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Jon Ronson Shames Shamers In 'So You Think You've Been Publicly Shamed'

03/25/2015 10:30 am ET | Updated Dec 23, 2015

Common Internet wisdom would have it that for every mass trend or movement, there must be an equal and opposite backlash. For Twitter shaming, the backlash has arrived, guns blazing. And as is often the case with backlashes, there’s little nuance; what was once good has been determined to be wholly bad, and the baby is dumped out heedlessly with the bathwater.

In his new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson (The Psychopath Test) points out that public shaming was a popular punishment in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it usually had a highly personal and physical component -- confinement to the stocks or pillory, or even something more creative, like Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter. The punishment had died out with the rise of anonymous urban environments and easy travel, which made it less effective. But this wasn’t the reason for its disappearance, he argues: “They stopped because they were far too brutal.” Ronson makes clear, throughout the book, that he wholeheartedly supports this assessment.

Still, it was the recent rise of the Internet and, specifically, social media that allowed for public shaming, of a sort, to become widespread. Sure, we’ve always loved to see our idols fall, but without the virality of social media, how would we all realize that suddenly everyone kind of hated Anne Hathaway’s stupid smiley face? Or Jennifer Lawrence’s regular gal routine? Or Justin Bieber? (Okay, that one we might have figured out.)

More importantly, public figures weren’t the only ones living their lives in public anymore; more and more of us normals had blogs, MySpaces, Facebooks, and then (worst of all) Twitters. Any ill-advised post could be reposted, broadcast to unsympathetic strangers, and used to ruin our reputations. At first, this ability to enforce social norms via public shame felt empowering, then disconcerting. Predictably, backlash began rumbling among prominent figures who’d been publicly shamed, and found it rather unpleasant to experience from the business end.

It’s clear that Ronson himself wishes public shaming had been permanently abandoned along with the disappearance of stocks, pillories, and public hangings. But his disillusionment with public shaming sprang from a less personal revelation. He had been reporting on disgraced journalist Jonah Lehrer’s plagiarism scandal when he watched Lehrer’s apology speech at the Knight Foundation. A giant screen behind Lehrer’s head, as well as a screen within his sightline, streamed live tweets reacting to his speech.

Few were complimentary.

Ronson was appalled: “Jonah was being told in the most visceral, instantaneous way that there was no forgiveness for him, no possibility of reentry.”

From this point on, as Ronson investigates several other high-profile Internet shamings, he requires no further convincing. He starts from the standpoint of “appalled.” Everything in the book -- horrifying descriptions of the psychological toll of shaming, sympathetic portrayals of notorious social media offenders, assurance that Lehrer is not a psychopath -- has been carefully chosen to ensure that we, too, are appalled.

Ronson does have a point: The Twitter stream in Lehrer’s face was cruel and unusual. And, obviously, an outlier. As he slogs through other notable examples, we’re confronted with several low-profile people who lost their jobs and endured public humiliation over distasteful jokes. There’s a sense that even those of us who disapprove of their behavior should, and often do, feel uncomfortable with the disproportionate consequences. Yet no alternative is offered for those of us who might wish to protest offensive or inappropriate behavior without putting those individuals through the ringer.

Nor does he question the roles of more powerful entities in these episodes, aside from noting, to not much effect, that Google makes money from shamed individuals becoming trending search terms. Several of those whom Ronson profiles -- Justine Sacco, Lindsey Stone -- immediately lost their jobs in response to their (unrelated) public humiliations, yet the criticism for this outcome falls only on the shamers, not on the timid employer leaping to distance itself from the slightest whiff of controversy.

It’s disappointing to see such a smart and curious writer dropping his inquiry short of questioning the practices of the companies and organizations that have the power to take a shaming and magnify it into a life-destroying event. Employers, for example, have held a bulletproof position; immediately dumping an employee who’s been called out for a silly tweet or Facebook post draws cheers or, at least, the concession that companies simply have no choice but to protect their brand.

But why must we concede this? Why can’t we expect more from our employers? And why can’t we publicly call out people who say offensive or thoughtless things without imperiling every aspect of their lives?

The advent of Gamergate suggests that an end to shaming may not be the only solution. When angry gamers shamed companies for investing advertising dollars in media firms, such as Gawker, that criticized Gamergate, they were initially successful; these corporations hastily pulled their ads and left Gawker scrambling for funding. The site even, uncharacteristically, offered an apology for a sarcastic tweet about gamers posted by one of its editors, Sam Biddle. But when it became clear that no due diligence had been done by advertisers, that they’d simply complied with the demands of Gamergaters, public opinion shifted against them. Their brands were damaged more by their seeming cowardice and lack of principles.

Corporations will never cease to worry about their brands. But when we excuse overeager firings as necessary to protect brand value, we remove vital balance. Our employers should have to consider whether cavalier dismissals over stupid social media posts will damage their brands as much as retaining an imperfect employee. As social media firestorms become a more familiar part of our day-to-day, everyone, including employers, will have to become more circumspect and less blindly reactive in the face of Internet outrage.

Ronson’s failure to critique the corporate role in destroying people who’ve been shamed online is a central weakness in his investigation of shame. It’s accepted in his book, as a matter of course, that people will naturally lose their livelihoods and ability to find future work as a result of having their social media publicly blasted. This aspect of the process merits no discussion or investigation. It’s the shaming that must end, even if that means silencing those who’ve finally found a way to lobby for respect, recognition, and social progress.

