Here’s a repost of my review of Jon Ronson’s book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. I wrote this for my original blog in September 2018. I am sharing it again as/is.
The summer of 2018 is just about over now. It will go down in my personal history as a summer of equal parts fun and angst. I had a lot of fun over the summer; there’s no doubt about that. Bill and I visited some beautiful places, ate good food, and really dove into some excellent concerts.
But it was also a summer of uncertainty and anxiety. I’ve watched a lot of people I’ve gotten to know over the past few years move on to new places. I’ve worried incessantly about my dogs as I’ve noticed them aging (although at this point, they’re evidently fine). I’ve seen Bill have to find a new job and now we’re going to be moving. I’ve also watched in horror as several middle aged white women were publicly shamed on the Internet as people cheered.
If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you might know that I tend to lean fairly liberal these days. I am not a Trump supporter. I like social justice and often support liberal causes, particularly when it comes to social policies. I don’t like racism, ageism, or sexism. I’m also not a fan of shaming people.
However, over the summer of 2018, there’s been a trend of people capturing people, usually middle aged white women, on their cellphones “behaving badly”. They put their videos online, often with a caption along the lines of “Let’s make this bitch go viral!” Sure enough, the videos wind up on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook and the person being shamed does, indeed, go viral. They go on to suffer the wrath of thousands of people they don’t know, who weren’t involved in whatever incident occurred to put them in a viral situation, and who actively cheer for bad things to happen to them.
I have seen a lot of the videos that have been posted online. I will agree that in many of the videos, the people being filmed were, for the most part, behaving in a way that seemed wrong. However, it disturbs me that people feel so free to call for the destruction of other people’s lives. Allow me to go on record to say that I really don’t like this trend of publicly shaming people and actively trying to ruin their lives. I think it’s very shortsighted and, in the long run, harms more people than it helps.
Because I was so disturbed by all of the videos trending on social media, I decided to read more about this phenomenon. That’s when I discovered Jon Ronson’s book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. This book, published in 2015, highlights several notorious cases of people who slipped up on social media and ended up going viral. Ronson has a tongue in cheek way of describing how in this age of instant communication, a person can wind up being immediately punished for making an ill advised quip, sharing a racist joke, or not being reverent enough at a sacred place.
Ronson points out how, thanks to the Internet, the whole world can find out about something a person did and make a judgment, without knowing the context of what happened. These shaming episodes can have real and devastating effects, and not just for the person being shamed. I’ve written a lot about this over the past few months, so I won’t rehash my points too exhaustively. Suffice to say that you might feel great about Permit Patty or BBQ Becky being humiliated online for being “racist”, but there are innocent people in their lives who are negatively affected by these public shaming episodes. Moreover, 99.9% of the people sharing and opining about these videos have absolutely no idea about the context of what they’re seeing. They don’t know the people being shamed, nor do they know what will happen to them once they’ve gone viral. People’s lives have been ruined and even ended over these episodes.
Since this book is three years old, you won’t read about the most recent victims of viral shaming. Instead, you might be reminded of people like Justine Sacco, who was a public relations executive who made some unfortunate tweets on a trip to Africa. Sacco, who apparently has a politically incorrect sense of humor, famously tweeted back in 2013, “Going to Africa! Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
Granted, this was a tasteless, racist joke. I’m not surprised that many people were offended by it. However, what happened after Sacco posted this Tweet was nothing less than phenomenal. There was an incredible backlash lobbed at Sacco, who was soon the recipient of death and rape threats. She lost her job. However, in Sacco’s case, there were a few positives. Some people were moved to donate money to charities and Sacco did, apparently, manage to recover from the public shaming.
In another case, Ronson writes about a couple of guys who were at an IT conference. They were talking among themselves and a woman named Adria Richards overheard and misunderstood a comment one of them made, wrongly assuming they were making sexist jokes. She took a picture of them, placed it online, and set the wheels in motion to ruin their careers. The sad thing is, she hadn’t even gotten the context of their private joke, which had absolutely nothing to do with sexism and everything to do with IT.
And yet, thanks to Richards’ decision to “out” them for being sexist, these guys went through the viral Internet wringer. One of them, a guy calling himself Hank, lost his job and posted about it on a Web site called Hacker.com. Hank was justifiably upset because he’d liked the job and had three children to support. Adria Richards, who had taken his picture was then outed and started getting hate mail and death threats herself. Hank condemned the death threats against Richards, yet amazingly, she still thinks he deserved to be fired for his “joke” that was part of a private conservation and that she completely misunderstood, anyway.
