Review: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

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So You’ve Been Publicly ShamedJon Ronson. London: Picador, 2015.*

Summary: Explores the use of social media for public shaming of individuals, the dark side of ourselves this reveals, and the ways those shamed deal with this experience.

If you have any kind of presence on social media, this book should give you pause. In fact, even if you are not on social media, it might make you think. Any kind of transgression, whether an offensive statement, or an impulsive act can become the object of a public shaming campaign on social media. It often can be vicious, pervasive, you can even lose your job, and it stays there–on the internet.

Jon Ronson begins by describing how he used shaming to free himself from a form of identity theft cloaked in academic jargon, as a group of researchers created a spambot identity on Twitter of Ronson. Ronson’s only recourse after a film interview of the spambot creators being cute was to upload a video (yes, they were arrogant enough to allow themselves to be filmed) to expose what they were doing. A vicious series of comments wishing all sorts of unspeakable fates followed. The spambot came down. One more victorious shaming campaign!

Then along comes the case of Jonah Lehrer, a one-time promising science writer exposed by journeyman journalist Michael Moynihan. Moynihan became suspicious of quotes of Bob Dylan in Lehrer’s book on creativity. They just didn’t sound like Dylan to him, and it turns out they were fabricated. Other material was plagiarized from press-releases, and from earlier pieces he’d written (self plagiarism, a little more controversial, but the rule is still to cite yourself rather than use the material uncited). When Moynihan published an article it effectively spelled the end of his journalism career. Ronson recounts the eerie scene in St. Louis, where Lehrer attempts a poorly constructed apology, with a live Twitter stream of comments being shown on a screen behind him. Posts like this were typical:

“Rantings of a Delusional, Unrepentant Narcissist.” (p. 43)

Lehrer, as far as I can tell is still trying to reconstruct a writing career with a blog focusing on social science writing and recently released A Book About Love which makes a more forthright apology than the St. Louis speech, but has received mixed reviews. Fabrication and plagiarism tend to be career-enders for writers. In Lehrer’s case, social media and the internet make it far worse. A Google search still readily turns up the articles about his transgressions.

Ronson moves on to other lesser-knowns. There is the case of Justine Sacco, working in a New York public relations firm (of all things),who foolishly hit “send” on this tweet:

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” (p. 64)

She became  world number one trending topic on Twitter, before her plane landed, and no efforts to scrub Twitter, or issue an apology could save her job. He recounts the case of “Hank”, who at a software developers conference made a sexually innuendo-ed joke while sitting behind a woman developer, Adria. She turned, photographed him, and tweeted the incident. He came home to find he was out of a job. Eventually he posted something about this to find much of the developer community rally to his cause and shame Adria. Consequently the shamer became not only the shamed, but also lost her job.

As Ronson goes into these accounts, he begins to wonder what they reveal about the shamers, including himself, and their glee, and verbal violence in taking down their targets. Does the anonymity of the internet feed the phenomenon, the social distance between shamer and shamed. He contrasts social media shaming with Judge Ted Poe, who uses public shaming in sentencing. Far from being the “theater of the absurd,” as one blogger called it, Poe maintained, supported by testimony of those he sentenced, that it was the “theater of the effective.” Often, in this kind of public shaming, the defendant ends up being encouraged by people. It is face to face and not anonymous. And it works in turning around lives, maintained Poe.

The latter part of the book explores how people come through shame and explores the interesting idea that those the least apologetic about their shameful activity may cope better. There is the case of Max Mosley, exposed for some rather unusual S & M activities that were alleged to be Nazi scenarios. He turns around and sues the outlet that published this for defamation and wins, on the fact that the Nazi portion of this could not be supported by the facts. He freely admitted his unusual sexual tastes. Ronson also visits shame eradication groups that de-sensitize one to shame. Not exactly his cup of tea.

He explores the case of Lindsey Stone whose friend snapped and posted a picture of her flipping off and shouting at a sign at Arlington National Cemetery that said “Silence and Respect.” The kind of snarky thing lots of kids do, right? Well, the picture went viral, and once again, the comments were vicious, and the result was a lost job. Eventually, Ronson works out a deal with a company that works with online reputations and describes the strategy to bury the damning material way down in search engine results by creating a positive web presence for a person. The goal is to move the damaging stuff to page 2 where nobody ever looks. Their work helps the Lindsey Stone, and others who share her name, mostly by displacing the unsavory image with a host of other photos and web presence under her name.

