‘It’s about the terror, isn’t it?’
‘The terror of what?’ I said.
‘The terror of being found out.’
For the past three years, Jon Ronson has travelled the world meeting recipients of high-profile public shamings. The shamed are people like us – people who, say, made a joke on social media that came out badly, or made a mistake at work. Once their transgression is revealed, collective outrage circles with the force of a hurricane and the next thing they know they’re being torn apart by an angry mob, jeered at, demonized, sometimes even fired from their job.
A great renaissance of public shaming is sweeping our land. Justice has been democratized. The silent majority are getting a voice. But what are we doing with our voice? We are mercilessly finding people’s faults. We are defining the boundaries of normality by ruining the lives of those outside it. We are using shame as a form of social control.
Simultaneously powerful and hilarious in the way only Jon Ronson can be, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a deeply honest book about modern life, full of eye-opening truths about the escalating war on human flaws – and the very scary part we all play in it.
Jon Ronson has a fantastic gift for exploring contentious and controversial subjects in a way that provides the reader with an entirely human angle on it. In this book, he interviews people who have experienced, or instigated public scorn and shaming. It is a book about how some people behave online, why they do it and what it means for public discourse when we remove empathy from the equation.
Perfect example from my own personal recollection. Neil Gaiman posted a refutation of a news story on Twitter that he’s ‘helping’ George R R Martin on the Winds of Winter. In the wonderful way of it, people started to make amusing observations about false spoilers and I had written this:
Spoiler: Tyrion Lanister turns out, not to be small, but simply far away.
Now I didn’t post it. Why, well I considered that the joke might be considered ableist and I actually deleted the text and put something else in. What was I afraid of?
We have to watch what we say, perhaps the only true privacy is what we think and we share that with a degree of caution, something that Ronson mourns in his book.
He talks to people who were judged, sentenced and had their reputations executed in the court of public opinion, he shows us the pain that this mentality causes, how it actually corrodes rather than heals, and in some stunning examples later on in the book, how the mortification that people experience leads to criminality and aberrant behaviour but can be resolved through a show of forgiveness and compassion for others.
It’s a fantastic book, exploring and personalising a disparate trend in a capable, engaging and unique way. If nothing else, the book asks you to think about your actions through Ronson’s personal experiences, his informed observations and wry, delightful prose that serves to allow the painful recollections of people such as Justine Sacco and Jonah Lehrer, people who made mistakes but paid too high a price for any considered person to consider proportionate.