Examining Twitter justice and the publicly shamed, Jon Ronson once again challenges us to think about how we treat those on the margins of society and questions why they are placed there in the first place.
JON RONSON has a new book. ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’ is the new offering from the writer, journalist and sometimes script writer whose other b
ooks have seen Jon immerse himself on the peripheries of mainstream society with some enlightening, frightening and, quite often, funny outcomes. Like many, I suppose, I first became aware of Jon Ronson after his book ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’ was adapted into a big Hollywood film with big stars. I had good intentions of reading his book then, as people tend to do when a film version of something is released, but I didn’t quite get round to it. Perhaps I was confused by the title of the book. Maybe I took it too literally (“a book about men starting at goats?” I might have thought. “I don’t get it. Not interested”). Maybe it was the American military angle that I wasn’t endeared to. It wasn’t until I heard Jon’s son, Joel, appearing on a podcast I enjoy, that I became convinced to read a Ronson. Joel appeared to be an eccentric ten year old with a ridiculously advanced vocabulary and precocious interests which made me think his dad’s books were worth a read.
I started with ‘Them: Encounters with Extremists’ followed by ‘The Psychopath Test’ and then ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’. The books are very engaging and I read them all back to back, consequently some of the contents have somewhat blurred into one another. In one book Jon was accompanying a group looking to find definitive and irrefutable evidence of the existence of the Bilderberg group (secret rulers of the modern world/change into lizards when in secluded company) and had claimed to have such evidence. In another, The Psychopath Test, I remember Jon interviewing and spending time with CEOs of corporations after having researched the characteristics of a psychopath and finding that many of business leaders could be diagnosed as having this mental condition. Jon’s style is very much an immersive and journalistic one and his books read like documentaries if that is not a ridiculous thing to write. Having seen one Louix Theroux documentary, I can imagine comparisons being drawn in their approaches. Although Jon seems to be much less coercive and more observational and reflective in his adventures. He just seems like a nice man who people want to talk to and trust and as a results his insights are informed and considered.
The new book, then, follows a similar approach as Jon explores the notion of public shame in today’s opinion rich, insight poor online society. This somewhat detached arm of the ‘real world’ can be extremely reactionary and immediately stories can spread across the (Western?) world without fully realising the negative affects this can have on someone’s life and ca
reer. Jon finds some people who have been shamed online as a consequence of things that either they have tweeted or has been shared on Facebook and has gone on to become a massive, melodramatic and transient news story. The affects on those individuals is far from transient, however, and the book is set up to understand their story and explore the re-emergence of public shaming as a modern form of punishment. One subject of the book is Justine Sacco, whose name might not sound familiar but her story many will remember as she is the lady who tweeted some badly worded jokes about white privilege whilst on her way to South Africa. Her tweets (which I red for the first time in the book) will make many cringe and on the surface many will agree her consequent public shaming was justified. Jon gives her a fair hearing and many will think otherwise of what happened to her.
Others included in the book are a public academic who was exposed as a plagiarist, a woman who had a photograph of her giving the middle finger beside (but not quite at) a war memorial and another woman who tweeted about sexists behaviour at a technology conference only to be turned on when the man she was tweeting about lost his job. The examples of the modern form of public shaming, Jon shows us, have had their lives altered to the point where they come to be defined by others through their online slip-ups and are struggling to move on from what has happened to them, even though public who shamed them have long since moved on to someone else. This nebulous concept of the public jury is a little troublesome for me, perhaps because I have not engaged in the shaming myself, but there is no question that it is happening and has vast consequences. One of the warnings that comes from the book is that, as people are fearful of becoming the next victim of the twitterati, the public become bland and innocuous, fearful of causing any offence. And who wants to live in a world like that? Online or otherwise.
‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’ by Jon Ronson is out now and is published by Picador
While on the topic of public vitriol, why not read about the book Everyday Sexism next?