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“We have always had some influence over the justice system but for the first time in 180 years, since the stocks and the pillory were outlawed we have the power to determine the severity of some punishments and so we have to think about what level of mercilessness we feel comfortable with.”
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson shines a, sometimes unwelcome, light on the unforgiving nature of Internet shaming. Ronson convincingly argues that almost 200 years ago we abandoned shaming as a form of punishment, not due a lack of effectiveness with rise of the larger towns and cities, but because it was seen as overly cruel.
Ronson has extraordinary access to those who lives have been ruined because of a bad out of context joke, calling out someone for perceived sexist comments, for making perceived sexist comments, and for being too irreverent in a selfie at a national memorial. The author also cleverly focuses on those less worthy of pity; the successful author who gets found out for making up quotes, and exposes our own attitudes to shaming. And then there are those who seem to have beaten the shame cycle; the UK publicist who went to war with the tabloid press, and the small town where almost a hundred of its citizenry where reveled to be visiting a local prostitute.
As well as telling the story of the various victims of the modern age of public shaming, Ronson also tells us of his own journey and grappling with his own role in the shaming of others and of being of control of his internet persona. This does not hang together quite as well as the rest of the book. I have a hard time, for instance, that such a talented researcher cannot look back through their own Twitter history to see who they have previously shamed. However, this is minor quibble and a brave personal exploration and opening up about personal shame.
The book does end on a relatively positive note due to the miracles of Search Engine Optimization (SEO), however the real point of the book is for the reader to examine how they feel about this return of public shaming. Even for those whom it is hard to defend; the hunters seeking big game trophies, the Vet taking pleasure in shooting a cat with a bow and arrow, and the plagiarizing author, to name but a few – do they really deserve this level of life altering destruction?
For those who answer yes, this book is for you. “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” is, if nothing else, a testament to how much of a double edged sword internet shame can be, how cruel and destructive it is, and how uncomfortable we should all be with it. The Internet shows us at our best and worst as a culture – it is we who have to change.
Note: I have refrained from using the names of any of the subjects, or related people, in this post so as not to add to add to the problem.