We are living in a cultural moment in which people with the normiest of normative identities — those jealously guarding an armful of poker chips in the game of social capital — are, in some quarters, behaving as if they’re under siege. In January, Jonathan Chait took on the scourge of “political correctness” for New York magazine; British writer Jon Ronson is only the latest to sound the alarm.
Variations on this theme form a thread that runs through Ronson’s new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which describes itself as a recent history — and ultimately an indictment — of the “great renaissance of public shaming” that is “sweeping our land,” abetted by social media. Ronson believes that Twitter has revived public shaming, nearly 200 years after the U.S. outlawed public punishments, and the “citizen justice” meted out by anonymous social media mobs is harsher and more ruinous than anything the Puritans (or, more recently, former felony court judge and Texas Rep. Ted Poe) could have dreamed up.
Ronson’s book purports to be a dramatic and shocking story, one that issues a clarion warning about a dangerous mob-driven epidemic. Among the stories he tells is that of writer Jonah Lehrer, who was publicly disgraced in 2012 when journalist Michael Moynihan uncovered fabricated quotes about Bob Dylan in Lehrer’s book Imagine. As Lehrer scrambled to keep this information from going public, the situation got worse and worse, reaching a humiliating low when the writer was subjected to a particularly harsh Twitter thrashing. The whole episode, Ronson says, ruined Lehrer’s life — and, he tells Lehrer, “What happened to you is my worst nightmare.”
Text, meet subtext. Whether or not you agree with his argument, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed tells a different, second story, one laced with fear and anxiety about what might result from what he describes as “the silenced … getting a voice” and justice becoming “democratized” through social media. (He seems to mostly mean Twitter, but one of his subjects was humiliated on Facebook, so he expands his reach.) At times, Ronson verges on hysterical, as when he writes that during the summer and fall of 2013, “it became routine. Everyday people, some with young children, were getting annihilated for tweeting some badly worded joke to their hundred or so followers.” The everyday people he has in mind are all white and mostly men (gender difference isn’t a subject for Ronson), and some of them aren’t even everyday people, but public figures.
What makes this book an uncomfortable, if distant, cousin of GamerGate and men’s rights activist logic is that it, too, relies on a series of false equivalencies and muddy distinctions in order to elevate being shamed on social media to epic proportions. These sorts of distortions are dangerous because they minimize — and even threaten to erase — far more systematic and serious problems that have taken years to even reach the public consciousness.
Based on the premise that everyone shares Ronson’s worst nightmare — an undeserved public flogging on Twitter — So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed shows a total disinterest, even disdain, for social and interpersonal power dynamics. Ronson seems to see every kind of public shaming as equivalent, no matter the audience (a handful or hundreds of thousands), platform (a courtroom, Twitter, a prison, a hotel conference room, newspapers and media websites), the identity of the shamer (a judge, a freelance journalist, an entire publication, a bunch of strangers), or even the cause (racist jokes, off-color photos, plagiarism, kinky sex, abuse of political office, sundry felonies). Here, the story of Justine Sacco, infamously shamed for an “off-color” tweet that cost her her PR job, sits, however uneasily, next to the story of 16-year-old Lindsay Armstrong, a rape survivor who committed suicide after her rapist’s defense attorney humiliated her on the stand by making her display her underwear (a thong with the text “Little Devil”) in open court. Never mind that Armstrong’s story has nothing to do with digital culture, at least in this telling: “Knee-jerk shaming is knee-jerk shaming.” And never mind that Justine Sacco has found new employment and — through a variety of canny PR efforts that include participating in Ronson’s book — has found public redemption.
That all of these episodes might share something is plausible, maybe even likely, and they all involve some degree of real suffering — certainly, being publicly shamed on Twitter or elsewhere on the internet has very real ramifications — but they are not equivalent to one another. Being shamed doesn’t affect people’s lives equally. Ronson tends to dismiss this, as when Adria Richards, the shamer of Donglegate, suggests to him that the white men she shamed for telling sexist jokes at a tech conference (those with what Ronson calls “supposed white privilege”) hold more power than she does, and they and their peers are more likely to call her reaction to sexist dick jokes “overblown.” This, Ronson says, “seemed like a weak gambit,” a “logical fallacy” of the sort deployed “when someone can’t defend a criticism against them,” and “change[s] the subject by attacking the criticizer.”
At the same time, he doesn’t seem to make much of the fact that Richards’ “victim” has remained pseudonymous throughout the affair, while Richards, a black Jewish woman whose identity was public throughout these events, was not only fired from her job as a developer evangelist for Sendgrid, but faced a barrage of vicious, violent harassment, and whose address and other contact information were publicly released on 4chan and elsewhere. His ostensible concern is with the threat of the anonymous crowd, but it’s Richards he calls an “inappropriate shamer,” and Ronson comes dangerously close to saying that she deserved what she got.
The construction of false equivalencies is a major strategy of aggrieved white dudes, like men’s rights activists who argue that men have as much right to refuse paternity as women have to choose abortion, or like video game players who claim that critiquing misogyny represents an attack on their marginalized demographic. Ronson’s no 4chan troll, but So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed reads very much like a defense of unfairly victimized white men and privileged white women. This became especially clear yesterday, when writer Meredith Haggerty tweeted a photo of a couple of lines from the book’s uncorrected galleys, which were subsequently cut when Ronson was advised that they sounded especially tone-deaf: “I’d never thought of it that way before—that men feel about getting fired the same way women feel about getting raped … I can’t think of many things worse than being fired.” Despite the fact that he’d discussed cutting these lines in an interview with The Frisky weeks before, he became the object of a (fairly mild) round of Twitter meta-shaming. Ronson is right, of course, that it’s a bit unfair to criticize him for something that wasn’t in the published book, but the comparison is telling (and not only because it defines women’s social roles as primarily sexual and men’s as economic).
Ultimately what Ronson seems to fear is that he (and his friends, like one journalist who “didn’t want me to name him, he said, in case it sparked something off”) can’t say anything he wants to on Twitter anymore. His belief that this is a real injustice is what allows him to quote a reputation defense specialist describing a Twitter shaming as a “virtual lynching” without hearing how that comparison reverberates. (Sure, he’s British, but he’s also a smart, well-read man who knows a lot about American culture.) It’s hard to work up much sympathy for this position: People with power have always been freer to say and do what they like. And Ronson repeatedly insists that what concerns him are not legal restraint or repercussions, but the ability of an anonymous public to push back.
Ronson’s right, of course, that each of us is a “mass of vulnerabilities,” and we shouldn’t have to face a gauntlet of shame when we make mistakes. But we’re also subjects of wildly disproportionate privileges and privations. In a world where people who have historically been powerless have a new means with which to fight back — or at least make their voices heard — it’s important to notice when this empowerment is made out to be dangerous.
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