Monday, May 4, 2020

Public Shaming: Does It Accord More Harm Than Good?

This is a quick review of Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Published in 2015, the book contains the fruits of Ronson’s investigation and analysis of online public shaming. It’s an engrossing read that will make you think deeply of the morality (and immorality) of public shaming. You may think you have a clear understanding of the issue of mobbish ridicule. But hold that thought until you’ve finished reading this book. The issue of online public shaming is not as black-and-white as you might think.

Ronson is an investigative journalist of the highest calibre. One unique ingredient in his work that allows him to stand out from other serious investigative journalists is his humor. In the eyes of Ronson, no topic is immune from his brand of written comedy. In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, his punch lines were nothing short of masterful. His writing style is crystal clear but gritty. He has the rare ability of keeping your interest level from wavering down. Before you even know it, you are halfway through the tome.

Throughout the book, Ronson provides several high-profile examples of public shaming. By high-profile, I mean that the public shaming garnered immense attention online. That is both mainstream media outlets and small independent bloggers had their say on the “shaming”. To name just a few of Ronson’s case studies: Jonah Lehrer, Justine Sacco, Lindsey Stone, and Adria Richards.

Ronson started writing the book with the utmost curiosity. He was looking for answers and he invites the reader to join him on the journey. He doesn’t tell you what you should or should not think. He encourages you to find your own answers. He offers you his case studies. Who shamed who. What happened after the shaming. The physical and mental damages to both shamer and shamee. Where are they now. In short, Ronson paints the factual picture. You are free to interpret the picture that you see.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from this book. A single tweet can ruin your life. A bad joke can cost you your job. Participating in misdirected online mob justice can be very dangerous. A good number of people committed suicide after being shamed online by hundreds if not thousands of people. There’s a lot more that you can learn from the book depending on your background or where you’re coming from.

It’s so easy to join any bandwagon online. Someone tweeted something racist and the world piles on that person. It’s often too difficult to fight the urge to join the mob. We are easily enraged. What’s often lost in the ensuing melee is the harm being done to the person being mobbed. Time and time again, we will soon find out that the person doesn’t deserve such vitriol and hate. Ronson’s book drives that point home. Does a person deserve to lose her job or have her career prospects flushed down the gutter because of a tweet that everyone misunderstood or misconstrued?

Ronson’s greatest accomplishment with this book is his providing a light over the TRUE cost of online public shaming. Ronson is indirectly saying that we are better than this. We can be nicer than this. Why are we so passionate in destroying other people’s lives? Yet we are not even sure if they deserve it or not. At its core, online public shaming is the act of ridiculing people you don’t know. People you haven’t even met. People who could be close friends under different circumstances.

People respond to online shaming in many ways but we can categorize them into two. There are those who take the ridicule well and are able to move on with their lives. Then there are those who completely break down and resort to self-harm.

Justine Sacco, one of Ronson’s case studies, survived the shaming. In her own words: “My life is not ruined. My resilience makes me who I am. The world can try to break a person, but only that person can allow herself to be broken. I took major steps to overcome that debacle. I stayed true to myself and that got me through the darkest time in my life. I don’t want people to think I’m at the bottom of a depression pit. Because I’m truly not.

And then there was Ariel Runis at the other end of the spectrum. When he was shamed by thousands of people on Facebook, he pointed a gun at his head and pulled the trigger. Before he took his own life, he posted this message on Facebook: “Up until two days ago, my life looked rosy. But each Facebook share is a sharpened arrow driven into my flesh. All my life’s work has at once vanished, with the thrust of a word, disappeared. For years I have worked to make a name for myself, a name now synonymous with the vilest of terms –racism. This will be my fate from now on.

I’ll end this piece with a long quote from the book’s Afterword. I think it perfectly encapsulates the message of the book. There’s a reason why Ronson saved it for last.

Maybe there are two types of people in the world: those who favour humans over ideology, and those who favour ideology over humans. I favour humans over ideology, but right now the ideologues are winning, and they’re creating a stage for constant artificial dramas, where everyone is either a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. We can lead good, ethical lives, but some bad phraseology in a tweet can overwhelm it all – even though we know that’s not how we should define our fellow humans. What’s true about our fellow humans is that we are clever and stupid. We are grey areas.

And so, unpleasant as it will surely be for you, when you see an unfair or an ambiguous shaming unfold, speak up on behalf of the shamed person. A babble of opposing voices – that’s democracy.

The great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people. Let’s not turn into a world where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless.

Other books by Jon Ronson you might want to dig into:
1. Them: Adventures with Extremists
2. The Men Who Stare at Goats
3. Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries
4. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry
5. Out of the Ordinary: True Tales of Everyday Craziness
6. What I Do: More True Tales of Everyday Craziness
7. Frank: The true Story That Inspired the Movie