So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

Spoiler alert (yes, you can have a spoiler for non-fiction) – if you’re a white male who has been publicly shamed on social media, rest assured it will all blow over very quickly. If you’re not a white male, prepare to go to hell and back.

In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson looks at a variety of high-profile public shamings – the majority on social media but a few blog and newspaper articles thrown in for variety. Most of the shamings followed a joke that was misinterpreted and the crowd response was swift, intense and life-changing (jobs lost, reputations damaged, relationships destroyed) –

Something of real consequence was happening. We were at the start of a great renaissance of public shaming. After a lull of 180 years (public punishments were phased out in 1837 in the United Kingdom and 1839 in the United States) it was back in a big way. When we deployed shame, we were utilizing an immensely powerful tool. It was coercive, borderless, and increasing in speed and influence.

Ronson ponders the fact that despite our newfound and seemingly powerful collective voice, it is predominantly being used to mercilessly find fault in people. He observes that social media tends to reduce individuals to one moment, and that moment is representative of the person. Logically, we know that people are multi-dimensional (and make mistakes), yet this doesn’t seem to be slowing public shaming.

This is an exceptionally good book – engaging, frightening, thought-provoking. Particular chapters stood out – the case study about Jonah Lehrer and the live-Twitter feed during his public apology was fascinating. Equally, the chapters on shaming as a criminal punishment and the use of shame in correctional facilities were compelling. Ronson interviewed James Gilligan, a psychiatrist who has worked extensively in the US prison system, who said, “I have yet to see an act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of being shamed or humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed.”

I have spent a lot of time at uni this year studying shame. One of my lecturers reckons it underpins all the shit people bring to counselling sessions – that it’s the ‘bedrock’ of guilt, anxiety and anger. I haven’t found any reason to disagree with her and as Gilligan and Ronson both observe, shame is a vicious cycle and one that is bloody hard (but not impossible) to break.

If you have a spare 12 minutes, check out this clip of Monica Lewinsky interviewing Ronson.

4.5/5 Should be mandatory reading before we’re allowed a Twitter account.

‘I got him a non-alcoholic sangria* to calm him down…’

*which is kind of pointless when it comes to sangria but it certainly looks pretty.

13 responses

  1. We have been willingly – or perhaps mindlessly – giving up a lot of our rights and freedoms since the right grabbed 9/11 as an excuse to declare a perpetual state of war, and innocent until proven guilty would seem to be one of them.

    • This was the first book of his that I’ve read but will certainly seek more. I take it that he writes for other publications/ does other media in the UK? Haven’t seen him here (apart from books) but he was recommended to me by a friend who was living in London.

      • Yes, he does documentaries and newspaper journalism here. He came about the same sort of time as Louis Theroux & they used to get compared a lot, but they’ve managed to forge separate paths & are always complementary about the other’s work!

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