Book Review: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

non-fiction by Jon Ronson

A timely subject given the unmediated power of social media, a survey of some of the ways the shame monster breathes its foul breath upon our lives. The book is a quickie tour, though, so readers looking for a deep-end analysis are likely to be disappointed. Ronson’s reportage can be amusing, as in his description of himself as the “tweedy and owl-like” observer in a San Francisco Kink factory. I know that writing a book entails too much solitude and a lot of ass-numbing work so I guess it’s hard to blame the guy for slipping some kink tourism into the research budget. For all the good it did him, though, the sexual atmosphere must have overwhelmed because the tweedy owl’s observations about shame fell short of relevant.

Sometimes the writing absolutely glares with superficiality, as in his 1.5 page description of a raped teenager who killed herself after being humiliated in trial at court. The author’s most unfortunate summation: A shaming can be like a distorting mirror at a funfair…

In the chapter titled The Shame-Eradication Workshop the author chronicles his participation. Over many pages he quotes dialogue that gruesomely illustrates just how insane group dynamics can be. My thoughts when reading this chapter: Let’s hope he taped those meetings surreptitiously rather than fabricated or ad-libbed all that quoted dialogue because, well, you know.

Now back to the abuse of power vis-a-vis social media.

The author profiles two high-profile cases in which two people, Justine Sacco and Jonah Lehrer, had their careers ruined after prolonged and vicious shaming campaigns. Lehrer is a long-time Bob Dylan aficionado whose one incorrect sentence cost him a prestigious decades-long career, then his identity and self-worth. Justine Sacco tweeted a cruel racial joke while on a plane to South Africa and before the plane landed she’d been vilified by millions. She had to hire a firm to massage Google search results until her toxic tweet disappeared onto Google’s back pages.

Have we come far since the days of hangings in the public square? Is shaming in the blood? Once when I was traveling in China in the late 1980s (back in what for modern China must now be considered their Medieval Age) I witnessed a public shaming in Kunming. A crowd of about 200 people stood in a circle and watched a man who was face down on the pavement and being tortured by another man who had the offender’s leg in some kind of boxer hold. The shamee’s face was contorted with pain and all his effort went into not crying out as the crowd stood around quietly whispering and waiting for him to crack.

A young friend assures me that if right now I were to post that my friend is a misogynist Nazi I’d have at least fifty people who would believe me without doing any fact-checking. Regarding Twitter, Ronson quotes a journalist friend who likens social media to “tiptoeing around an unpredictable, angry, unbalanced parent who might strike out at any moment”. Having had one of those parents myself I can tell you that social media is a lot easier. In any case, people liberated from silence and given a multitude of platforms from which to exercise their free speech are apparently wrecking it for us all. Ronson claims, “We see ourselves as nonconformist, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age.” I personally think he’s off the mark with that assertion, but there’s no question social media can be one nasty gnashing beast. The author’s advice: Be Bland.

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