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Social media has made online shaming that much easier.
Social media has made online shaming that much easier.

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Author Jon Ronson on the consequences of online shaming and why we all need more empathy

"On social media, everybody's either a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. The pendulum is swinging wildly back and forward."

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

If you spend any time online, you've seen it happen: the public shaming. Someone — sometimes a famous person, sometimes an unknown — says, does, or tweets something offensive or just dumb. And then the pile-on begins. Sometimes it seems righteous. Sometimes it seems foolish. Sometimes it might even be completely and totally justified. But there's always a hangover.

In his latest book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, which was published in April and will be out in paperback soon, Jon Ronson explores what it's like to be the target of outrage — and asks why this is such a persistent part of online life. He asks readers, at all times, to consider those who have been shamed as fellow human beings, even if what they were shamed over is considered justified by the reader.

I spoke with Ronson a few months ago about the book, whether the online left or right is more prone to shaming, and what the cure for social media shaming might be. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

On the history of shaming: "These public punishments fell out of favor ... because they were considered too brutal"

Man with his head in a pillory.

Public shaming punishments (helpfully demonstrated by this man putting his head into a pillory) were largely abandoned in the 1830s and 1840s.

Aigars Reinholds/Shutterstock

Todd VanDerWerff

What's great about the book is how much it forces you to feel empathy for everybody profiled in it, no matter their crimes. To what degree were you really trying and thinking about restoring the humanity of these people?

Jon Ronson

That was my purpose with every single person in the book. A lot of these people were people who'd been stripped of their humanity, and my job was to try to give them their humanity back, or at least explain the reasons why they did what they did. This book is all about reminding people that human beings are dimensional, and they're not the worst thing that they ever did.

Todd VanDerWerff

You dig into the history of shaming. What were you most surprised by as you were researching the story of how we got here?

'Guts to Glory: How Do You Find Your Story', Panel Event - Sundance London Film And Music Festival 2014

Jon Ronson in 2014.

Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for Sundance London

Jon Ronson

The thing that surprised me most is that the reason why these public punishments fell out of favor in the 1830s and 1840s is because they were considered too brutal. The punishment outweighed the crime, and people were losing their senses in the crowd. They were stopped on humanitarian grounds, as far as I could tell. Certainly, the documents that I found in the archives pointed to that.

People don't think that. People think, "They must have died out because they lost their power to shame." But I think that wasn't the case at all. I think the thing that surprised me most is that we are now bringing back something that was considered brutal in the 18th century [chuckles]. Who would have thought that would happen?

Todd VanDerWerff

Is this just a part of our psyche in some ways? Is this a thing we need to do when we feel somebody has done something wrong?

Jon Ronson

You could say that. But then remember what happened to that guy Michael Hubacek who had to wear a placard that said, "I killed two people while driving drunk." And then everybody stopped their cars and were like, "You poor thing. You have to walk up and down the sidewalk with this placard? You poor thing, come with me to church, things will be okay." In real life, everybody's lovely to each other. I like to take from that the idea that we are actually empathetic, compassionate people. We've just forgotten that on the internet, and we just need a reminder.

Todd VanDerWerff

I read an interview you did with Salon, where you mentioned that when you went looking for people who had shamed others, people who were on the right were a little more embarrassed by what they'd done than people on the left. Why do you think that the left in some ways is perhaps more susceptible to the allure of public shaming?

Jon Ronson

I honestly don't know, because I am on the left. It really took me by surprise, actually, that after 30 years writing these stories about powerful, crazy people, like abuses of power, and everybody always agrees with me [chuckles]. Except when I'm talking about Justine Sacco, and most people agree with me, but some people are like, "Well, you must be a racist as well."

I don't think I quite understand, actually, at this moment in time why certain people on the left are behaving in this way, because I am a person on the left. Maybe it's because throughout history, when somebody is an oppressed minority and they get power, it takes a while for them to work out how to use that power judiciously. So maybe that's the reason. But that's really speculation.

So You've Been Publicly Shamed

The cover of So You've Been Publicly Shamed

Riverhead Books

Todd VanDerWerff

Especially for people who had spouses or children, what was the shrapnel effect for the other people in their lives of those who were shamed as this was going on around them?

Jon Ronson

It's awful, because when this happens to you, it mangles your mental health. Anxiety, depression, insomnia, PTSD. Anybody who's ever lived with anybody with any kind of mental disorder or mental illness knows how devastating it is for everybody. It's not only the mental health issue, but people lose their jobs, lose their reputation. You have to get rid of your medical insurance. These are devastating things for everybody. Children are going to therapists because they've been damaged by something that happened on social media.