Ronson later spoke to Richards and she maintained that Hank was to blame for complaining about being fired, since “his actions led to his being fired.” In the aftermath, men’s rights groups decided to make her go viral and she suffered backlash for trying to shame Hank for his joke. Both Hank and Adria suffered the consequences of Internet vigilanteism. I certainly don’t condone the death threats or rape wishes directed at Richards, but I do think she could stand to learn something from this ordeal. If she had minded her own damned business, neither she nor Hank would have ever been in this mess.
Although I had already been thinking about the horrifying ramifications of Internet shaming, Ronson does a good job of pointing out what can happen to people who wind up in an Internet shitstorm. I would venture to guess that the vast majority never consider beyond that moment of Schadenfreude that this kind of vigilantism has real and devastating effects for others. They simply focus on that delicious moment of riding a moral high horse and watching someone’s life fall apart and never think beyond that. That’s one thing I do think Ronson’s book is good for– reminding people that a successful Internet shaming session doesn’t just last for a day, nor does it have an off switch.
Ronson writes of Lindsey Stone, a charity worker who, in 2012, took an ill advised picture of herself showing disrespect at Arlington Cemetery. The photo went viral and pretty soon, Stone was being publicly flayed. Stone, who had been working as a caregiver to people with learning disabilities, had a running joke with a friend. They took “joke” pictures of themselves doing things like smoking in front of “no smoking” signs. This time, there was a picture of Stone flipping off a sign at Arlington Cemetery that requested silence. The photo went viral and soon Stone was being called a “cunt” and a “psychopath” by perfect strangers.
Stone had previously been a happy go lucky kind of person who enjoyed going out, dancing, and doing karaoke. But for over a year, she stayed home. People were calling for her to be fired and, indeed, she was. Then, after she lost her job, no one responded to her applications for a new one. After a long time, she finally did find a new job, but lived in terror that someone at her position would find out about what she did. She gave up on dating, worrying that a new love interest would find out that she had flipped off a sign at Arlington Cemetery.
Long after people had forgotten about that incident, Stone was still dealing with the traumatic aftereffects. I wonder, how many people who felt Stone is a “cunt” for posting that photo even know her? Can a person’s character really be accurately summed up in a single photo or two minute video showing them “behaving badly”? Do the people who called her names like “cunt”, “bitch”, and “whore” think her life should be ruined or even ended for posting that photo? Do they really think she deserves depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder over that one moment of bad behavior that wound up online?
Stone ended up working with someone to rehabilitate her online image. The professional, who was an expert at social media and Google searches, found ways to make Lindsey Stone appear to be a perfectly bland person. Sadly, this was what it came down to– she had to be rebranded from the spunky, politically incorrect, fun loving firebrand she is to someone who likes Top 40 music and cats. How sad that is.
You see, this is why I get really upset about these kinds of Internet shaming trends. It’s not just because I worry that someone is going to try it with the wrong person and wind up being shot. It’s also because sometimes people say and do things without thinking. Everybody has a cellphone with a camera these days. I think it’s chilling that a person’s life can be ruined in an instant of carelessness. It’s also chilling that sometimes people get things wrong and ruin people who truly don’t deserve to be harassed.
To be honest, I would love to see the object of some of this kind of shaming turn the tables on their aggressors. Personally, I think they should start suing, especially when the person gets it wrong. Not long ago, I wrote about a woman whose life was upturned after she got involved in a heated thread on Facebook. Monika Glennon had opined about a smiling teenager’s photo at Auschwitz and offended someone who decided to make up a vicious lie about her and submit it to a Web site called “She’s a Homewrecker”. Although the story went unnoticed for awhile, another user took it upon herself to share the story with Glennon’s friends and family. It took a lot of time and money for Glennon to clear up the lie and salvage her reputation. She did sue the women involved and won, but Glennon will likely never see any of the settlement she was awarded because neither of the women have any money. Glennon recently left me a very nice comment on my post. I was glad to see she was able to recover from the public humiliation and be an example of why this kind of trend is potentially very harmful and wrong.
One criticism I have of Ronson’s book is that three years post publication, it’s already dated. So many more cases are out there now that should be written about. I also felt that Ronson treated this topic a bit more glibly that maybe he should have. A little humor is good, but I really think people should understand that this kind of “justice” can really mess up people’s lives. In the long run, it doesn’t serve society for people to lose their livelihoods over something like a viral video, tasteless Tweet, or tacky photograph. People should have the right to be forgotten so they can recover from their mistakes and move on. Otherwise, why would they bother living out the rest of their lives?
Anyway… I think I’d give this book four out of five stars. Here’s a link for those who want to read it themselves.
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