It seemed to me that everybody involved in the Hank and Adria story thought they were doing something good. But really they only revealed that our imagination is so limited, our arsenal of potential responses so narrow, the only thing anyone can think to do with an inappropriate shamer like Adria is punish her with a shaming. All of the shamers had themselves come from a place of shame and it really felt parochial and self-defeating to just instinctively slap shame onto shame like a clumsy builder covering cracks.
As I read my way through journalist Jon Ronson‘s books last year, I avoided this one, despite its being his most recent and quite popular. The stories of people who experience excruciatingly humiliating public shamings make me squirm, even when it’s for something they ostensibly “deserve” – some egregious offense, or a deception that’s been brought to light, like author Jonah Lehrer’s plagiarism.
This modern phenomenon of the social media shame pile-on seems such a painful, emotionally scarring experience, despite offenders having some objectively awful culpability. And that secondhand anxiety is a perfectly normal reaction, Ronson assures. And turns out, there’s significant historical, sociological precedence – public shamings are nothing new. He explores why we might feel that way, including that everyone has some “secret” – usually unimportant to anyone but ourselves – that we worry will be revealed, triggering a public shaming like we’ve witnessed others endure.
…We all have ticking away within us something we fear will badly harm our reputation if it got out – some ‘I’m glad I’m not that’ … Maybe our secret is actually nothing horrendous. Maybe nobody would even consider it a big deal if it was exposed. But we can’t take that risk. So we keep it buried.
This seems a good time to discuss this book, as Ronson’s recently released podcast, The Last Days of August, covers another story purportedly connected to a public shaming/Twitter fiasco – that of porn actress August Ames, where bullying allegedly led, or significantly contributed to, her suicide. It’s a worthwhile listen. Ronson uncovers, as he’s apt at doing, that all is not what it seems in the proposed narrative of Ames’s story – that is, that Twitter cyberbullying beat a straight path to her suicide. (Also worth mentioning, as Ronson explicitly does – it’s not a true crime/murder mystery. It just shows that stories are far more complex than their reductions, and his psychological research here bears that out.)
Shamed is structured similarly to Ronson’s others – he starts with a question or focal point concept and from there, lets the story develop by following its natural progression, with curiosity leading the way. He seeks out experts, research, and people who have experienced the scenarios he’s detailing. I love his style, because in following his journalistic thought process, his books read so unpredictably. Intriguing people with fascinatingly bizarre stories are never in short supply when he’s on the case.
As a running theme, the psychology of group anonymity provided by social media platforms was a primary and deeply fascinating element.
It didn’t seem to be crossing any of our minds to wonder whether whichever person we had just shamed was OK or in ruins. 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.
His big case studies are Lehrer (the aforementioned plagiarizing author) and Justine Sacco of the infamous going to Africa/AIDS tweet. He returns to them repeatedly to give examples of behavior (their own and the public who lined up to shame them) and aftereffects as his research progresses.
And he covers stories like that of “Hank”, who made a joke at a tech conference that another attendee, Adria Richards, took offense with. She posted his photo and a blog explaining why she felt threatened by the (lamely) sexual comment in a male-dominated atmosphere. Both ultimately lost their jobs. This struck me as one of the trickiest stories here, because it involved repeated shamings and ones in response, a shaming domino effect if you will, that no one seems to know how to properly deal with.
He covers people who have experienced the extremes as a result of public exposure of their private lives: figures in England who have either bounced back from newspaper exposes of sexual escapades, like Max Mosley; or those who have tragically taken their own lives after journalists published dumb, sensationalized articles about consensual sexual behavior.
Ronson’s underlying questions are primarily: What causes us to feel and react to shame as we do? Why do people have such different reactions and outcomes to seemingly similar experiences of shaming? What is the motivation driving those who initiate or join in? What are the lasting societal and psychological aftereffects that we’re manipulating with these public displays of shame?
Some stories still felt iffy, as it’s clear that not all among the shamed have fully accepted responsibility for their actions (Lehrer), or when it feels a bit like Ronson’s sympathy for certain figures is overextended (Sacco). The Hank/Adria mess is a particularly knotty one; as much as Ronson tries to untangle and make sense of it, it still reveals some deeply ugly sides of human nature.
I did have some moments of high anxiousness reading certain sections. But it’s more rewarding than upsetting overall. Not only because I love Ronson’s wry, smart writing and impressively far-reaching investigative techniques, but because his examinations showed more positives than negatives in human nature.
It was the desire to do something good that had propelled me on. Which was definitely a better thing to be propelled on by than group madness. But my desire had taken a lot of scalps – I’d torn apart a LOT of people I couldn’t now remember – which made me suspect that it was coming from some very weird dark well, some place I really didn’t want to think about. Which was why I had to think about it.
The basic principle is that we need to be kinder to each other and consider what’s really happening in some cases, where the tendency is to withdraw satisfied that social justice has been done after someone’s reputation is irreparably in tatters. Some of the offenses are extremely insensitive, ill-thought out jokes (Sacco’s, or the girl giving the finger at Arlington Cemetery) but they were only that – terrible jokes from people who weren’t thinking, without malicious intent. Yet their lives, particularly thanks to Google’s cache, have to some degree now been permanently defined by those momentary actions.
Their public shaming had been like the button that restores factory settings. Something was out of kilter. The community rallied. The balance was redressed.
Or, most affecting, those cases of people who took their own lives after journalists chose, sometimes knowing a subject’s desperation, to publish stories about something as innocuous as swingers. What’s the point of it?
Ronson, as always, is a careful, considerate storyteller, willing to confront his own opinions and biases in favor of finding the bigger truth. He also has that remarkable ability many journalists lack, to include himself and his experience as examples during his reporting without making it all about him. He counts himself among those who have shamed in the name of social justice online and in print – identifying calling out companies and public figures who have done wrong and are no longer allowed to quietly get away with it thanks to social media, and tries to determine what it all has meant to him.
The psychological insights from a pre-social media time are especially meaningful, but at the heart of it is just that simple message: be kind and considerate, we’ve all got some stuff.
We all carry around with us the flotsam and jetsam of perceived humiliations that actually mean nothing. We are a mass of vulnerabilities, and who knows what will trigger them?
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
by Jon Ronson