REVIEWS: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

The surge in public outcry, fueled by journalists and social media has bothered me for quite some time. The public outrage and the ability to make your indignation known worldwide via such easy access on the internet which supplies everyone with a podium has resulted in loss of jobs for some who may have said or done something that they never expected to become news fodder for the crowd ready and willing to skewer them. It’s worse than the witch hunts. It reminds me of the fire and pitchfork wielding townfolk coming after Frankenstein’s creation or Steinbeck’s Lennie.

Ronson focuses on several high visibility cases and interviews the targets of public shaming after he realizes that he himself has had a hand in raising public awareness that resulted in the destruction of lives.

Since I haven’t posted reviews along the way of my reading the book (as I used to do and find a much better method of highlighting the finer points of the reading), I’m forced to go with little background to lead into the quoted text.

That said, here’s the first section that caught my eye:

Public punishments were abolished altogether (…) with only Delaware holding out until 1952 (…)

The New York Times, baffled by Delaware’s obstinacy, tried to argue them into change in an 1867 editorial:

If it had previously existed in (the convicted person’s) bosom a spark of self-respect this exposure to public shame utterly extinguishes it. Without the hope that springs eternal in the human breast, without some desire to reform and become a good citizen, and the feeling that such a thing is possible, no criminal can ever return to honorable courses.(pg. 51)

How many times have we felt that sickening thud of embarrassment, that oh-my-God-I-wish-I-were-dead thought of pure despair? Yet we still have this need to do unto others what we ourselves would hate to have done to us. And, to perfect strangers!

This next line definitely stopped me cold. For its truth, for its relativity to what’s becoming an all too evident trend. It comes out in a confrontation the writer (Ronson) is taking part in with a group that is supposedly a shame eradication workshop.

“There is nothing I dislike more in the world than people who care more about ideology than they do about people.”
(pg. 165)

Exactly. Read the comments on a news article covering the latest scandalous act. The public is out for blood. In their fury to support and demand justice for the offended (as well as their own sensitive natures), some require more than mere apology, they literally cry “an eye for an eye” often calling for a absolutely horrifically brutal death to the perpetrator. And the crime? Often just a statement perceived as offensively racial, misogynistic, etc. Death? For some bigotry? Hardly reasonable, I’d think.

Ronson at this point is wondering how some people were able to overcome the overwhelming outrage of public response to a wrong they somehow let slip, while others were completely devastated.Here’s a good one, and time appropriate. It refers to a gentleman whose sex escapades into sado masochism were widely publicized:

But the shifting sands of shameworthiness had shifted away from sex scandals–if you’re a man–to work improprieties and perceived white privilege, and I suddenly understood the real reason why Max had survived his shaming. Nobody cared. Max survived his shaming because he was a man in a consensual sex shaming –which meant there had been no shaming. (pg. 177)

It’s amazing the changes over the past few years in particular about what is acceptable and what no longer is. Just as what never was and is now freely accepted. The bad part of this perfectly normal change is society’s trends is that those who propose these changes are so sadly intolerant of those who need more time to get used to them.

Referring to this same case as above, Ronson notes that SOME people do care, spouses, families, who are put in the spotlight of shame they didn’t deserve. An editor lambasted the judge in the case as amoral for not making a bigger deal of Max’s predicament, though because it was consensual sex–albeit what we used to consider kinky–but still, nobody cared. This:

The fact was, speeches like Paul Dacre’s didn’t matter any more. The people who mattered didn’t care what Dacre thought. The people who mattered were the people on Twitter. On Twitter we make our own decisions about who deserves obliteration. We form our own consensus, and we aren’t influenced by the criminal justice system or by the media. This makes us formidable. (pg. 179)

There you go. We have the power. And we abuse it terribly to destroy lives. Why do we enjoy it so?

Another point Ronson covers in his book is how shame is not always the end goal, but can be the impetus to criminal behavior. Dr. Gilligan, part of a group of psychiatrist tasked with examining the backgrounds of inmates at a Massachusetts prison, found that:

“Universal among the violent criminals was the fact that they felt ashamed–deeply ashamed, chronically ashamed.” It was shame every time. “I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed or humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed.” (pg. 237)

So shame is a driving force as much as a debilitating one. And, I would think, the larger the audience–which social media giving a voice to the world at large–the more inescapable the punishment. With the demand of the outraged, the news media is only too happy to keep the momentum going. Apologies are as drawn out as the penance. Weeks, months. Wide enough and long enough to preclude redemption and a return to normalcy for a long time.

We’re threatening to become a nation of finger-pointers, angry, demanding, outraged, and all from afar over situations and people we don’t even know. We judge and jury these people because they don’t conform to our own lofty values and ideals. They’ve called someone a racial epithet. They’ve made a crude joke about women, homosexuals, transgenders. They may be ignorant and unfeeling, but do they deserve to be destroyed because they’re not polite and nice? It’s becoming a close call between what’s offensive, even lacking intent. They’re called “haters” even though most often there’s no proof of hate, just a mere word or statement that someone took the wrong way.

We need to stop looking around seeking offenses and punishing offenders. We need to lead by example rather than verbal crucifixion.

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