Jon Ronson has stepped into some new territory with his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. His previous books have had more to do with power at the top, with those well-placed in politics and business. This book has to do with the power of those at the bottom, our ability to shame specific people via social media. He interviews several notorious people who have been on the receiving end of this tidal wave of opprobrium. More interestingly, he delves into the nature of shame, how to overcome it, and how he himself realizes that he has been responsible for participating in public shaming.
Something that struck me while I read this book was that I was unfamiliar with almost all the people who were victims of massive public shaming. I knew about Justine Sacco, but only because I read an article explaining that she had made a dumb joke that was misinterpreted. I had read Jonah Lehrer’s book(s), and then read that he had falsified quotes, but I wasn’t aware that it had essentially destroyed his career. The others? I got nothing. I thought that might be a bright light in the darkness, to know that even after millions of people might have rushed to attack someone, there would still be far more who had no idea what happened, didn’t care, or didn’t think that person did anything wrong.
Ronson mentions briefly that he was the target of bullying for a couple of years in school. This is a subject of acute interest to me, because it happened to me, too. In fact, I suspect that the majority of kids at least feel like they were the target of bullying at some point. The reason for this is that it only takes one incident lasting a microsecond to cause permanent emotional scars. If bullying is sustained over a longer period of time, or if it appears in more than one setting, then trusting strangers becomes very challenging. There are two problems with bullying: bullies don’t always realize they are doing it (or think they are in the right), and we only remember the bullying we have felt, not what we have dished out. After long thought, I’m fairly certain that a lot of perceived bullying is seen by the “bullies” as a reaction to something the “bullied” person did. We feel real pain when we are shunned, ostracized, and publicly shamed, regardless of what brought it on.
It can be helpful, in a sad, weird kind of way, to see evidence that someone else went through a much worse public shaming than we ever have. It seems to chase away some of the shadows. I can vividly picture several of my most humiliating moments of public shaming, and feel glad that they happened before the Internet Era. Nothing anyone did to me will show up in a Google search. None of it ever impacted my career prospects or my ability to find love. I’m pretty much okay, mostly.
The most important thing about So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is that Ronson calls us out for our glee in participating in public shaming. It turns out that such practices have a long history. In fact, I once wrote a blog post entitled, “Bring Back the Stocks.” It recommended public shaming of people who text and drive. There was probably also something in there about people who stick their gum under the furniture. We all have something we loathe, some behavior we think deserves shaming, even when we ourselves have felt the sickness of shame in our own bodies. Ronson makes a sound case that shaming is the opposite of helpful, and that we should examine our tendency to ladle it out. Mostly, like all of his books, it is fascinating, a bit surreal at times, and occasionally quite funny.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.