Jon Ronson and the Outcry Over Outrage

This book warns us that, in an increasingly rough online culture, we might well end up being ashamed of being shameless if we shame others.

Popular British author, journalist, and documentary filmmaker Jon Ronson traditionally writes about the disconcerting, unusual side of life. His 2001 book Them: Adventures With Extremists saw him spend time with people holding disparate, startling beliefs, who nevertheless all seemed to think that the world is being run by a shadowy cabal from a room, somewhere. In 2011’s The Psychopath Test, he explored the curious world of mental health diagnostics when it deals with people supposedly past the point of no psychiatric return. In 2012’s Lost at Sea, he expanded upon some of his journalistic writings about people and events on the edges of normality.

It’s not for his supposed faux-naif style that he is Louis Theroux’s spiritual brother: it’s his rare empathy and connection with his interviewees which makes this so, in addition to his exceptional open-mindedness. After reading almost any of one his books, the reader could be struck by the idea that if one person is dysfunctional and morally dubious, then to some extent, we all are. The weirdness and waywardness demonstrated by certain groups and individuals trickle down through the human family, using the vagaries of the shared subconsciousness or simply the Internet as their streams.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is timely and zeitgeisty, given what we’ve all been up to online recently. In a parallel universe, the Internet might well be a force for good, with everyone keeping in touch and merrily sharing information in cyberspace. Here on Earth, though, we’re in a shabbier situation: we’ve turned Twitter, which was originally set up as an in-house messaging service for a podcasting company, into a pin-board of smart-ass retaliation and vicious retorts to things — newspaper articles, off-colour jokes, and journalistic plagiarism — which cause alarms to sound when they scan through our moral systems.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed starts with Ronson getting hot under the collar over a mischievous trio of academics who all met at an English university, and joined forces to create a Twitter account using Ronson’s name and picture. (Their motives are still obscure: they wrote an article in the Guardian about their aim to shed light on beastly Wall Street algorithms.) With their talk of “infomorphs” and “brand management”, you’d have to be saintly to take them seriously and the all-too-human Ronson finds himself getting “screechy” and aggrieved. (Ronson’s interview with them is on YouTube, below.)

Crucially, the starting point for the book is Ronson’s self-examination: the academics are cowed into deleting the spambot when there’s an outcry on Twitter against it. Ronson, reading the comments, wonders if he is perhaps nodding too readily with some of his supporters’ vitriol against the academics. When the mild-mannered, fair-minded Ronson accuses himself of being part of the online shaming corps, it’s easy to feel a chill.

Ronson interviews some of the key figures of recent online shamings in depth, both the shamers and the shamed, all to better try to understand the motivation of the shamer, how the person shamed feels about it, and what becomes of everyone in the end. No one ever comes out of it well, with the shamers, sometimes partly due to the sheer force of their numbers, often looking particularly bad.

At the end of 2013, former PR chief Justine Sacco tweeted an ill-thought out joke about her not being able to catch AIDS because she is white while she was on a flight to Africa: it was only when she landed that she learnt of the Twitter storm of hatred careening towards her. (It may have been started by one individual, when he re-tweeted it to his many followers). The outrage led to ructions within Sacco’s family, and eventually, with her losing her job. At first glance, it might be difficult to see who the real fool is: Sacco, for making the tweet in the first place, the shaming mob, for their heavy-handed approach to righteousness, or yourself, for any schaudenfraude lurking in you when you read about the whole thing later. But the finger of blame surely points to the shamers who, in Sacco’s case, were practically having a party aboard their bandwagon, reveling in their vigilante justice.

Ronson knows that gender can shake things up badly, shaming-wise. In 2012, a struggling journalist and blogger called Michael Moynihan “outed” cocky, successful author Jonah Lehrer when Moynihan recognised certain quotes from Lehrer’s Bob Dylan book Imagine as fake. It would perhaps take the most angelic, genderless reading of the case not to think that a hint of Moynihan’s thwarted masculine pride was involved in the mix when he decided to expose successful fellow family man Lehrer. It turned into a real mess, with Moynihan, originally out to fight on the side of justice as he saw it, wanting out of the whole thing when he found himself the leader of a virtual pitchfork-wielding mob.