Todd VanDerWerff

There's obviously tons of good stuff happening on social media. What can we learn from the good to help us deal better with the bad?

Jon Ronson

I see something magnificent happening on Twitter, and it happens a lot. I read this heartbreaking story about this pit bull that had been in a shelter for five years and nobody had adopted it. So the pit bull posed with a placard he had written, saying, "Everybody at the shelter tells me I am a good boy — why is nobody adopting me?" Honestly, I just burst into tears, and then it turns out that the pit bull did get adopted. And there's lots and lots of stories like that. These things are wonderful.

There's a slight inherent problem, I think, with these wonderful things though, which is that on social media, everybody's either a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. The pendulum is swinging wildly back and forward. So, as much as I love those things when they happen, sometimes I wish everybody would see everybody as a mixture of magnificent hero and sickening villain. I wish everybody would remember that we're all in the middle of that. We're all gray. We're all gray areas.

Justine Sacco

Sacco tweeted a seemingly racist joke, then got on a lengthy flight to Africa. Gawker published the tweet, and Sacco eventually lost her job. Sacco had intended the joke to be on the sort of person who would say something that racist, but her intent was lost both in the actual, poor construction of the tweet and in the ensuing social media firestorm.


"Has Justine Landed Yet" trended throughout her long flight.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images News

Todd VanDerWerff

Some of the best portions of the book are about Justine Sacco, who had her life ruined because of a poorly constructed joke. But the social media fervor around her was so addicting in a lot of ways. How do you get people to take a step back from that and think about the person on the other end of the storm?

Jon Ronson

I read this amazing review of my book in the New Statesman in England, which is, like me, a left-leaning magazine. And the writer Helen Lewis said she tweeted something [about the Sacco joke] along the lines of, "I'm not sure that this joke was intended to be racist." And she said straight away that she got a volley of, "Well, you're just a privileged bitch yourself." And so, she said, to her shame, she shut up. She didn't say anything, because social media was frightening. We are frightening. And it's like, "We'll get you too, if you're not careful."

I think what you have to do is stand up for what you believe. If you think Justine Sacco was being ill-treated, say it. That did happen actually with Trevor Noah, and I wonder whether the fact that the Trevor Noah thing happened the same week as my book coming out, and Monica Lewinsky's TED talk, I wonder whether that helped to kind of re-frame that situation into something more empathetic. Because people were thinking about this. We were in sympathy because of a joke that came out badly.

Todd VanDerWerff

You talk to Sam Biddle about his role in publicizing the Sacco tweet, and he says something to the effect of, "I'm sure she was just fine." Why is it so easy to divorce ourselves from consequences in these situations?

Jon Ronson

The drone strike operator doesn't need to look at the village he's just smashed up. I guess that's the reason. Maybe we should always be in the same room as our victims. Maybe that's it. I think the internet is stripping us of our empathy. It's turning us more sociopathic, because lack of empathy, obviously, is one of the key items on the psychopath checklist.

Jonah Lehrer

After being caught plagiarizing material, the pop-science author Lehrer went to the Knight Foundation to issue a public apology — where he was forced to deliver his speech while watching a lengthy stream of tweets yelling about his awfulness.

World Science Summit

Jonah Lehrer appears at a panel discussion before his wrongs were exposed.

Photo by Thos Robinson/Getty Images for World Science Festival

Todd VanDerWerff

Some of these people you write about, like Jonah Lehrer for instance, are in the public eye. In journalism in the US, at least, we have different burdens of proof for libel for public figures and private figures. Do you think, in some ways, the same should apply to social media? Should we get more latitude to shame public figures?

Jon Ronson

There's nothing wrong with being critical of public figures. Criticism is good, and satire is good, and investigative journalism is good, and citizen journalism is good. Curiosity is good. Yelling is good. The only thing that's bad, for me in this, is the disproportionate punishment of people who did virtually nothing wrong. And that's different from criticism. A kind of punishment without trial, a kind of totalitarian thought process where nobody's allowed to offer an opposing view. That's what's happening, and that's what's bad.

Todd VanDerWerff

Lehrer did something wrong, and even he will admit that. Where do you draw that line between being honestly critical of his work and shaming him?

