Jon Ronson, a Welsh journalist, author, documentary filmmaker and radio presenter famous for his book The Men Who Stare at Goats, became first interested in public shaming when three young academics from Warwick University had created a spambot twitter account under Ronson’s name. The account used a computer program that would randomly generate tweets about mundane everyday things—things that the real Jon Ronson was not actually doing, and had no real interest in. Ronson asked the three academics to get rid of the account, but they refused. Ronson then requested to record an interview with the young men, which he eventually posted on YouTube, and which resulted in an onslaught of comments that ultimately shamed the young men into deactivating the account. Ronson’s new novel “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” released March 31, breaches this issue of shaming.
With the increasing popularity of social media, specifically Twitter, large corporations and famous individuals suddenly became accessible to anyone with a computer and internet access. Digital mobs have been known to attack celebrities who make inappropriate comments or companies whose employees don’t handle an incident well. These public shamings often result in a public apology or compensation through money or services. The mobs behind these public shamings often feel like digital superheroes who are fighting to right wrongs and rid society of the injustices and ignorance it is plagued by. Ronson himself even admits to partaking in some of these Twitter crusades. What Ronson set out to investigate was extreme instances of public shaming that resulted in actual harm.
He writes, “I suppose that when shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be. The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche.”
Ronson talked to a journalist who’d been caught fabricating Bob Dylan quotes in his book“ Imagine: How Creativity Works,” as well as three different people who made distasteful jokes that cost them their jobs, and several other people who had, for one reason or another, been publicly shamed. Max Mosley, a Formula One motor racing chief, refused to be ashamed when he was exposed as an active member of the BDSM community through a sex scandal resulting from a breach in his privacy. Justine Sacco, on the other hand, tweeted a poorly executed joke about white privilege that resulted in the loss of her dream job and her reputation. Ronson also wrote about several journalists who’d committed suicide after they’d been caught in lies, their credibility ruined, their career over.
Public shaming was a common punishment since the late 1800s. In the past, criminals were locked in stockades and publicly whipped, but this form of punishment was eventually phased out when it was realized to be too harsh. Ted Poe, a former judge in Houston, TX, was known for his humiliating punishments in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Poe made a young man who killed a family while drunk driving hold a sign stating his crime in front of a high school. These sentences were often seen as cruel because of their humiliating nature, but Poe’s statistics proved that the majority of the people he sentenced in this way were not repeat offenders. The embarrassment made them never want to commit a crime again.
Meanwhile, studies have been conducted that show that violence in prisons stems from public shaming. The dehumanization that some inmates experience through guard-on-prisoner brutality results in a shame so deep that the inmates will commit acts of violence just to feel respected again. This raised another question for Ronson. When do we cross the line from humiliation to dehumanization? How far is too far?
Ronson was also surprised to discover that crimes that are generally seen as more severe by society aren’t necessarily the crimes that individuals are shamed for. When a small-town Maine prostitute’s client list was discovered, the people on the list, some of them prominent figures in that community, were terrified of the public shame they assumed would come for them. However, the people on the list went to court, paid their fines and were soon forgotten about. That same year, Lindsey Stone, a woman with a passion for working with adults with learning disabilities, posted a picture that ruined her life. Stone and her friend like to jokingly defy authority by posting pictures of themselves being disobedient, like smoking next to “No Smoking” signs. When Stone took a group of adults with learning disabilities to Washington, D.C., her friend snapped a picture of Stone pretending to yell and holding up a middle finger in front of a “Silence and Respect” sign at Arlington National Cemetery. While frequent clients of a prostitute paid their fines and were forgotten, Stone lost her job and didn’t leave her house for a year.
This introspective and brutally honest look into the rebirth of public shaming makes readers think about the power behind their twitter handles. Ronson writes, “We have always had some influence over the justice system, but for the first time in 180 years…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.”
Kara Delemeester can be reached at Kara.firstname.lastname@example.org.