Perhaps on both sides of the Atlantic we have swallowed the concepts of gender too whole and faithfully, and are having trouble digesting them, with internet shamings becoming the collective stomach rumble. Unrelated to So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Ronson interviewed Monica Lewinsky, who understandably felt cornered and shamed for years after the incident with Bill Clinton: both men and women have joyfully joined the mob over the years for the particularly gender-based shaming. (See interview between Jon Ronson and Monica Lewinsky, below.)

The main trouble here is for women: when Lindsey Stone’s pictures of her seemingly shouting in a cemetery leaked from Facebook onto the web, a lot of the language employed by internet shamers was vicious and vile, and tailored to her gender. Her physical appearance was talked about in a very twisted manner.

The debacle involving Adria Richards, the disgraced tech worker who took a photo of two men at a PyCon conference who were sitting behind her, and making infantile (she said “sexist”) jokes, is the most obvious example in the book of the war of the sexes getting bloodier. Quite outwith the charge of the shame brigade, the received wisdom of the most fair-minded corners of the internet and pop-culture commentary is that Richards was completely wrong to tweet the picture, which led to one of the jokesters getting fired from his job, as was Richards.

It’s right to say that Richards acted awfully, especially as she expressed little regret, but Ronson is far too savvy to think that the story is a linear one in the face of her online shaming which, from some corners, became absolutely vile. He agrees that Richards acted wrongfully, but to him the story is circular: he knows you could stick a pin into it anywhere and follow its curves forever. Out-and-out trolling isn’t just part of the picture; it’s a huge problem in itself.

But trolling, of course, isn’t the book’s raison d’etre: things would be easier if it was. Ronson tunnels into the twilit, shadowy world of shame partly to find out what on earth is going on when otherwise peaceful human beings gleefully humiliate others on the web. He travels around places and situations to attempt to connect cause and effect, and ends up in a tangled, unholy cross-hatching of all sorts of things: where it all started, what people think about it, and how it all turns out.

It might look like a bit of a red herring when Ronson participates in a “shame eradication workshop” in Chicago, but it’s to find out how we can possibly marshal and command the shame which already exists in us. During this time, Ronson excuses himself to deal with an editor’s idea that he should impersonate a woman in order to write a piece about social injustice. After having the prosthetics made up, he chickens out, probably put off by witnessing the casually handed out travails which women go through in online humiliation.

Throughout the book, alarm bells ring everywhere, all the time. Ronson dismisses 19th century-born French sociologist Gustave Le Bon’s (himself a bit of a sexist) theories of the madness of crowds as lacking, finding more to commend in psychiatrist James Gilligan’s assertion that “all violence (is) a person’s attempt to replace shame with self-esteem.” Gilligan, in the ’70s, investigated the causes behind murders taking place in prisons in Massachusetts. Elsewhere, British former FIA president Max Mosley turns up, blithely claiming that the furor over his 2008 sex scandal didn’t, ultimately, rock the boat too hard because he refused to feel shame. It’s a valuable insight, but one wonders what Adria Richards, for example, would make of the claim.

It’s difficult to emerge with one convenient conclusion after mining the subject of internet humiliation so deeply, but Ronson realises that it has its roots in our own hidden, quotidian feelings of shame, frustration, fear and inadequacy. If we’re not all in it together, owing to social, economic and gender differences, then we are, to some extent, all flailing around in the same troubled climate. The dysfunction which triggers the tasteless joke on Twitter has a lot in common with the impulse which make us want to rail against it.

One of the creators of the “Jon Ronson” spambot said that the Internet is not real life. But as the wars of words spill offline into very real after-effects, we can see that this is untrue. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed warns us that all of us ought to be careful, and that we might well end up being ashamed of being shameless if we shame.