Ronson’s book raises the question of what much of our “outrage” on social media really reveals, not about the objects of the outrage, but about us. His candor and self-reflectiveness about his own participation in shaming rites on social media invite us to ask, “when have I done this, and what does this say about me?” What I think he doesn’t explore and could be considered is the temptation to be provocative, to push the envelope in order to get more views, comments, follows–the definition of social media success. The closest he gets are the corners Jonah Lehrer cut under the pressures of a burgeoning writing career.

Ronson also reminds us that the consequences of our words on social media have impacts not in virtual reality but in the lives of real people. And his tale reminds us to reflect carefully before hitting the “send”, “post”, or “publish” buttons. Carelessness here could change one’s life, and not in ways one would like. Better re-read this before posting!

*Content and language advisory. Includes descriptions of various forms of sexual expression and profanity.

Outrage and the Speech of Freedom

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By David Shankbone – David Shankbone CC BY – SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3554956

“Why are we so angry?”

That’s a question I’ve been musing on of late.

My Facebook friends are a curious phenomena of my life. I find some expressing outrage against anything that might be associated with the political left. And then there are others equally outraged with anything associated with the political right. It makes me kind of glad that they only meet on my newsfeed! It also makes me wonder what it says about me that I have friends at both these extremes.

Some suggest that outrage with the political establishment explains the attraction of people to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Whether or not these are the best candidates for president, it concerns me that outrage might outweigh more measured judgments of who should serve in this important office.

I come back to my question of “why are we so angry?”

Outrage is defined as “an extremely strong reaction of anger, shock, or indignation.” I wonder what feeds the anger that shows up in road rage, gun violence, and the vitriolic discourse that increasingly seems to be the social and popular media norm.

I do wonder at time about the capacity of our media to ratchet up our anger as one angry voice augments another, with media personalities egging this on because it means more views to a blog, a talk show, or “news” program. One study suggests that “anger is the internet’s most powerful emotion.”

Could this be one reason why we are so angry?

While expressions of outrage may well be protected free speech, I do wonder whether any of this promotes what I call the speech of freedom–the speech whose aim is to promote the common good of both speaker and those with whom they disagree. It seems to me that all outrage does is solidify my bond with those who share my anger while alienating me further from any who see things differently.

Maybe that’s what some of us want. But I kind of wonder how healthy a community is that is formed around anger. And I think we have to ask ourselves whether we really want to keep fostering the antagonisms that our media seem bent on ratcheting up. Do we really want a world that is divided into winners and losers, a zero sum game? There are many parts of the world that operate like that. By and large, they are brutal, vengeful places where victory and tragedy are never far apart.

Can anger ever be useful? The apostle Paul once wrote, “be angry but do not sin, do not let the sun set on your anger.” I’ve come to realize that anger is a sign, and to ask what that is a sign of, and to act quickly to address the source of my anger. Sometimes, it is simply that a selfish desire has been frustrated, and it may be useful to hold up the mirror and see what this is showing me about myself.

Sometimes, we are angry because of some injustice or grievance that breaks a relationship. I can stew and build resentment, or I can go, before the sun sets, and say, “we need to talk, because this endangers our relationship.” It’s not always possible to work out differences in a day–the issue is not letting them fester. There is an incredible freedom that comes when anger turns to forgiveness and reconciliation.

What about social media and other things that ratchet up anger? I wonder if it is really worthwhile giving attention to these things. What if we took the time we spent posting and reading angry rants to writing a letter to our political representatives on something we care about? What about spending the time volunteering in something we care about? What about having a conversation with a living person with a different point of view–face to face! And for people of faith, what about taking the time we would spend reading and writing things against a person to pray for them. Praying for those in public leadership is commanded in the Bible–attacking them in social media is not!

All these may be ways to turn anger into the speech of freedom.

I began this post with the question of “why are we so angry?” There is a slight twist to that question in the story of Jonah, when Jonah is pouting because God spared the powerful city of Nineveh. God asks Jonah, “do you do well to be angry?”

Do do well to be angry? Do you?