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Shaming online shamers with Jon Ronson

In So You've Been Publicly Shamed, the British journalist chronicles the very public punishments of Jonah Lehrer, Mike Daisey, Justine Sacco, and others.


  • Emli Bendixen
  • Jon Ronson

In the early aughts, David Buss, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, asked 5,000 average, presumably nonhomicidal people if they'd ever vividly fantasized about murdering anyone. The test subjects overwhelmingly answered positively. When Buss went on to ask about the circumstances that had provoked the thoughts, nearly none resulted from having been physically harmed or threatened by the object of the murderous fantasy. More often, the daydreams were rooted in the scariest thing of all: humiliation. A guy whose boss had mocked him in front coworkers, for instance, dreamed of tampering with the brakes on his boss's car.

It's one of the more delightfully morbid anecdotes in British journalist Jon Ronson's funny, sad, enlightening book So You've Been Publicly Shamed, a wonderfully researched and written chronicle of the terror we inflict on each other by way of mass shaming, online and beyond. The archaic form of punishment once aimed at adulterers and other offenders of society's moral code has been adopted by hordes of bloodthirsty, often anonymous social media users.

Several recent victims of public shaming figure prominently in Ronson's book, among them Jonah Lehrer, the wunderkind journalist who was caught falsifying quotes in a book about Bob Dylan; Justine Sacco, the PR professional who made an unfortunate joke about AIDS, race, and Africa on Twitter; Adria Richards, a black female in tech whose attempt to shame a couple of male colleagues for making bawdy jokes at a conference badly backfired, and Lindsey Stone, the woman who was photographed fake shouting and flipping a bird at Arlington National Cemetery. None of these people had committed unforgivable crimes—but all of them had their lives significantly impacted by online tormenters.

Over the phone in advance of his appearance on Saturday at the Chicago Humanities Festival, Ronson spoke about shaming, sexism, and social media.


Gwynedd Stuart: In So You've Been Publicly Shamed you joke that you hate not knowing what's going on on Twitter. Did the process of researching and writing the book make you more suspicious of social media than you had been?

Jon Ronson: Oh, so much. I've actually written a new chapter to the paperback, part of which I'll read at the festival. There was a kind of cloud of furiosity surrounding my book, waiting to pounce. And it wasn't from people who read the book; it was from people who thought they knew what the book was about without having read it. Some stupid word got around that I'd launched this kind of stirring defense of white privilege. Like that was my aim. At one point after the book came out and the whole Rachel Dolezal thing happened, I leaped into the fray and I basically said, "No one knows anything about her. You just heard her name for the first time a couple of minutes ago, and you're all assuming that she's some racist, like Nike appropriating hip-hop culture to sell their sneakers, when it's pretty fucking obvious her motives were more psychologically complicated than that." The response to that from people who already thought I was defending white privilege—you can imagine. That was their opportunity to really go for me, and it was kind of ferocious and horrendous. And I went off Twitter—it just felt great! I was in London with my son, and I said to him, "I feel like this huge weight's been lifted!" I'm out on the street, I'm talking to actual humans. And then of course like an idiot I went back on to Twitter. But I feel totally differently about it now.

You also refer to society's intensifying eagerness to publicly shame people. Are people more eager, or is it just easier?

I think a million things happened. One thing that happened is that the mainstream media, kind of already insecure about its place in the new world, started thinking, Oh, if we ignore social media it'll go away. And then they started thinking that it's not going to go away, and we need to sort of yield to social media—we need to allow it to tell us what to think. The shame on social to a large extent comes from a good place. It comes from idealism, people having a voice, a leveling of the playing field, social justice . . . but there's this kind of by-product which is basically that people that totally don't deserve it are getting ruined. As a result it's creating this kind of fearful society, which is way outside the bubble of Twitter. I remember I gave a talk and this woman in the front row was like, "If you play with the Twitter toy, you're gonna get burned." I was thinking, "It's way more complicated than that, because Twitter is kind of setting the agenda. And the agenda is basically shoot first, ask questions later." It's like what we consider acceptable human behavior is getting narrower and narrower. Sometimes I feel like I don't talk enough about the appropriate times when something good happens as a result of someone who transgresses properly being burned by social media—obviously that does happen, but I'd say as often or more often something not good happens, which is an innocent person gets slaughtered.

