A couple of months ago I was feeling whipped over my situation, almost forlorn, when out of the blue my attorney and friend called and we talked through my dejected state of mind. He recommended a book. He not only made the recommendation, he bought it for me. A few days later, Jon Ronson’s 2015 bestseller, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed arrived, and I pretty much read it in one sitting.
The experience was utterly revelatory and I urge everyone to read it, particularly those who have participated in the public shaming of anyone via the internet, or mass online destruction as Ronson calls it. From what I read, this amounts to many people in the country, around the world, millions and millions taking part in destroying someone they have never met, let alone know what really happened before any facts come out, if any facts ever come out. As Ronson documented, some of these public shamings have led people to kill themselves.
I would be curious to know how many people reading this blog have taken part in this process. I have never participated in a public shaming. I have never been tempted. I have, however, been subjected to one and I think it’s still going on in some quarters. Or perhaps not. Maybe the shamers have moved on to shame someone else. That seems to be their nature.
Reading this book helped me understand why people choose to aid and abet a public shaming. Why do people debase others in the privacy of their homes, in their cars, at dinner in a fancy restaurant, when hiking through a forest, in restroom stalls, at work on the company’s dime?
In the book, Ronson finds and interviews people who were subjected to a public shaming and those who perpetrated the destructions. As he writes, “Shamings are always about more than the transgressions.”
Ronson did not, however, interview a single sex offender and elucidate their experiences of being publicly shamed. It seemed like an egregious oversight from an excellent reporter, but then again, that’s the largely silent mass marginalization that occurs with enrollment in The Registry, one I know all too well in recent months—and for years to come. I do plan on contacting Ronson one day and asking him about the oversight. I bet it never occurred to him to include this type of public shaming in the book, but it is perhaps the most collective, pervasive one in our society. And it’s codified in law.
I never felt any anger toward people who ripped me online and elsewhere. I actually felt sorry for them to spend a large or even tiny part of their lives in this manner. What higher purpose does it really serve to shame others? What about getting off the computer and phone and noticing areas of our communities that need help? It’s all around us and I see it more than ever now. Somehow, I have to get back into the helping game, but it seems impossible now, unless I get a lucky break out of the blue, which I intuit is going to have to occur because of a face-to-face encounter. It’s really the only way I think I’ll ever get a job helping anyone again.
Ronson wrote, “I prefer humans to ideology.” What I think he means with that statement is declaring his preference for meeting people in the flesh, face to face, listening, asking questions, not slotting them instantly into pariah status because of some ideology they might have violated with a tweet, post, message, joke or public action. Whatever it was, the communication or action immediately inflamed a certain ideology’s followers and drove them to massing their armies for massive online destruction. Interestingly enough, Ronson shows that the ideologies that lead to public shaming do not lean more Right Wing or more Left Wing, Conservative or Progressive. In fact, those terms are sort of useless to describe the phenomenon of public shaming. Whatever the ideology is, it just gears up, grinds down, and shames, shames and shames. Could be the big game hunter who killed a legendary lion, or the female college student who mocked a veteran’s memorial, or the baker who wouldn’t make a wedding cake for a gay wedding, or the minister whose named showed up in the accounts of a local brothel, or the current President of United States, whose successful candidacy certainly benefitted from his participating in public shaming and being publicly shamed for his vast numbers and types of transgressions.
If Ronson ever updates his book, he will have to include a chapter about Trump and his weird but inevitable role in the rise of this acid-based culture, dating back to his Celebrity Apprentice show. His whole ugly hectoring persona is based on publicly shaming the “losers.”
Here’s something to consider: Is there a good kind of public shaming that leads to real social justice and a better country with better elected leaders and better citizens? Mull that over.
Like Ronson, I prefer humans to systems, a paradigm, ideological camps, righteous movements, a state-written script, blanket judgments, rumor machines. After being shamed, I did not lose my faith in people. On the contrary, I may have gained more faith because every now and then, an unanticipated letter, a new friend, a small gesture, a visit, a gift, a meal arrived in a kind of private affirmation of my character that brought joy and confidence into my life when I desperately needed them. I might also add that the unexpected appearance of three deer in my backyard also served as a private affirmation from nature, a magical one that taught me something I needed to learn that rainy, sad afternoon. I was so happy I got up and fed the deer apples. Private affirmations in the midst of public shamings can save people’s spirits, if not their very lives. I would know. All I can do is say “thank you.”
Ronson points out that on the internet people can be who they really aren’t, such as a super warrior for justice, truth teller, conspiracy buster, or heroic agent for cultural change…forward—or backward. These people convince themselves they are doing great work. This great work is posting vitriol on social media and comment boards.
I felt the grip of a public shaming, giant hands wringing me out like a wet rag. I was twisted dry and left almost debilitated. Then I read Ronson’s superb book and stopped feeling that way. Then the floodgates of my creativity blew open and the means to transcend my situation washed over me: more face-to-face encounters with people and letting them see who I really am—rather than what’s online and ranked by algorithms that help generate trillions of dollars of ad revenue for trillion dollar tech companies.
That’s going to very hard for me to do. It could take the rest of my life. I’m obviously going to need help from people I know and don’t know yet.
One of the people subjected to a publicly shaming that Ronson interviewed said, and I am paraphrasing here, “Once the person refuses to feel ashamed, the whole system crumbles.”
That was good food for thought. I ate it up.
I would like to end this post by saying, that unlike most of the people Ronson interviewed who experienced a mass online destruction at the hands of others, I never read a single word of the online public shaming of myself, nor tried to defend myself in that digital netherworld. I never will.
Read the book.
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