When his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed was published, Jon Ronson found the kind of publicity every media person dreams about. He achieved this by reporting on the kind of scenario every media person has nightmares about. Ronson’s book is about what happens when the rage of a mass audience is unleashed on unsuspecting targets. It’s about celebrity culture gone wrong.
By now, you’ve heard the story. Social media, in the eyes of alarmists, satirists, and tech-skeptics, is undermining the liberal tradition. It replaces distinguished debate with gossip and histrionics. It foments a culture of diversionary outrage. It encourages people to enjoy a never-ending series of two-minute-hates, shaking digital fists at their ideological opponents. It creates rhetorical echo chambers where opinions harden into obsessions, and emotions, especially anger, build to a fever pitch. Clicks become cliques. Groups become mobs. Ordinary people become monsters.
And you’ve heard the counter-narrative: that what social media really does is to give a voice to the formerly voiceless. Thanks to the web and its democratizing effects, defenders say, the disenfranchised are pushing back against cushy elites–and the elites are wringing their hands.
Faced with these competing narratives, Ronson frames his book as a kind of conversion story. He explains how he switched from the second viewpoint to the first.
Once upon a time, he tells us, he too believed that social media was a force for good, a tool that would allow the Davids of the world to take on the mighty Goliaths. In those heady days, Ronson cheerfully joined his share of Twitter storms and public pile-ons. He believed he was empowering the little guys against their oppressors.
But something went wrong. There were too many little guys. Instead of attacking the forces of evil, the crowds on social media started attacking everyday people. The shamings became both misplaced and disproportionate. The downtrodden masses weren’t hurling stones at the citadels of the mighty. They were hurling stones at each other.
Ronson says his eyes were opened when he himself participated in a particularly potent shaming. One day, he invoked the wrath of the online crowds against a team of techies who’d pranked him. The details aren’t important. What matters is that shaming those guys, for Ronson, felt good. It felt right. Above all, it felt just.
Ronson began his investigation.
Over the course of his book, Ronson reports on many recent scandals, most of them familiar to anyone who follows online gossip. Justine Sacco, a PR rep, posted a stupid tweet about race and AIDS. The online mobs came after her. She lost her job. “Hank,” a programmer, made a stupid joke at a tech conference. A techie named Adria Richards called him out on it. The online mobs came after them. They both lost their jobs. Lindsey Stone, a care worker, indulged in a stupid gag at Arlington Cemetery. Her friend posted a picture. The online mobs came after her. She lost her job. Jonah Lehrer, a science writer, produced sloppy, dishonest journalism. Someone caught him. The online mobs came after him. He lost his job. Jim McGreevey, governor of New Jersey, was caught in a sex scandal. He lost his job. Mike Daisey delivered a bogus monologue on This American Life. He never had much of a job anyway, but the incident sure made him feel bad.
A pattern emerges: there is no pattern. These people have nothing in common. Some are big shots who sought the limelight. Some are nobodies who never thought they’d be heard. Some are men, some women. Most are whites; one is a person of color. Some committed serious breaches of professional ethics; some only made dumb remarks. The one thing they share is the severity of their punishment.
And that, in a nutshell, is Ronson’s argument. When justice becomes arbitrary–when offenders are named at random, and the punishment has no relation to the crime–that’s not justice at all. That’s …
What? What’s the word for this kind of scattershot defamation?
Ronson is a brilliant storyteller and a skilled journalist, but an indifferent cultural critic. He never looks very closely at the social dynamics behind the events he documents. He briefly considers theories of crowd psychology, but soon sweeps them aside. He picks up the subject of gender, then hastily puts it down again, partly because it evokes his own experiments with crossdressing. He hurries so quickly past the subject of class that it has to make you wonder.
No, Ronson is not a man for big theories. He’s a humanist, a storyteller, and what he wants to know is how all this public drama makes people feel. How does it feel to be singled out, derided, humiliated, despised by millions of people?
It feels pretty bad.
It feels so bad, Ronson suggests, that it can’t possibly do anyone any good. He takes a look at the criminal justice system. Does the system work better when it seeks to isolate, brutalize, and dehumanize inmates? Or does it work better when it focuses on rehabilitation?
Take a guess.
I wish Ronson had spent less time on the dynamics of public shaming, more time on the importance of scapegoating as a social ritual. Shame is the keyword of his analysis, but as his own account makes clear, it’s the wrong word. As Ronson argues at some length, shame is ultimately redemptive. The point of shaming people is to make them feel guilt. The point of guilt is to usher in reflection and reform.
Because public shamings are so personal, we mostly see them at work in small communities. Ronson interviews people who have gone through the process. A drunk driver who killed several people and was made to stand on the streets of his town, publicly claiming responsibility for his offense. A pastor who had to search his soul after he was caught visiting a prostitute. A mother trying to atone for mistreating her children.
All these offenders admit their guilt. They reach out to people close to them, seeking to make amends. Shame leads them to penitence, then forgiveness, then reform.
Not on Twitter. Ronson interviews people who participate in online shamings. Do they worry about their targets? Is redemption possible? Are they interested in reaching out to the people they’ve accused, helping them chart a better path?
The answer he gets is, typically, “Who cares about those losers?” One young woman puts it succinctly. The purpose of online shamings, she says, isn’t to change people. It’s to destroy them.
That makes all the difference. The cycles of outrage that regularly convulse the internet aren’t aimed at ushering the guilty toward atonement. Nor are the participants indifferent to the suffering of their targets. Suffering is their end goal. They want to see their targets dehumanized, trembling in pain and misery forever.
That’s not how public shamings work. That’s how scapegoating works. It turns individuals into symbolic sacrifices, forcing solitary offenders to bear the burden of societal sins.
This is why the culture of online outrage, despite its association with progressive movements, is ultimately conservative in spirit. It doesn’t attack the centers of power, or seek to change unfair laws, or work at convincing foolish people they’re wrong. It leverages the power of institutions–corporations, colleges, government–to turn a handful people into pariahs.
The fantasy behind this impulse is depressingly familiar: that human beings are inherently good or bad, and that improving society is a matter of identifying the bad people and making them go away.
Politically speaking, that’s about the oldest idea in the book.