me. The past eighteen months have been a very stressful time for me and my family, and for most of it I kept up a reasonable level of activity. This was encouraging – I thought I was seeing the back of chronic fatigue. But then when things finally calmed down towards the middle of November, I felt the familiar old exhaustion. In December I caught every bug going, every time I tried to raise my level of activity even a little. I resigned myself to more of the same in January. This month, I’ve felt more like myself, but I have to calculate my energy every day and make decisions accordingly (hence minimal blogging for which I apologise).

But even the experiences that take the most away, do give something valuable back despite themselves. If there’s one thing this condition has taught me, it is the resilience of the human spirit. Since 1997 I’ve been on a wild cycle of ups and downs, but no matter how low I have been brought, I have always risen back to the surface. There has always been a return of energy, a renewal of appetite, an improvement in my overall wellbeing. And each time that happens, I have felt acutely, exquisitely, how precious life is. I live a very quiet, peaceful life, but living quietly and peacefully with much time for contemplation turns out to be something I cherish and for which I am profoundly grateful. Not many people have the luxurious time and space that I do for observation and for thought. The blessings only come from accepting the truth of the situation, and that can be hard with a condition that is so poorly understood. In the absence of a cure, perhaps a new name (however awkward!) will help the healthy and the sick understand what’s at stake, and deal with it better.



It’s A Jungle Out There

orchardthiefEvery so often a non-fiction book becomes surprisingly popular, as I understand The Orchid Thief did after the release of Adaptation, the Charlie Kaufman film that was very loosely based upon it. I haven’t seen the film (tell me: should I?) but I did recently read the book. It wasn’t quite what I expected, but it was extremely intriguing in all sorts of unexpected ways.

Basically, Susan Orlean, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, read a small article in a paper about an eccentric named John Laroche who was on trial for having attempted to steal a large quantity of ghost orchids from the Fakahatchee Strand in Florida. Curious about his motivations, Orlean went to Florida to follow the trial and to learn more about both Laroche and the world of orchid thieves and collectors (can be tricky to distinguish the two). Initially, this became a New Yorker article, and then Orleans turned it into a book, which is maybe why the story of Laroche bookends a mass of digressive but often engaging information about the history of orchid collecting, the character of the plant men that she meets in Florida, life on an Indian reservation and the nature, in all its meanings, of the state of Florida.

But first, Laroche, whom she describes as ‘a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact that he is missing all his front teeth. He has the posture of al dente spaghetti and the nervous intensity of someone who plays a lot of video games.’ Laroche has a history of manic obsession, beginning as a child with turtles, and moving on to Ice Age fossils, lapidary, old mirrors, tropical fish and then, finally, orchids. Each passion was intense, short-lived, and fiercely compartmentalised. After he had given away the 60 fish tanks he collected, for example, he did not go near the Atlantic, despite living so close to it, for the next 17 years. Or so he says – Orleans reports him faithfully I don’t doubt, but you do begin to wonder quite how much confabulation occurs in every one of Laroche’s stories. Still, he does appear to be one of those people to whom extreme things happen. In the run-up to stealing the orchids, he went through a particularly taxing few years. He spilled toxic pesticide on a cut and suffered irreversible heart and liver damage from it. He was in a dreadful car crash that cost him his front teeth, put his wife in a coma and killed his mother and uncle. Then he separated from his wife. Then the plant nursery he owned was decimated by severe frosts, contaminated fungicide and Hurricane Andrew. In need of work, he came to work on the Seminole reservation, starting up a nursery for them.

Obsessed by orchids, and aware of how much money could be made from a ready source of hard-to-find ghost orchids, he believed he could get around the laws that preserve endangered species. The Fakahatchee strand is Seminole land, and land belonging to Indians is supposed to be free from the usual laws in the U.S. Laroche took two Indians with him into the swamp and made them do the collecting, but as they emerged with four cotton pillowcases full of two hundred species of orchid and bromeliad they were, as the phrase goes, ‘apprehended’ and charged with theft.

Just when you think that Laroche is a unique oddity, Orleans launches into the history of orchid collecting, in which a large number of rich and greedy and obsessed patrons sent plant hunters off to the wild and dangerous parts of the globe with unreasonable demands. The plant hunters, themselves obsessed, reckless, greedy and, in the way they depleted large areas of indigenous plants, thoughtless, were happy to do their bidding. Somehow the world survived and plants trotted the globe, mostly dying en route until someone figured out the bell jar. Orchids more than any other plant seem to inspire a certain frantic passion and because they are, on the whole, a lot tougher than they look, have produced thousands of different species to keep collectors on their toes. Laroche had his own methods of maintaining a clear conscience, while going about the business of stealing plants:

he would poach only a limited number at a time and he would never strip every one off a single tree and, most important, he would be poaching so that he could help the species in the long run by propagating it in his lab and making the orchids cheap and available. He trusted himself alone to balance out pros and cons, to disregard rules and use real judgement instead. He thought that no one else in the world could see things his way because other people had attitudes that were as narrow as ribbon and they had no common sense at all. For a single-minded lunatic like John Laroche, this seemed like a very bold position to take.’

