After two years of reading and writing about those who live the politicized life—those who suffuse every aspect of their personas with politics and allow ideological considerations to trump all others—I’d finally found what I was looking for: I’d discovered the worst person in the world.
“Somebody getting fired is pretty bad,” Jon Ronson tells his interviewee, Adria. She had taken a photo of a guy sitting behind her at a conference who had made a very slightly off-color joke to his friend. The essay that accompanied the photo caused the man (who has a wife and kids) to get fired. “I know you didn’t call for him to be fired. But you must have felt pretty bad.”
Adria’s response was vexing:
“Not too bad,” she said. She thought more and shook her head decisively. “He’s a white male. I’m a black Jewish female. He was saying things that could be inferred as offensive to me, sitting in front of him. I do have empathy for him but it only goes so far. If he had Down syndrome and he accidentally pushed someone off a subway that would be different. . . . If I had a spouse and two kids to support I certainly would not be telling ‘jokes’ like he was doing at a conference.”
In other words, Adria believes that a mentally incapacitated person accidentally killing a man is less bad than someone possibly—-possibly!—offending a person who might overhear a joke. Infuriated, I wanted to tweet my outrage. I wanted to set the mob on her, to let loose my right-thinking followers on this feckless and callow arbiter of social justice. I cannot imagine that Jon Ronson would have approved.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed focuses on the resurgence of humiliation as a form of punishment. “After a lull of almost 180 years . . . it was back in a big way,” Ronson writes of shame. The stocks were out; ruinous Google results were in. Ronson opens by recounting an online shaming that he precipitated: A trio of researchers had appropriated his identity and given it to a spambot on Twitter, the sort of account that tweets borderline gibberish but confuses friends and strangers alike. Appealing to the mob, Ronson swamped the researchers with complaints until they relented and took the bot down.
Most modern-day shamings aren’t so clean-cut, with a neatly packaged hero (Ronson), villain (the troika of academics), and goal (the removal of the bot). Rather, they are open-ended (when they aren’t unending) and focused on personal destruction, culminating in calls for a person to be fired. Or murdered. Or raped. Or all three, with some bonus cruelties tossed in for kicks.
The casus belli for these crusades varies. Perhaps most famous is the tale of Justine Sacco, a public relations executive whose misunderstood joke about AIDS in Africa led to a Twitter storm the likes of which has rarely been seen. After firing off her sub-140-character joke, Sacco powered down her phone and embarked on a 12-hour flight. By the time she woke up, she was trending worldwide, receiving death threats—and out of a job.
It’s fair to say that others were a bit more deserving of their shaming. Ronson’s second and third chapters deal with the tale of Jonah Lehrer, the wunderkind at the New Yorker whose best-selling pop science books and columns were found to be rife with journalistic sins, both venial (self-plagiarism) and mortal (quote fabrication). Lehrer’s destruction culminated in a speech at a journalism conference in which he offered a wholly unconvincing “apology” as hate-filled tweets, penned in real time, appeared on a screen behind him.
Ronson is employing a bit of rhetorical trickery here by conflating the ordeals of Justine and Jonah. One’s career was ruined over a failed joke that had nothing to do with her profession; the other’s was torn down because it was built on a foundation of fraud.
Then again, Ronson would likely argue that this is a false dichotomy: Shame is too powerful a punishment to be deployed willy-nilly. Sure, in certain cases—as with Rep. Ted Poe’s decision as a judge to sentence criminals to (among other things) hold a placard outside the store they had robbed pronouncing their guilt—it can work. But letting loose a digital mob wielding embarrassment and emotional terror to rein in those who have trespassed against us is more likely to deaden the intended victims’ souls than turn them into productive members of society.