It's all quite knee-jerky—which reminds me of the part of the book when Jonah Lehrer apologized at a Knight Foundation seminar in front of a real-time Twitter stream of reactions to the apology in progress.

Apologies are something that comes up a few times in the book. Like [shamed storyteller] Mike Daisey says, "It feels like they want an apology, but it's a lie. . . . What they want is my destruction. . . . They never want to hear from me again for the rest of my life." I was with someone—I can't say who it was because the piece hasn't come out yet and the Guardian always gets really annoyed if I give stuff away—but I was with a guy who did transgress on social media and kind of needed a little bit of a bruising. It's not the sort of person I'd have put in the book, it's someone who really did something he shouldn't have done. It was funny, when I was with him I did that thing that I criticize in the book: I was sort of trying to get him to apologize. I noticed it in myself—like, If I say this will he apologize? It's like, Why do I want it?

Did he apologize?

No--as much as I tried to get him to. I think my angling to get him to apologize said something about me, same as it said something about him. I don't quite know what, but it's like if he'd apologized I would have won. I haven't totally formed in my mind why this is a bit odd, but it is a bit odd, right?

Well, in a way, everything's a contest, a constant power struggle between people.

I had breakfast yesterday with Monica Lewinsky, who I feel is like a fellow traveler in this. I said to her at one point, "Every shaming is about more than just the transgression." The transgression is a part of it, but then the reason for the shamers to act the way that they do, the context is a part of it, the various societal pressures that might have led to the transgression—there's a whole bunch of stuff going on these days. But mostly when people transgress and people are shamed for it, it just becomes about the transgression, but it's always more complicated than that. The contest between shamer and shame is really interesting.

To what degree, if any, does sexism play a role in online shaming?

I'm certain it does. I think the insults are way worse when it's a woman. A man, it's like, I'm going to get you fired; with a woman it's, I'm going to rape you. There's undoubtedly this sort of weird misogyny going on during a lot of these shamings. One criticism that the book got which I didn't agree with was, "What Jon Ronson doesn't seem to understand is that men survive shamings just fine while women are always kind of crushed." I thought that was a kind of easy thing to say. Justine Sacco was fine, and she got back on her feet and got a new job and managed to doggedly, with her inner resources, pull things back together. Meanwhile men started killing themselves. Remember the Ashley Madison suicides? I think undoubtedly the kind of nature of the shaming is different for women than men, and it's sometimes much more ferocious when it comes to women.

Have you kept in touch with any of the book's subjects? Did anyone suffer negative consequences for reemerging when we might have otherwise forgotten them?

Only one. I think that everybody felt like the book was good for them with the exception of Adria Richards. I think probably because she was so sort of plainspoken about how she felt. I noticed some people wanted her to be more apologetic. I think some people, you know, went for her again. Not a huge number, but I noticed on Twitter that people were going for her again.

The book makes a good case that shame is basically the worst and most destructive thing people can inflict on other people. As a society of shamers, should we feel shame?

Personally, I think the less shaming we do the better. Somebody like [scholar and author] Brené Brown . . . she says shamings never work. They never work. Empathy works, shaming doesn't work. I'm kind of almost as radical as she is on this, but not quite as radical because I've seen times on social media for instance, you have things like Black Lives Matter. The social justice movement, when it's being fair, is amazing. It's powerful and amazing and it changes things. There's way less homophobia than there used to be, we're heading toward a world where there's less racism than there used to be. But the problem is, it's like a fucking machine gun being held by a baby. Like so sometimes, everything goes fine, a shaming happens, a wrong is righted, and everything goes back to normal. But a lot of the time, the machine gun is being shot all over the place and everyone's getting blown up.  v

So You've Been Publicly Shamed, Sat 10/31, Northwestern University School of Law, Thorne Auditorium, 375 E. Chicago, Evanston, $12, $9 CHF members, $5 students and teachers.

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