I just read Jon Ronson’s newest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. It is probably his best book yet. Then again, maybe it’s just that I am really interested in the subject of public shaming — and shame more generally. But it was my intention to just read a couple of chapters and move on. Instead, I ended up reading almost the whole thing in one sitting. It really draws the reader in — especially anyone who is active in public life, even if that just means sending out a lot of tweets.
It is my fear of public shaming that stops me from being more involved in Twitter. For example, after the Vanity Fair cover with Caitlyn Jenner, I wanted to tweet out, “Great, now Jenner is providing unrealistic body images for women.” Similarly, after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, I wanted to announce a new line of hoodies that sported the words, “Don’t shoot! I’m white!” This second one relates directly to Ronson’s primary object: Justine Sacco. She is the woman who tweeted right before boarding a very long flight to South Africa, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” The tweet went viral while she was in the air, with at least one blogger camping out at the airport to get a picture of this supposed devil woman.
At the time, I really did not understand it. Maybe that’s not surprising coming from the man who thinks that “Don’t shoot! I’m white” on a hoodie is the height of social satire. But Sacco’s tweet was not insensitive, much less racist. It was rather the other way around: it was mocking western stereotypes and highlighting the fact that by and large Americans do not have to worry about AIDS. What I saw happen to Sacco was very typical and one of the reasons I’m not too keen on humanity. People decided to read the tweet as insensitive and racist so that they then could enjoy the pleasure of feeling outraged about it.
We see this same thing throughout media. Certainly, Jerry Springer and Judge Judy would have had no careers if it weren’t for the manufacture of outrage. And far from ideology, Fox News is primary an outrage machine. But that’s true to a lesser extent with CNN and MSNBC. People not only enjoy feeling outraged, they become addicted to it. It is one of the few ways that modern Americans have of feeling good about themselves. It’s sad.
The other major shaming example in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is Lindsey Stone. This story is an even better example of this. Stone is a caregiver to disabled people. She and a friend were in the habit of creating what they thought were funny pictures. For example, there is a photo of Stone smoking in front of a “no smoking” sign. The photo that got her in trouble was of her shouting and flipping off next to a sign that reads “Silence and Respect” at Arlington National Cemetery. Despite explaining what was going on in the picture, people decided to take it as disrespecting the people buried there and (Of course!) the military in general.
I’ve had to deal with this on Frankly Curious. I used to talk about the military as bluntly as I do the police. But I’ve been beaten down. It isn’t that my opinions have changed, but it just isn’t worth the bother. So I’m more careful when I talk about this subject, because there is an army of people out there just looking for something they can pounce on. To me it goes right along with those yellow ribbons. We don’t provide real respect in terms of using the military as little as possible and paying soldiers well. So it isn’t surprising that they would be always on the lookout for disrespect. But their wrath is ill directed at me and Lindsey Stone.
Two years ago, I got in a bit of a tussle on Twitter. A woman had tweeted out, “Is it me, lots of Bay Area tweeters going on about their day, tweeting stupid stuff. A plane crashed, lots of people impacted.” This enraged me. She was shaming the wider world because it wasn’t focused on what she was focused on. Ultimately, three people died in that crash — one because she was run over by a rescue vehicle. But I wasn’t nice about my anger. I tweeted, “About 2000 people died of malaria today. Why are you so focused on these people at SFO?” It wasn’t taken well. The whole thing still strikes me as bizarre. Apparently, a lot of people think that we must all obsess about whatever the television news is currently reporting.
Ultimately, I don’t think that Jon Ronson gets to the bottom of why we all are so inclined to shame each other. He posits that all of our personal shames make us shame others. I think it is more about control. But it hardly matters. Most of the stuff that people are publicly shamed for is forced. The shaming is a given, and the reason is reverse engineered. The only solution is for us all to show more mercy. But that is the solution to most problems in the world. I’m not hopeful. It doesn’t seem like Jon Ronson is either.