In the early days of Twitter, journalist Jon Ronson joined many social media campaigns aimed at naming and shaming those who abuse their power, such as well-known commentators who make racist or homophobic remarks. But as the power of Twitter grew, Ronson was disturbed at how often public shamings were aimed at everyday people whose transgressions were, in his view, fairly minor.
So for his new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Ronson set out to meet people who’ve been shamed online and observe the impact firsthand. And that impact, he learned, can be devastating.
“People don’t realize until it happens to them just how horrific it is,” Ronson says in Episode 149 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “It’s depressing, it gives you anxiety and insomnia. It changes you.”
He met with women like Lindsey Stone and Justine Sacco, both of whom lost their careers and became public pariahs, unable to work or socialize, as a result of failed attempts at online humor.
“I wanted people to feel the fear of what it feels like to be Lindsey Stone or Justine Sacco,” says Ronson. “And I think I accomplished that in the book. It’s a tense experience reading this book.”
Even journalists who are sympathetic to victims of online shaming can be afraid to speak up, out of fear of becoming the next target.
“Journalists are supposed to be fearless,” says Ronson. “And speak truth to power, and stand up to abusive behavior. But the power that we wield on social media—when the flame is burning at its hottest—is so frightening that people don’t want to stand up to it.”
But he thinks the tide may be turning. Monica Lewinsky’s recent TED Talk has brought more attention to the issue, and lately social media has seemed somewhat more forgiving toward those who are targeted over failed jokes, such as Trevor Noah or Chad Shanks.
Ronson is quick to point out that he doesn’t favor people being rude or offensive. He just thinks the reaction should be proportional, and that everyone should be treated like a human being.
“This terrible proclivity we have on social media and in the mainstream media to just define somebody by the worst thing they ever said, or define somebody by the one bad thing that they did, is not the world we want to live in,” he says.
Listen to our complete interview with Jon Ronson in Episode 149 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Jon Ronson on Jonah Lehrer:
“There’s one story in my book about a pop science writer—who used to write for WIRED, in fact—called Jonah Lehrer, who transgressed, and he was given the opportunity to publicly apologize. But his public apology was being hosted by a foundation called the Knight Foundation. And it was livestreamed, and there was a giant Twitter feed—he didn’t realize this until he turned up—that they erected this giant Twitter right next to his head. … And so while he was apologizing, in real time, people were tweeting, and he could read every single one of these tweets as he was apologizing. ‘Jonah Lehrer is boring us into forgiving him.’ ‘Jonah Lehrer has not proven he is capable of feeling shame.’ ‘Jonah Lehrer is just a friggin’ sociopath.’ Imagine if that was happening in a real court?”
Jon Ronson on women and shaming:
“In all shamings, women have it way worse than men. It’s no coincidence that my book is filled with women. Jonah Lehrer is one of the only men I write about in the book. There’s this huge amount of misogyny around at the moment. Monica Lewinsky fell victim to it. And this is what I said to her when I tried to get her to talk to me for the book, I said, ‘I want to understand why you fared so much worse than Bill Clinton.’ … A couple of people decided to attack the book by saying that I’m not cognizant of gender differences in the book—that I’m not cognizant of the fact that women get it much worse than men—but I think that’s a deliberate misrepresentation of the book, because I think the book is full of stuff about gender differences. It’s what the book is all about, in a way.”
Jon Ronson on privilege:
“I’m really suspicious of people who bandy around the word ‘privilege’ at the moment, because it’s used as a free pass to shame whoever you want to shame. … I would defy anybody to find a widespread shaming that’s happening these days where the shaming isn’t justified by the phrase ‘misuse of privilege.’ And the problem of course is that it’s becoming a devalued term. Pretty much everyone these days is accused of misusing their privilege. … I think if you’ve got a liberal joke that might get misconstrued, don’t be afraid to tweet it just because some radical bully might decide to use you as a blank canvas for them to sort of stamp their ideology onto. I think the people who need to think twice are the people who are willing to just leap in and ruin somebody over nothing.”
Jon Ronson on empathy:
“I’m really hoping that my book is like Benjamin Rush’s paper, where he says that ‘Ignominy is a worse punishment than death.’ I think maybe my book will be part of a movement to change [things]. And I’m not talking about regulation, because you can only regulate against trolls, and sometimes I think being a victim of trolls is actually less bad than being a victim of nice, kind people like us. Because when you’re a victim of trolls you’re obviously a victim, but when we have decided that you’re a terrible human being, there’s nobody there to support you. … So I think I’m just talking about remembering what we do know about other human beings, which is that we’re all a mix of cleverness and stupidity, mistakes and honesty. That’s what human beings are. … This book is really asking people to think about how we want to behave toward other people’s mistakes.”
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