Public shaming is more popular than ever, thanks to social media. But Jon Ronson’s new book asks what it says about the shamers
In 2013, while waiting for her plane to depart from Heathrow airport for South Africa, Justine Sacco wrote a badly worded tweet in which she intended to make fun of white privilege. She had 170 followers. While she was in flight, one of them missed her sarcasm and retweeted it, calling her a racist.
By the time she landed in Cape Town, the tweet had gone viral. 170 people had turned into 1.2 million people, who went from not knowing who she was to wishing her every kind of misfortune, often in graphic detail. She was unable to remain in South Africa (they couldn’t guarantee her safety), and upon her return to the U.S., she was immediately fired from her dream job. Say what you will about the wisdom of tweeting bad jokes ripe for misinterpretation, but for Sacco, the pile-on was a tsunami of personal destruction, with the added nightmare of her poor judgment being forever available to the general public.
Author Jon Ronson, was struck hard by her story. He could imagine how it must have felt to have her sense of self appropriated by an online mob—in a previous unsettling experience of his own, online imposters had appropriated his name, persona and image. But he also knew how the online mob felt. He wasn’t among those who responded to Sacco’s ill-fated tweet, but he too had hit send in the name of righteous indignation countless times, without a thought as to what effect his words might have on the receiving end.
“In the early days of Twitter,” he writes, “I was a keen shamer. When newspaper columnists made racist or homophobic statements, I joined the pile-on. Sometimes I led it.”
That divide, even within himself, is what moved Ronson to write his new book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.” In it, he interviews a wide cross-section of people—a science journalist, a publicist, a software developer, a caregiver—all with one painful thing in common: their time spent in the 21st century version of village-square stocks; digital shaming. Some of them made big mistakes, some of them made small ones, but all of them saw their lives torn apart by strangers who mostly forgot about them a day later.
As he did in his bestselling books “The Psychopath Test,” “Lost at Sea,” and “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” Ronson employs his considerable journalistic skills and self-deprecating sense of the absurd to humanize his subjects. He tells their stories with wit, empathy and candor, and his sharpest critique is not directed at them—it’s directed at the rest of us, as he scratches the nagging itch that sets in when we spot our own moral failings in the mirror.
“On social media,” he writes, “we’ve set the stage for constant high drama, but that’s not how we are as human beings. We like to pretend that people aren’t dimensional. We’ve tricked ourselves that Justine Sacco was that one moment, and until we get past that we’re screwed.”
It’s true that the Internet can be swift and sweeping in its ability to devastate individuals, but it can also be a great equalizer, calling out the powerful in ways that individuals can’t. Ronson points this out himself: “Shaming is powerful and useful. I’m living in New York, and my instinct is that, after the Black Lives Matter protests, which were organized on social media, the chance of there being another Eric Garner choked to death in New York by an NYPD officer has diminished.”
In other words, he’s not taking a moral stand against speaking truth to power, he’s taking one against wrecking people’s lives for sport. He points out the collateral damage wrought by what he labels “the great renaissance in public shaming,” because it’s littered with punishment disproportionate to the offenses of its victims, and it’s coming from us—the well-intentioned, self-righteous masses.
Are we more than our momentary lapses, or even our worst moments? Jon Ronson asks the question, and we’d better hope for our own sakes that the answer is yes.
John Ronson will discuss ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’ at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 10 at Bookshop Santa Cruz. Free.