Literature Society: Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed
Jon Ronson’s much talked about 2015 best-seller So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed was released a mere three years ago but it already reads like a period piece, a relic of a more innocent era. Despite its youth, the book was published in an era where it seemed laughable and preposterous that a man like Donald Trump would ever come close to getting elected President.
Were we ever that young? Or that adorably naive? When the book was published, Louis CK was probably the hottest, most beloved and acclaimed television auteur alive, despite persistent whispers about the comedian and writer masturbating in front of mortified women. The previous year Hannibal Buress reminded the audience at one of his shows that Bill Cosby, arguably the most respected and beloved entertainer of the 1980s, had an inconvenient history of sexual assault and drugging allegations, setting in place a series of events leading to his recent conviction on three charges of sexual assault.
This was also before the equally dramatic fall of Harvey Weinstein, which led to what is now known as “The Weinstein Effect”, a sweeping, culture-wide reckoning (everywhere except, alas, the White House) in which the sexual transgressions of powerful men are being publicly addressed and punished like never before, and a wave of terrible men are essentially being cast out of show business and into the cultural wilderness after decades of being protected by money, power and fear.
The world seems to have gotten colder, crueler and more brutal in the mere three years separating So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’s release and our uncertain present. The social media world Ronson describes with both deep empathy and clear-eyed candor has gotten so much nastier, divisive and toxic since we elected a crazed narcissist for whom the white-hot rage and angry judgment of Twitter represents the truest and most authentic form of public communication.
The most powerful man in the world is a Twitter troll perpetually lashing out in petulant rage at anyone who displeases him for any reason, including members of his own cabinet and party.
Thanks in no small part t to the toxic pit of hate, paranoia and unhinged narcissism that constitutes Donald Trump’s Twitter account, social media has gotten angrier and more heated since Ronson published his earnest, engaging, eminently reasonable plea for a kinder, gentler, less shame-based social media world.
Compared to monsters like R. Kelly, Trump, Weinstein and Cosby, the people Ronson writes about in this book are living saints, paragons of virtue whose vicious public shaming constitute, alternately, grievous overreactions, horrific misunderstandings and cruel cosmic jokes.
The book is partially made up of case studies of public pariahs like Justine Sacco, a spunky PR professional who had the tragic poor judgment to tweet “Going to Africa! Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” to her 170 followers before going on a flight to her home country of South Africa. By the time she touched down she was a trending topic on Twitter for reasons that, needless to say, aggressively challenge the old PR maxim that there’s no such thing as bad press, that all press is good press.
It was a glib joke about white privilege that was received very differently by a virtual torch-and-pitchfork-wielding mob that interpreted her words as the evil arrogance of the racist daughter of a billionaire who was laughing demonically of black children dying of AIDS in Africa from a place of bigotry and privilege. It didn’t seem to matter that Sacco’s father wasn’t a billionaire, just a man with the same last name as one, or that Sacco’s joke was making fun of white privilege, albeit clumsily.
Sacco got fired from her job and, like most of the people chronicled here, fell into a predictable state of depression and anxiety once she went from being completely anonymous to the most hated woman in America.
Sacco’s transgression was, essentially, a joke that landed very, very wrong. That’s similarly true of another of the book’s subjects, Lindsey Stone. She’s a woman who had devoted her professional life to working with leaning disabled adults and autistic children but who made the mistake of taking a joke photograph at the Arlington National Cemetery whose brash irreverence the veterans of our great wars did not find funny, to put it mildly, leading to an intense public shaming wildly disproportionate to her
Ronson does not have to work very hard to make the case that people should not be publicly hounded, viciously shamed and have their lives destroyed over minor transgressions. That, to me at least, seems self-evident. Even the sadomasochistic orgy a decadent European executive who is photographed enjoying that was wrongly slandered as an evil Nazi orgy when it was really nothing more harmful than a German military-themed fuck-fest ultimately seems like not that big a deal.
It certainly did not look good for the son of famous Nazi sympathizers Diana Mitford and Osword Mosely to be photographed being spanked by prostitutes barking angrily at him in German, but for all of the luridness of the tableau, it really was just a matter of consenting adults not hurting anyone.
The sins of superstar literary fabulists Jonah Lehrer and Mike Daisey are more serious than the badly executed gags of Sacco and Stone. The annoyingly precocious Lehrer’s comet-like ascent to Malcolm Gladwellian pop-science fame came to a screaming and very public halt when it was discovered he had fabricated Bob Dylan quotes for a book on creativity and engaged in acts of self-plagiarism.
In one of the book’s most riveting vignettes, Lehrer gives an apology speech (for a sweet 20,000 dollar fee, which illustrates that even handsome white straight men in disgrace can find ways to monetize their celebrity) in front of a giant screen showing real-time responses to his mealy-mouthed mea culpa that were unrelentingly nasty and scolding in a Orwellian ritual of cyber-humiliation half Black Mirror, half updated The Scarlet Letter.
Daisey, meanwhile, committed the single most unforgivable offense imaginable, at least as far as white Liberals are concerned: he made This American Life look bad. He accidentally embarrassed Ira Glass by fabricating big parts of a famous radio piece where he traveled to China and fake-witnessed firsthand the devastation and horror of the factories that give us the wonderful Apple products that make our lives bearable.
Daisey disingenuously presents himself to Ronson as the activist-writer equivalent of a righteous suicide bomber, a man who was willing to knowingly destroy his career for the sake of articulating an important truth about Apple and capitalism and our horrific, unexamined willingness to put our own comfort and convenience over the suffering of others (he writes into his Apple laptop while listening to his iPod and charging his iPhone).
