In his newly released book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” Jon Ronson takes a few jabs at “pop psychology” writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer, at times for over-simplifying complex issues and at times for craftily including a “self-help” element in all their books. Because Ronson is smart, funny, and often self-deprecating, I’ll assume it was with a knowing wink – and perhaps even deeper irony – that he titled his own book like a self-help pamphlet, but it isn’t just a joke. Much of the book does actually focus on questions of how to help: how to help people recover their lives, recover their reputations, recover their will to live, after tragedy strikes.
What kind of tragedy? Ronson, of “The Psychopath Test” and “The Men Who Stare At Goats” fame, tackles a relatively contemporary topic: What happens when people are torn apart on social media? He especially focuses on Twitter, whose denizens most act as a righteous brigade, setting forth to right what wrongs they perceive in mob form and leaving shattered lives in their wake: shattered lives they quickly forget.
In a more thoughtful and searching version of “Tosh.0″‘s Web Redemption, Ronson follows up with people like Justine Sacco, who became a worldwide hate-target trend after Tweeting a poor-taste pseudo-racist joke. And people like Adria Richards, whose angry Tweet about a pair of men making “dongle” jokes at a tech convention got everybody fired, including herself. He also follows up with more straightforwardly famous figures like the aforementioned Jonah Lehrer, author of books including “Imagine” and “How We Decide,” who was excoriated online and in the professional world after he invented false quotes for his books.
And where are these people now, now that the dust has long settled on their (unwanted) five minutes of fame, and the Internet – despite Anonymous’s warning that they never forget – has forgotten them? The truth turns out to be sadder than you think.
In this week’s issue of the New Yorker, George Packer writes that in America “self-censorship is on the rise out of people’s fear of being pilloried on social media” and compares the effects to government-imposed censorship in harsher climates like Russia. Jon Ronson likewise argues convincingly that the quick and brutal actions of the online shaming community are cutting down on the public’s willingness to be honest and make any meaningful – if risky – statements.
In a true and symbolic example, Ronson profiles a company that rebuilds online reputations for shamed individuals. How? By creating the blandest, most anodyne and pointless posts in their name to fill results pages: posts about enjoying Top 40 music and liking Disneyland. If emptiness is the only way to safely avoid shame, Ronson rightfully worries, will we like the Internet society that we’ve created?
The philosophical issues implicit here are far older than the Twitterverse. Those who shame are often driven by idealism, by populist fervor, by the idea that they are righting wrongs in the name of justice. But just how helpful is it to take a hard-line stand and destroy anyone who is perceived as unjust – even accidentally? As “pop psychology” writers like Malcolm Gladwell have explored before, extremists obsessed with taking down the enemy, even in the name of good, idealistic causes, often end up making everything more miserable, including themselves. (I’m thinking of his interviews with the parents of murdered children, wherein those who were able to forgive were able to find more peace and institute more reasonable changes than those who became fixated on draconian laws and punishment.)
Near the end of his book, Ronson investigates the effectiveness of rehabilitation that is based on furthering redemption, such as prison programs that offer education and job training, versus punitive responses that focus on shame and retribution. Our instinct as humans is often to crave the satisfaction of the latter: that revenge, that discipline. But is that what works?
One of the things that struck me while reading Adria Richards’s interview was how driven by fear she appeared to be when she sent the tweet that ended her own career as well as others’. She speaks of feeling surrounded by men, and fearful for her safety and life – a notion that becomes absurd when Ronson interviews the actual men involved, who are shy and frightened nerds. (Which is not to say that women don’t have a reason to fear professional unfairness: Richards, unlike the men involved, has been unable to find a new job.)
When the parents of child victims lobby for harsh, retributionary punishments, they are acting out of fear. When Twitter shamers lash out at perceived slights from powerful people, they are acting out of fear. When ordinary people stop from making meaningful comments because of the threat of shaming, they are acting out of fear. Ronson’s book makes the implicit point that understanding and outreach will make a better world than fear and shame, and that’s self-help worth listening to.
Note: No one ever pays me to review or link to any books.