Perhaps this is because while Ronson admits to feeling satisfaction at piling on un-P.C. comments -- "The days between shamings felt like days picking at fingernails, treading water," he remembers -- he doesn’t directly experience the need filled by social media’s megaphone. When speaking to people who’ve engaged in public shaming, he seems a bit baffled by the implication that they need the public and impersonal mode of communication to effectively combat the insidious prejudice they face.

His investigation of the Adria Richards incident is a case in point. In 2013, Adria Richards tweeted a photo of two developers making lewd jokes during a PyCon panel on bringing women into the industry. The fallout was shocking: Richards and one of the men involved (Ronson refers to him as “Hank” to protect his identity) were fired, and Richards was subjected to vicious harassment on 4chan.

Ronson interviews both Hank and Richards about the episode, but he doesn’t hide that he’s taken sides. He accepts Hank’s words at face value, even defending him to Richards. She, meanwhile, is treated as an untrustworthy source. He details his dismissive, even contemptuous, reaction when she states that she felt viscerally unsafe prior to taking the photo, but he is perfectly comfortable describing the two men as “shaken” over a mild reprimand from conference organizers.

In Ronson’s telling of this episode, the men are the victims, though, as it happens, Richards suffered the most severe consequences. While Hank had found new employment, at a company with no female developers, Richards did not have a new job when Ronson spoke to her. She was still enduring torrents of online abuse. (For some reason, he neatly categorizes threats of rape and gory violence as “shaming,” the moral equivalent of calling for men to lose their jobs. In fact, he’s more sympathetic to a 4channer who defends rape threats than he is to Richards, who is unapologetic about contributing to Hank’s firing.)

Seeing the racist, sexist abuse endured by Richards since Hank’s firing, and her inability to find another job in a male-dominated industry, might have prompted Ronson to further explore the dynamics that left her feeling afraid and excluded at PyCon -- dynamics that led her to Twitter to gather support for a higher standard of behavior toward women. He even quotes a female 4channer on the social justice power of shaming: “[Justine Sacco] thought her black AIDS joke was funny because she doesn’t know what it’s like [...] So for a few hours, Justine Sacco got to find out what it feels like to be the little guy everyone makes fun of.”

For some people, Ronson’s suggestion that we simply enjoy piling on hapless tweeters rings true, but for others these platforms aren’t idle amusement. They’re lifelines. Where people of color, women, the disabled, or other less privileged groups may lack the social status to individually demand better treatment, a public forum allows them to build strength in numbers, to powerfully demonstrate that cruelty or insensitivity toward them will no longer be suffered as the norm.

These insights into why publicly calling out bad behavior on social media might have value for the marginalized don’t seem to resonate for Ronson; they’re dropped quickly, glossed over. The consequences have been deemed too great to take those concerns into account. The ultimate imperative: No more shaming.

“The only thing anyone can think to do with an inappropriate shamer like Adria is to punish her with a shaming,” he muses at the end of the chapter. It’s clear he thinks something should have been done -- that this woman should somehow have been punished for her behavior. He’s less clear on how.

Instead, Ronson pads out the book with other, admittedly amusing, scraps of shame-related inquiry. He participates in a shame-eradication workshop, unsuccessfully. He partakes in a Public Disgrace porn shoot, obliquely. He documents the attempts of one of his subjects to cleanse her Google search results. He sits in on a training session for court expert witnesses.

Over the course of the book, Ronson goes from one extreme to another. He initially planned to write about “how efficient [shaming] was at righting wrongs”; by the final page, he’s darkly warning that we are “creating a more conformist, conservative age.” These bold claims make for delicious reading, but they depend upon the erasure of nuance and the comfortable retreat to smug self-righteousness.

Notably, his opus on shame was preceded by a far more thoughtful and measured one: Jennifer Jacquet’s Is Shame Necessary? Jacquet’s book also documents, carefully, the problems inherent in Internet shaming: disproportionality, the disinhibition effect of anonymity, and the threats to privacy rights. But she goes well beyond this to examine the totality of shame: how it works, how it can be used effectively, and in what circumstances it is an appropriate measure. “In some cases,” she writes, “shaming might be all we need or want as a deterrent [...] Sometimes, shaming is successful in establishing a norm.” She also points to instances in which shaming is a first step to more institutionalized penalties for behaviors we no longer find acceptable. In Jacquet’s view, shaming is a tool that can effectively regulate harmful acts for which there’s no official punishment.

The global reach and potentially life-long consequences of a severe online shaming should be humbling for us to consider. And as Jacquet points out, “Shaming [...] works best when there is a big gap between attitudes and behavior.” International notoriety should not be the result of a mere offensive tweet from a previously obscure person. We’d do well to think about whether we’re directing our ire at the most worthy targets, and whether we’re continuing to pile on well past the point when the offender has gotten the message.

Still, what of shaming’s ability to enforce new norms -- norms of, for example, respect for women, minorities, and other marginalized groups -- in a highly public venue? This may feel conservative to those slapped by the hivemind’s anger, but for those who’ve long been forced to tolerate insensitive jokes and outright discrimination, that’s clearly not the full reality.

But Ronson feels most at ease shaming us for shaming; we should all, he suggests, sit down and not tweet, if what we’re going to tweet is a tweet about someone else’s tweet. He stops short of examining the other side of these painful situations closely or fairly. If he did, he’d risk finding that there’s some value to shame, no matter how uncomfortable it may make him.

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