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Review: So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

So You've Been Publicly Shamed - Jon Ronson

"Yet most journalists still profess the ideal of objective reporting, even when it comes to highly subjective matters. No proper journalist has ever admitted that anybody who does or suffers anything that brings them into public attention, intentionally or not, has an right to privacy. But in practice, journalists respect privacy when they describe objective actions and speech, leaving subjective motives, thoughts, and feelings to be deduced from the description; and outside the tabloids, most journalists do that. Serious journalism defines itself by the avoidance of speculation presented as fact."

 

- Ursula K. Le Guin, Fact and/or/plus Fiction, The Wave in the Mind, 2004

 

The above quote resonated with me in more ways than one, when I thought about it in relation to Jon Ronson's "So You've Been Publicly Shamed." Though I finished it almost a month ago, I was sitting on the fence writing this review, because despite enjoying it quite a lot as I read (or rather, listening) along, I left it feeling put off for some reason or another. And I think Ursula Le Guin helped me make sense of things.

 

Though he doesn't go out and say it, Ronson is trying really hard to give us his work from a position of objectivity. It's the promise of objectivity that makes the premise work - after all, giving a voice to the recipients of public shamings on the Internet can open a book to criticism (to put it extremely mildly.) But... well. It didn't sit well with me, because while it made some good points about public shamings, and how ineffective they are to change people's behaviors, it failed to provide us with a more optimistic alternative. 

 

From the first set piece, where Ronson recounts being targeted by a group of self-important academics who made him a spambot, and then got back to them by inadvertently turning the Internet's collective fury to the academics, to the last, the book holds onto its objectivity for dear life. While it provides Ronson with some protection from any rotten tomatoes (or more dangerous projectiles) that can be hurled his way, it also stops him from being able to make a case for a more humane, sympathetic treatment of wrongdoers.

 

Which is a shame because as a tool for punishing bad behavior, collectively shaming a person online can be a very blunt, destructive force, one that doesn't acknowledge degrees of wrongdoing. Ronson shows, again and again, how an online shaming destroyed the shamees' lives, regardless of the gravity of their actual transgression, or the intent behind it. Lindsey Stone is basically given the same treatment as Jonah Lehrer, when arguably her crime - a crass picture that apparently got shared with more people than she intended - is not on par with his - intentional self-plagiarism, plagiarizing other people's work, and inventing quotes. Ronson also makes a good point that legislation like "Right to be Forgotten" and private online reputation management services are not really effective in helping people out because they're either dredging up old scandals, or are too expensive for an average earner. 

 

Unfortunately, Ronson's claim to objectivity also means he doesn't spend more time advocating alternatives - like making said reputation management services more affordable, or advocating for a more humane approach to online interactions, or just for the installment of better social contracts online among everyone. He most certainly doesn't spend enough time in the shame-eradication workshop or reflect in depth on his experiences there, at least not in any way I found satisfactory. His brief visit to a New Jersey jail, where the inmates thrive under a kinder, more humane program, is kind of served to us without him talking about the wider implication at length, which, as other reviewers have said, is more than a little disappointing.

 

Another downside of Ronson's supposed objectivity is that he treats each and every one of his case studies in the same way, regardless of the gravity of what they'd done. Again, as other reviewers have pointed this out - maybe I don't want to read a book that puts Jonah Lehrer and Lindsey Stone together as equal victims. Maybe they both suffered the Internet's indiscriminate wrath, but the way these two came to their predicaments, and the way they reacted to those predicaments, is completely different. Maybe I don't want Ronson to dispassionately list their struggles as if they're the same. Yes, Lehrer being forced to apologize in front of a huge projection of a live Twitter feed was harsh - did it merit 3 whole chapters in the book? And yes, it was decent of Ronson to arrange free Internet reputation management for Lindsey Stone to help her with her anxieties - but what about the rest? Does he have no comment about the fact that one is a rich New York Times bestselling author doing something that goes against the code of ethics of his field, and that the other is a female care worker? Did he have no sympathy for Adria Richards, whose only crime was to be "difficult" (and was the casual sexism of that term applied to a black female developer lost to him entirely?)

 

Yes, the Internet tends to treat all transgressors in the same way, but so does Ronson; and his refusal to be subjective ends up portraying all participants in an Internet shaming as one giant open-mouthed mob, brainless and senseless; basically, he put Adria Richards on the same plate as the 4Chan user he interviewed, which, seriously? I mean, seriously? Let's not forget, (as I did briefly and was then reminded by other reviewers) that he's made money from this book and he's brought up a lot of old stories for the people he interviewed. Not all of them haven't got things to lose.

 

Again, I think he has some good points to make, but they're sort of lost in translation. I listened to this book, thinking about the way it reflected some of the things I've seen online in the past few years, and he makes it really hard for me to agree with him because his subjectivity also makes his work devoid of nuance. And, for something that advocates a more compassionate approach to online interactions, that's a major problem.

 

For a contrast, take Johann Hari's equally controversial, but considerably more subjective "Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs" (shameless plug: here's my Bibliodaze review of it.) Like Ronson, Hari talks about how criminalizing drug users and shaming them makes drugs a bigger problem. Unlike Ronson, Hari speaks from the position of a long-time activist, one who has loved ones who are addicts, and one who struggled with his feelings about drugs for a long time. He's not shy about "stating his positionality" (an academic cliche, but a cliche for a reason,) but that doesn't hurt the work. If anything, it sets things clear with the reader from the start, and the reader is free to draw whatever conclusion they like. It's not bad journalism to let people know you will be biased. It's responsible.

 

As for Ronson, I'm not sure I'll pick up anther book of his. Ultimately, his take on public shamings feels like a lost opportunity (a more than a little exploitative one, to boot.)