This is a book packed full of eccentrics, madmen (very few lady collectors) and con artists. And when you reach Florida, the state of outsize everything, you seem to be in a landscape that inspires crazy schemes on a huge scale. I enjoyed reading about the Florida land scam that began somewhere around 1824 with a number of wide boys selling plots of Florida that they didn’t own, and which multiplied and grew until 1975 when the main company involved was $350 million in debt.

The subsequent bankruptcy took thirteen years to settle and is considered the biggest and most complex reorganization in Florida’s corporate history, involving more than nine thousand creditors, twenty-seven thousand lot owners and five hundred thousand acres of land.’

It’s almost as if Florida invites this sort of trouble, Orleans explains. The land is permanently changing as more coastal areas are reclaimed, and what’s there is so vast and wild and uncontrollable. Nature always wins in the end, but the urge to battle her is irresistible. ‘The flat plainness of Florida doesn’t impose itself on you, so you can impose upon it your own kind of dream,’ Orleans writes. And this is the core of the book, not so much articulated as voyaged around repeatedly. Man vs. nature results in all kinds of unhealthy obsessions, all of them doomed, but all hypnotic nevertheless.

There is a lot going on in this book, huge amounts of data on offer, outlandish characters, hair-raising exploits, lots of chances to shake your head in sighing pity for the silly things people do on tenuous justification. Orleans has a repetitive style that can grate at times, but then she said a lot of things I marked up as interesting, too. An enjoyable and worthwhile read, just don’t expect as much about John Laroche as the blurb implies.

Ebooks: Publishing Shoots Itself in the Foot

I get very tired of misleading headlines in the media, which continues to be biased against the conventional book. On the BBC website the other day there was an article entitled ‘Sales of Printed Books Slump in 2012’. This was based on the statistic that the revenue of the paper book market had fallen by 4.6% across the past year, a loss of around £74 million in the UK.

However, a spokesman from the Bookseller declared that ‘In essence, people are buying more books but they are paying less for them’. This is because the ebook market rose about 5% to 13-14% of the market share (the article admits that ebook figures are hard to verify) and the fall in profits is the result of heavy discounting by publishers, with many books being sold at rock bottom prices.

I think this is what they call a ‘loss leader’, a way of enticing consumers into a new market in the hope they’ll become hooked. There are a couple of problems with this, however. The first is that the much lauded growth of ebooks is really not that impressive. When CDs were introduced in the mid-80s, they rocketed ahead of vinyl, with market share growing 20-30% or more each year. This is not surprising; the CD marked an evident improvement in the experience of listening to music: consumers enjoyed much better sound quality and durability with their new purchase. Ebooks don’t improve the book that’s being read, and at best they imitate the experience of ordinary reading. Then there are the surveys that indicate some reluctance by readers to switch formats. This blog seems to have access to good statistics and claims that last year nearly half the kindles given as gifts in the UK had still to be opened, a month after Christmas. And this year’s survey claims that a third of people given eReaders in the USA used them once before putting them aside. Ereaders are not the unqualified success publishers hoped they would be in converting non-readers into readers. As for increased durability, well, let’s not get into the problems of power failure, problems with amazon, issues of obsolescence and the interesting situation that will occur the next time a main publisher hits the wall. Owning an ebook is only loaning one while the company lasts.

However, between the huge discounts the publishers are offering and the tsunami of self-published works currently flooding the market, readers are having their perception of value altered. I heard publishers fretting about this at a literary festival event I attended: if a nicely produced book retails at around £10, it will be considered as a good gift. However, if customers begin to associate books with the price of a pound or 99p, this is far too cheap as a gift option. But of course canny consumers will become increasingly reluctant to pay more for their own reading needs. If there is a ready supply of books at this extremely low rate, who would pay more? Add to that the wealth of reading material available online for free, and suddenly books aren’t commercial products any more, they’re moving towards open source.

My feeling all along with ereaders is that they are a welcome addition to publishing as a multi-media industry. They are great for readers who do a lot of travelling – communting to work and so on. They can be very good for people with poor eyesight, as the font can be easily increased. My friend with MS loves hers, because she can put it down on a table, saving strain on her hands (although watching her try to use the teeny buttons below the screen can be painful). But this doesn’t account by any means for all the people who love reading. The problem with the ebook is that it is fundamentally a gadget, not a significant technological improvement in the act of reading. They are a great addition to the options we have for reading, but as a replacement for books, they are not entirely satisfactory. And their main effect so far has been in efficiently reducing the overall value of the book market.

To say this, though, is like an act of treason in the current climate. I think this is because there is a powerful fantasy at work in our culture that insists technology is a force for great good. What’s new must be better than what’s old. The end of the nineteenth century was supposed to have witnessed the collapse of the ‘grand narratives’, which is to say the stories surrounding religion and science that supposedly showed mankind headed towards a state of perfection, stories that explained life and gave us optimism for the future. At the end of the twentieth century, I think technology has given us a new boost in such fantastic endeavours, a sort of steampunk rewrite of the old grand narrative of science. Whether that’s true or not, the stories remain skewed towards the celebration of ereaders and the derision of paper. But right at the moment, publishers have paid huge amounts to create new departments to handle ebooks, they have put thousands of hours into creating digital archives and paid substantial legal fees to sort out nightmare problems of rights. And all this to provide consumers with nearly free books. Who says businesses aren’t charities?