Book Review // So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

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Book Name: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
Author: Jon Ronson
◐ Genre: Sociology, Social Psychology
◐ Pages: 290
◐ Synopsis (Goodreads):
For the past three years, Jon Ronson has travelled the world meeting recipients of high-profile public shamings. The shamed are people like us – people who, say, made a joke on social media that came out badly, or made a mistake at work. Once their transgression is revealed, collective outrage circles with the force of a hurricane and the next thing they know they’re being torn apart by an angry mob, jeered at, demonized, sometimes even fired from their job. People are using shame as a form of social control.

Recommended for those interested in social psychology, the effects of social media and mob mentality, history of public shaming

Content Warning:
mentions of sexual harassment, rape jokes, death threats, suicide

Review: 4/5 ⭐

I have such a love-hate relationship with social media (more hate than love, really). While I have met some beautiful people through it, I’ve also seen the pitfalls. One of these is the topic of Jon Ronson’s book: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

It’s no secret that social media has been used for good: exposing powerful, corrupt individuals and corporations. As Ronson describes, going after them gives us a sense of social justice, like giving power back to the little people.

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However, the practice has also been taken too far, as those engaging with the social media shaming have taken to nitpicking any minor infraction or perceived slight.

The truth is, while sensitivity is certainly important, to send death threats and deprive people of their livelihood for a poorly-made joke, is taking “social justice” too an extreme that leaves long-lasting scars.

Interestingly, public shaming was outlawed for being too degrading of a punishment, and that was long before social media existed, when it lasted perhaps a few hours and was geographically limited. Now, shame exists on the Internet forever, and can spread to the entire world. Once shamed, there is virtually no way to scrub the stain of that offense, however small it might have been. That infraction goes on to define the person, because it becomes all that anyone sees in the search results, with the simple input of a name.

We were creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland.

Ronson follows several well known cases of people who have been publicly shamed, ranging from serious transgressions to relatively minor ones that have simply been misinterpreted.

Regardless of the severity of the misdeed, the same results have followed: public shaming on social media, loss of jobs, death threats, just to name a few.

The problem is, there’s a psychological benefit to jumping on the bandwagon of public shaming, as people get a rush of adrenaline, and the sense that they’re doing something “good” for the world. It’s easy to get mindlessly caught up in the wave of the mob, failing to properly consider whether or not such a reaction is truly justified, even to examine the context, or even to do a fact check.

Sadly, most of the participants doing the shaming then rush on to the next big news, while the person they have attacked is ruined for the rest of their life.

Jon Ronson explores different perspectives of this issue, challenging the reader to examine themselves and the implications of public shaming, both on an individual and a societal level. Society’s hypocrisy is highlighted by the fact that people who have made inappropriate jokes online sometimes face more vitriol than those in prison for murder, child abuse, and other actual crimes, who are ironically able to fly safely under the radar.

It’s not a perfect book but at less than three hundred pages, it is an easy read. I enjoyed the author’s narrative voice; it is amusing, humorous, and lighthearted without sounding disrespectful.

People should be held accountable for their words and actions, but most of the time, those doing the shaming don’t even know the person or who they are beyond one viral tweet.

Do people deserve to be publicly shamed?

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The common assumption is that public punishments died out in the new great metropolises because they’d been judged useless. Everyone was too busy being industrious to bother to trail some transgressor through the city crowds like some volunteer scarlet letter. But according to the documents I found, that wasn’t it at all. They didn’t fizzle out because they were ineffective. They were stopped because they were far too brutal.

If it had previously existed in [the convicted person’s] bosom a spark of self-respect this exposure to public shame utterly extinguishes it. Without the hope that springs eternal in the human breast, without some desire to reform and become a good citizen, and the feeling that such a thing is possible, no criminal can ever return to honorable courses.

I suppose that when shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be. The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche.

A life had been ruined. What was it for: just some social media drama? I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people. What rush was overpowering us at times like this? What were we getting out of it?

I suppose it’s no surprise that we feel the need to dehumanize the people we hurt—before, during, or after the hurting occurs. But it always comes as a surprise. In psychology it’s known as cognitive dissonance. It’s the idea that it feels stressful and painful for us to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time (like the idea that we’re kind people and the idea that we’ve just destroyed someone). And so to ease the pain we create illusory ways to justify our contradictory behavior.

It turns out that the concept of group madness was the creation of a nineteenth-century French doctor called Gustave LeBon. His idea was that humans totally lose control of their behavior in a crowd. Our free will evaporates. A contagious madness takes over, a complete lack of restraint. We can’t stop ourselves.

“By the mere fact that he forms part of an organized crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilization. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd he is a barbarian—that is, a creature acting by instinct . . . In a crowd every sentiment and act is contagious.”

For someone to make an apology, someone has to be listening. They listen and you speak and there’s an exchange. That’s why we have a thing about accepting apologies. There’s a power exchange that happens

But we know that people are complicated and have a mixture of flaws and talents and sins. So why do we pretend that we don’t?

We were creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland.

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