Daisey is not convincing in the least but Ronson goes easy on him. The writer and monologuist’s own pompous, self-regarding words make him look worse than anything Ronson could write.
I expected So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed to be a series of case studies of people who’d been publicly shamed. That’s true of much of the book but Ronson has a casual, agreeably digressive and conversational style where a case study leads to an anecdote, which leads to detours involving everything from the underlying authenticity and meaning of the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment to a hardcore porn shoot where a woman gets to experience her fantasy of public sexual degradation in a safe, supportive and shame-free environment.
Like everything I’ve read of Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is enormous entertaining, a funny, empathetic page-turner that’s thought provoking throughout if never terribly deep.
I read it in a matter of hours and identified heavily with Ronson, and not just because he’s another neurotic Jew who travels around the world meeting weird people and having colorful adventures.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed made me reflect on my own social media habits. I basically write three types of tweets. There are, of course, tweets promoting Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place articles. Those may be annoying but they help keep the site afloat and the lights on. Then there are jokes. I like to make jokes on Twitter. It’s an ideal delivery device for one-liners.
Lastly, I write tweets to shame the people that I despise, most notably Donald Trump but also his cabinet, his supporters, the Alt-Right and anyone who agrees with him. These generally come from a place of anger and rage.
I am not proud to admit how often the words “Fuck that guy” pass through my brain. Actually, that’s underplaying the knee-jerk rage I feel. It’s more like “FUCK that guy!”
This spasm of non-righteous rage I regularly experience is invariably Twitter-based. To cite a recent example, a little while back a “comedian” named Josh Denny instantly attained Twitter infamy with a Tweet reading, ““Straight White Male” has become this century’s N-Word. It’s used to offend and diminish the recipient based on assumption and bias. No difference in the usage.”
I would argue that there are, in fact, differences in the usage. The N-word, for example, is undoubtedly used during lynching and cross-burnings where black men are tortured and killed by torch-carrying men in sheets. “Straight white male”, meanwhile, is what someone might write on their match.com profile to let other users know their race, gender and sexual preference. Those seem like markedly different usages to me.
Before angry, outraged responses to Denny’s tweet began popping up on my timeline I had no idea who Denny was. If he hadn’t written that tweet, that’d probably still be the case. But in that white-hot moment of rage I was consumed with hatred for him.
I experienced that awful rush of “FUCK that guy!” followed by a need to express my anger and outrage over the wrongness of Denny’s tweet. I suppose there was some hopelessly optimistic, delusional part of me that imagined that Denny wasn’t being racist and bigoted and obnoxious but rather confused. Maybe he wasn’t being a troll or an asshole after all. Maybe, when he tweeted later that night, “This has been fun. I deeply appreciate those that engaged in healthy debate and dialogue and could decipher jokes from points I was trying to make. It all comes from a place of wanting us to be better to each other. Everyone deserves love” he was being sincere.
As a dude who isn’t actually famous or powerful, or even particularly successful, Denny was in a place where he might actually learn something (In an unsurprising development, he did not). That is most assuredly not the case with, say, Donald Trump or Kanye West but that hasn’t kept me from angrily writing rage-filled tweets in a desperate, inherently doomed attempt to shame them all the same.
If the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome, then my furious anger-tweeting at Trump or Kanye is the definition of insanity. Yet when Kanye recently tweeted more support for President Racist Pussy Grabber I nevertheless felt the need to tweet at Kanye about Trump and the Central Park 5. It seems safe to assume that a man who has over twenty-eight million followers on Twitter, yet only follows three other accounts (his wife’s, Candace Owens and Emma Gonzalez in case you’re wondering) is overly interested in other people’s opinions and viewpoints but there was nevertheless some ignorant, arrogant and deluded part of my brain that thought that my tweets would be so compelling, eloquent and irrefutable that it would not only get his attention but cause him to re-examine his love of Donald Trump by exposing Trump’s clear-cut racism and bigotry..
Then I realized that I wasn’t really writing these rage-filled tweets because I thought I could reach Donald Trump or Paul Ryan or Mike Huckabee or Kanye West or Martin Shkreli. When it came right down to it, I knew that I could shame them into feeling guilt and embarrassment over their words and actions. No, I was writing these tweets as a way of expressing my anger in a relative harmless way but I was also writing them for the benefit of everyone who experiences similar explosions of rage at the actions and deeds of Trump and his minions.
I was writing these tweets for other members of the Resistance. In that respect, the ultimate, achievable goal was not to get massively powerful people whose politics and personalities you find abhorrent to feel so much shame that they change their actions and beliefs, but rather to let other people who are experiencing the same anger that you are that they’re not alone, and that the revulsion, principled and otherwise, you feel towards Trump’s Presidency is widespread.
This isn’t performative wokeness. If anything, I feel all of these things too intensely and personally and viscerally, where I feel like that palpable anger is bad for my mental and physical health.
That doesn’t necessarily make that knee-jerk impulse to punish people for saying and tweeting and doing the wrong thing noble by any stretch of the imagination. Far from it. I may think I’m motivated by the right reasons—anger towards injustice, racism and bigotry—but there’s an awful lot of ego and rage mixed in for good measure.
If nothing else, knowing that the real audience for rage-filled tweets are people who agree with me more than the people I’m enraged at makes them seem less pointless and Quixotic. They serve a purpose after all. It might not be a righteous purpose but we all do what we must to survive the Trump years.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed makes a strong argument against both shaming and feeling ashamed. I’m going to try not to let myself become too embarrassed by my impulse to shame others, but I’m also going to try to try to resist that urge whenever possible because I know how ugly and hurtful it can be, for the people I’m impotently cyber-shaming, but also for me.
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