Jon Ronson

Jonah's a different case. I think with the Jonah story, everything that happened up until that Knight Foundation lunch was completely appropriate. Jonah did do things that were wrong, and he needed to be fired, and the shaming that happened to Jonah was not inappropriate. But then when he decided to apologize in front of a live Twitter feed, and while he was apologizing, people were yelling at him via Twitter, "Bored," "You're just a sociopath," that was extraordinary and incredibly brutal, and everything changed. So everything that happened to Jonah until that moment is completely appropriate, and at that moment, everything turned.

Trevor Noah

Shortly after being hired to host The Daily Show, the comedian's tweet history was searched through, and several jokes, many accused of being sexist, were found. The jokes' (admittedly horribly unfunny) content provoked questions of whether Noah was suitable to take the hosting job on The Daily Show.

Trevor Noah is the new host of The Daily Show.

Trevor Noah will assume the hosting duties for The Daily Show on Monday, September 28, 2015.

Comedy Central

Todd VanDerWerff

Did you follow the Trevor Noah situation at all this spring?

Jon Ronson

Of course. In fact, I'd been on The Daily Show just a day or two before it happened, so I thought that was interesting timing that I was talking about this exact same issue on The Daily Show, then a couple of days later the issue engulfed The Daily Show in a funny way.

The first thing I thought was, "Wow, those were shitty jokes." Like everybody, I felt that knee-jerk, you know, "What kind of guy is this to make those jokes?" And then I sort of remembered my book, and remembered what my book was about, and remembered that it's kind of shitty to dredge over 9,000 tweets and find five — or whatever — offensive ones and pretend that those five tweets are like a clue to this person's secret self. When Comedy Central stood behind him, I thought, "That's great, that's what people should be doing."

Todd VanDerWerff

To what degree do you think that comedy has to play around with these potentially offensive ideas?

Jon Ronson

Comedy should be unafraid. I think we're living in afraid times, and it's because on social media, we have the opportunity to right wrongs. So we did right wrongs, and we attacked people who were being racist or homophobic, or were misusing their privilege. We attacked the powerful. And that was great, and we attacked them in a way that they used to be impervious to. They used to not care what people without a voice thought. Then, on social media we had a voice, but everybody had a voice, and it was powerful. As a result of that, things have really gotten frightened, and people are now frightened to tell jokes or offer controversial comments.

Todd VanDerWerff

I'm a white guy, and I've frequently said things that were unaware of my own privilege. And I've had friends say, "You shouldn't have said that." Is there a way to do that on social media, without making somebody feel like shit, because 5,000 people swarm all at once?

Jon Ronson

If you said something stupid because of your privilege, I think if somebody had noticed that, they should say something to you, but not in a way that everybody else can see it. That kind of grandstanding, "Let's get this person," way.

Constructive criticism. Empathetic, compassionate, constructive criticism. I think we need to remember democracy. When somebody transgresses in a democracy, other people give them their points of view, they tell them what they've done wrong, there's a debate, people listen to each other. That's how democracy should be.

Whereas, on social media, it's not a democracy. Everybody's agreeing with each other and approving each other, and then, if somebody transgresses, we disproportionately punish them. We tear them apart, and we don't want to listen to them. And they're not allowed to say, "My god, I'm sorry, you didn't understand," or, "I made a mistake." People aren't allowed to engage in the debates when they're being shared. So, yeah, I think compassionate, constructive criticism is the way forward. Because it works. Empathy works. Compassion works. Cold, hard judgment and disproportionate punishment doesn't work.

Todd VanDerWerff

A lot of people were upset that Noah seemed more defensive than apologetic. When you talked to people for this book, was there a way when they were in the middle of a social media storm for them to be anything other than incredibly defensive?

Jon Ronson

There's a guy in my book, Mike Daisey, who is a theater guy who transgressed. He pretended that a piece of theater was a piece of journalism, and when he was being publicly shamed, he stood there and just yelled back. He was one man yelling at 10,000 people. And it seemed to work. Eventually people thought, "Oh fuck. Let it go." And he survived it. But I don't think that's the reason Mike survived it. I think what happened with Mike was that he had a career in the theater to fall back on. The theater never turned against him, and so it's much easier to stand up for yourself when you've got something to fall back on.

Honestly, if everything is at risk, the only thing you can do when you're in the eye of that hurricane is to just shut up, just not say anything, just be completely silent. And I think that's terrible. As human beings, we want to communicate to each other and explain and connect. That's democracy. Actually, time and again, you can see that the only way to survive is to apologize.

So You've Been Publicly Shamed is available wherever books are sold.


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