For a man who describes himself as “tweedy” and “bespectacled”, writer Jon Ronson has seen his fair share of adventure. For his investigative works on some of society’s more fringe elements, the bestselling author and filmmaker has infiltrated secret societies in “Them: Adventures with Extremists,” clandestine government research facilities in “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” and elusive director Stanley Kubrick’s filing system. For his latest book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” he crosses into the dark side of social media.
For “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” Ronson met with several people who discovered the hard way what it means to be a trending topic on Twitter. Neither celebrities nor public figures, they’re everyday people whose lame attempts at humor crashed in a spectacular way and went viral. People like Justine Sacco, whose failed attempt at poking fun at white privilege (“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”) spread from her original 170 followers to an international cause celebre that cost her a job, her privacy and her reputation. For Ronson, it’s not just the controversy that’s important; it’s what happens after the virtual mob disperses that’s of interest.
Now living in New York, Ronson – a British transplant - regularly holds small Q&A screenings of his documentaries at Morbid Anatomy Museum and co-hosts a monthly comedy show on being a transplant with comedian Maeve Higgins at Union Hall. Ronson spoke with us about what attracts him to unusual subjects and why public shaming is back in a big way.
A lot of your books and movies are a study of people who cross the line between interest and obsession. What attracts you to the fringier elements?
I think the stories I’m always looking for – the stories that take place in a mysterious world or mysterious people – I want to try and show off mysteries. That’s kind of wind behind my sails when I’m doing a story; like, if I don’t understand this world or this person, can I journey in to this place to try and understand it? So, I guess quite often the most mysterious places are where you find the most mysterious people and a lot of those people will be eccentric or damaged or brilliant, like Stanley Kubrick. So, I guess that’s the thing, looking for mysteries.
What was the most surprising story off all of people and places you’ve dealt with?
I’ve been really lucky. I’ve had so many great adventures. I think the ones that jump out at me as particularly great, maybe Stanley Kubrick’s boxes. I spent that time looking through Stanley Kubrick’s stuff; Bohemian Grove, when I infiltrated Bohemian Grove with Alex Jones; Tony at Broadmoor in the “Psychopath Test,” who may or may not have faked madness. In the new book, I think telling the story of Justine Sacco felt incredibly important to me. As I say in the story, she’s the first person I ever sat across who had been destroyed by us, so by suggesting the structure and trying to tell it in a new way from Justine’s side felt like a really, really important story to tell, because the mysterious, crazy people in that story are us. I think Justine is up there with the stories that I feel most proud about telling.
What was specifically that inspired you to take on public shaming?
I think it was because I used to be a keen shamer, yet at the same time I was terrified of being shamed. I thought shame is occupying a big part of my life. I thought, “My god, if that happened to me? I’d just be destroyed. So I thought that was such a weird, disgusting odd situation. We were punishing people with something that we know is horrific and then I thought I really want to meet the people who we’ve shamed and see how they are. I thought that would be a really interesting journey to go on.
Do you think the Internet has created a new golden age of shaming?
Yeah, I do. I really do. Because of the way the Internet is set up, there’s a sort of mutual approval machine … and partly because of the distance between and the person you shame. Like I say in the book, “The snowflake doesn’t need to feel responsible for the avalanche.” I think those two reasons and other reasons, too. The silent people have a voice. So, the social justice people like me can run wild and the problem is that we’re running wild; we’re destroying people who don’t deserve to be destroyed. So, I think for all of those reasons and probably other reasons, too, there’s this sort of perfect storm of conditions on the Internet that led to a new renaissance of shaming.
It’s so easy, too. Everyone’s connected in some way.
Yes, everyone’s an amateur detective, trying to spot the clues to people’s inner evil by some bad phraseology of tweets. It’s terrible. Just because you write a shitty tweet doesn’t make them evil. But we’re sort of convinced that it does.
Well, recently there was the situation with the tween baseball phenomenon Mo’ne Davis being called a slut on Twitter by a college baseball player and instead of piling on him, she was very forgiving about it.
She said forgive him? How lovely, how gracious. I want to live in a world like her where even idiots get another chance. At the same time what he said was really terrible, and I don’t think I would have put him in my book. I wanted to write a book where I could really like or defend all the people in the book, like Justine Sacco, Lindsey Stone and even to a lesser extent John Lehrer, and I think I would’ve found it hard to get past him calling a 10-year old girl a slut.
We’ve also reached a point where we’ve seen both the long-term and short-term effects of the shaming cycle, such as Monica Lewisnki’s recent TED talk on her public humiliation.
I loved her TED talk, and I loved that she got a standing ovation. I think she deserved it. But I did think to myself that some of the people giving Monica a standing ovation would still tear about Justine Sacco, if given half the chance. There’s still a long way to go, even though Justine Sacco was as innocent as Monica Lewinsky.
Has coming in to contact with people who have been totally destroyed social media it changed the way you use it?
I have become a bit more cautious and I really wish I hadn’t, because, to me, telling some joke that might be misconstrued is the same as a girl on a Saturday night wearing a longer skirt. I think I don’t want to be more cautious, but I am, and I think that’s really a shame. I don’t want my book to make people more cautious; I want my book to actually make people think twice before they destroy someone for a joke that comes out badly, as opposed to think twice before telling a joke that might come out badly.
You know, there’s a lot less homophobia than there used to be, I think a lot of that has to do with people being careful with the language that they use. So I’m not advocating for a world where people are allowed to insult people, but what I am advocating is a world that doesn’t disproportionately punish people for what’s essentially a liberal silly joke that comes out badly.
Is there ever an instance where you think it’s called for?
Yeah, I do. When I wrote the book part of me was thinking, should I write this really radical book that we should never shame anybody ever? I was kind of heading towards that, but then I thought that’s a little bit too Disney. There are some shamings that are completely appropriate. Look at the “I can’t breathe protests.” That was a shaming of the NYPD in a way that was absolutely appropriate.
Shaming seems to fall in the same category as fear. A little can keep you out of trouble, but too much is ruinous.
I think you must be kind of sensible about this. I didn’t want to write a book that went to some kind of radical extreme. The fact is that we have the power to determine the severity of some people’s punishments, so it’s up to us to be responsible and not destroy innocent people’s lives, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start a shaming campaign against the NYPD for being overly aggressive or a newspaper if its columnists are being racist or homophobic. I think it’s better to not shame individuals. I really love the Everyday Sexism Twitter feed, where people tweet some sexist thing that happened to them that day, but they don’t name the sexist. That seems like a rather good thing. That’s sort of perfect in a way, because no one’s getting pilloried, but you’re still doing social good.
How One Tweet Can Ruin Your Life | Jon Ronson | TED Talks