Thoughts on So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

So You've Been Publicly ShamedI 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.

9 thoughts on “Thoughts on So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

  1. I have not read this book yet, but it’s on my wish list.

    “He posits that all of our personal shames make us shame others. I think it is more about control.”

    But I think those two things are essentially the same thing. If you’re terrified of your own shame, the best way to control that terror is to try to shame others. There has been a bit a backlash against the internet outrage machine lately, which gives me a slight tinge of hopefulness….but you’re right, anger is addictive, especially righteous anger. So I probably shouldn’t allow hope to seep in.

    • That’s a good point. I’ll have to think about that some more. My interest is specifically about our economic system and how it deprives us of control, even though it eliminates want. It’s curious.

      It seems to me that getting over our addiction to outrage is about wisdom. And wisdom is not something that seems to occur to groups of people. So I too am pessimistic.

      • I’d say a system that “deprives us of control, even though it eliminates want” is truer of countries with high social safety nets and heavy taxation on the rich than it it us. I guess we don’t want for gadgets/gizmos.

        I’m with Pickett/Wilkinson that our vastly unequal society creates persistent shame about one’s social status, and not just among po’ folk like me — among the rich too, who (except the super-rich) are terrified of falling. It makes it almost impossible to establish friendships, since everyone’s jockeying for social position (I bought this, achieved expensive life goal that, are boring subjects for conversation.)

        I think this shame essentially defines who we are as a culture. Is that the same shame Ronson and Kristen McHenry are referring to? Probably not quite. It’s all connected, though.

        • I thought that comment of mine was a little unclear. What I was getting at was how our system creates more than enough for everyone. The issue really is absolute poverty (do you have enough to eat) and relative poverty (do you hate yourself because your society looks down on you). Of course, we have the worst of all worlds here in the US. We provide a miserly safety net at the same time that we especially look down on the poor. The thing about the European systems that they don’t despise the poor the way we do. When I was having a discussion over at Matt Bruenig’s website, I mentioned Wilkinson. I think the fundamental problem is job insecurity. In a world in which one can’t just start farming a fallow field, the society must guarantee a job. I do think you are right: all of these things are related. We have such a long way to go.

          • Somehow I suspected you didn’t mean “poor people have cell phones, nobody in America is poor.” Unless you’re actually David Brooks. Are you? ARE YOU?

            I hate pushing my “social safety net lifts all boats” rant everywhere but I really believe it. It certainly has its problems, there are no magic wands. But knowing you can’t fall too far doesn’t just provide security for you and your family. It also gives all work more worth. A “blue collar” job isn’t something you do because don’t want to starve and aren’t “clever” enough to get a white-collar job, it’s something you do because you take pride in working. Europeans don’t look down on blue-collar workers the way we do (or they didn’t; that’s changing) and hence have a wider pool of people to possibly make human connections with. Americans have fewer friends than people in any other wealthy country; this is not sheer coincidence.

            • Another thing is this idea that money is the reward for risk taking. The truth is that people would feel more free to launch a new business if they knew that the result of failure wouldn’t be total economic devastation. But those who push this kind of nonsense don’t want an economy that gets better and better; they want an economy that continues to enrich the already rich.

              And no, I’m not David Brooks. I realize that every time I look at my bank account.

              • And people in countries with good safety nets are more willing to take college courses long after their first degrees, retraining themselves. They can take time off for this and have support for their families. Even in two-earner households, one parent can take time of for re-schooling and still get a state subsidy. It encourages people to follow their interests and talents, which increases the energy/creativity they contribute to their new careers. But I’ll STFU, JF now and go back to moderating a sports thread.

                Oh, so you’re Friedman! I should have known. After I typed the Brooks thing, my cabdriver said I was wrong.

                • I think among Americans there is this thought that you must accomplish everything by yourself. This is part of hiding welfare for the rich and shoving it in the face of the poor.

                  I look more like Brooks than Friedman. But I am Friedman in some ways. For example, I was at a conference on distributed intelligence in a flat world — in Mumbai. I had to take a taxi to the airport. And the driver noted that Indians think that people look smarter with mustaches…

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