Wednesday, 16 September 2015
So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson Review
"YOU'RE AN ARROGANT CONDESCENDING BASTARD!"
"I RESENT YOU FOR HOLDING THE PHONE!"
Jon Ronson is in a Shame Eradication Workshop in Chicago being screamed at by people who are letting out their inner monologues, uncensored. A couple of them have just admitted they enjoy having sex with their cats.
It’s part of Ronson’s exploration of modern public shaming, a lot of which focuses on social media sites like Twitter. A PR Exec called Justine Sacco tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!" – a bad joke but obviously intended satirically – that blew up, caught the attention of millions, and got her fired. Lindsey Stone, a care worker, took a photo of her flipping off a “Silence and Respect” sign in a veterans’ graveyard in Washington DC (the setup is part of an in-joke with her friends), and consequently became a hate figure online, as well as losing her job.
Bestselling author and New Yorker columnist, Jonah Lehrer, lost his job, his book contract, his agent, a number of speaking gigs and his credibility when it turned out he’d fabricated Bob Dylan quotes used in his last book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. Dylan actually said: "God, I'm glad I'm not me," but Lehrer changed it to: "God, I'm glad I'm not me. I'm glad I'm not that". He created some other lies (one of them, “Stop asking me to explain”, was pretty ironic) and tried to pass them off as truth before being discredited by journalist Michael Moynihan.
The various stories recounted here are fascinating. Besides the ones already mentioned there’s Texas Judge Ted Poe who incorporates public shaming in his punishments and claims it lowers re-offending; Max Mosley, the Formula One honcho and son of Oswald Mosley, the famed WW2 British Nazi, who got caught in an S&M orgy; and two American software developers who made a couple of dumb Beavis and Butthead-type jokes during a tech expo and got fired when a woman sat in front of them retweeted what they were saying.
There’s no real thesis here though. Ronson is being entertaining collecting these various stories with a running theme, but there’s not much behind them besides the shock of how these people paid an enormous price for – let’s face it – damn small things. But because of the ubiquity of social media sites, self-righteous hysteria can be whipped up instantaneously and people’s lives dramatically changed by enough outraged strangers.
The blurb says that ordinary people are using shame as a force of social control, that people on social media are tearing apart people who exist outside the boundaries of what we perceive as “normal”, but it’s not a convincing argument. Plenty of people say tasteless things online and never have their lives trashed like the ones in this book and they’re never ashamed of their behaviour.
Ronson does make the interesting observation though that men who’ve digressed in some way are often threatened with sackings while women, in a similar situation, receive rape and death threats instead. But, like a lot in this book, it’s touched upon and then just as quickly discarded. Clearly a lot of work’s gone into this book but it doesn’t feel very substantial. Social media can be scary and shame can destroy some people’s lives while completely bypass others isn’t a powerful conclusion.
That’s alright though because I read Ronson for laughs and gossip and there’s plenty of that here. The opening chapter about a Jon Ronson spambot on Twitter who loves food was hilarious and I had no idea that Jonah Lehrer publicly apologised while having a live Twitter feed behind him that was instantly destroying his speech. And I just like the full title and author name: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson - really, what’d that jerk do to you!? (You gotta make yourself laugh, y’know?)
There are plenty more great bits in this book that are good fun to read and very well written. If you enjoy Louis Theroux’s docs, you’ll like Jon Ronson’s books which are essentially the literary equivalent. They reveal fascinating stories but are basically playing off of humans’ trashy natures at the same time - and that’s a fine trade-off I’m happy with!
So You've Been Publicly Shamed