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So You've Been Publicly Shamed Paperback – March 29, 2016
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Now a New York Times bestseller and from the author of The Psychopath Test a captivating and brilliant exploration of one of our world s most underappreciated forces shame It s about the terror isn t it The terror of what I said The terror of being found out For the past three years Jon Ronson has travelled the world meeting recipients of high profile public shamings The shamed are people like us people who say made a joke on social media that came out badly or made a mistake at work Once their transgression is revealed collective outrage circles with the force of a hurricane and the next thing they know they re being torn apart by an angry mob jeered at demonized sometimes even fired from their job A great renaissance of public shaming is sweeping our land Justice has been democratized The silent majority are getting a voice But what are we doing with our voice We are mercilessly finding people s faults We are defining the boundaries of normality by ruining the lives of those outside it We are using shame as a form of social control Simultaneously powerful and hilarious in the way only Jon Ronson can be So You ve Been Publicly Shamed is a deeply honest book about modern life full of eye opening truths about the escalating war on human flaws and the very scary part we all play in it
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The tool of shaming someone publicly for breaking the law or violating the social contract in some other way is as old as time. But with the advent of the Internet, and specifically, the rise of tools like Twitter, shaming can go viral instantly. Instead of your immediate community knowing what you did wrong -- and deciding whether and when to forgive you, because they may have a sense of the broader context and of who you are as a person beyond that misstep -- the entire world now becomes aware, instantly, without any of that context. And the results, as Ronson shows, can be horrifying and potentially disproportionate. Imagine cracking a joke that you know that some folks might consider off color to a buddy sitting next to you at a conference presentation -- then having the woman in front of you turn around, snap your picture, smile at you -- and tweet about how offensive your comments were to women, already a minority and arguably struggling to find a way to feel comfortable in Silicon Valley's "bro culture". That's "D***legate", and it's one of the case studies that Ronson looks at to explore how the Internet has transformed public shaming from one form of potentially violent public pillorying and whipping to a non-violent but far longer lasting and even more damaging variant.
Since Ronson's focus is on the post-Twitter era, you won't find much here about folks like Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, although Ronson explores an argument that suggests sexual misdeeds are viewed with more tolerance by potential shamers than other transgressions (in contrast to the past, when swingers "outed" by the News of the World committed suicide). But whether the name is a familiar one -- Jonah Lehrer, popular science writer pilloried for inventing quotes and for recycling his own content -- or someone unknown, such as the teenager turned into a pariah for mocking what she saw as a self-evident and superfluous sign at Arlington national cemetery requesting silence and respect -- he does a good job of exploring different examples of shame and reasons for shaming, as well as the societal and historical context.
Ronson does occasionally fall into the trap of what I refer to as "stunt" anecdotes: going off to explore things as a participant and taking notes because he knows it will make a good part of the copy to be a fly on the wall. So, the workshop on how to manage and address shame in which he participates becomes a gratuitous anecdote, and some other similar segments felt like overkill.
My five-star rating is as much for the timeliness of the topic as for the book's style and structure, which are really more average than the rating would suggest. It's an OK book, on a standalone basis, but it's the first to really assemble in a coherent fashion all the individual anecdotes and events around this particular theme. It certainly made me think. I've long been aware of the dangers of having a personal "brand", and been vigilant about what I say on social media and my privacy settings on Facebook, for instance. In the social media universe, there simply is no privacy -- or at least, none that you can count on -- and few of those "shame victims" that Ronson profiles in these pages are evil or malicious. Stupid, foolish, careless -- yes. Thoughtless, absolutely. But the shaming, the "mass online destruction" in which people seem to take such delight, seems so disproportionate. "We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside of it."
This is a great starting point for dialog and discussion, and for that reason alone merits the full five stars.
I'd been thinking about this topic quite a bit before I saw this book had been written, because there have been several examples recently of massive, scorched earth web campaigns against things that I thought was fairly innocuous. It seemed like yet another example of how quickly seemingly civilized people can turn into a vicious pack of animals, and it's frightening, even in the service of a "good" cause.
The web can be a powerful tool for justice when other avenues have failed, for example, when an individual is fighting a powerful company. On the other hand, sometimes the punishment can vastly outweigh the crime, and peoples' lives end up ruined for one tasteless joke on Twitter, or even a complete misunderstanding.
Ronson goes through numerous examples, some of which I'd heard of and some of which I hadn't. He then connects internet shaming to historical public shaming, and explores other sorts of shaming, going so far as to visit the filming of an S&M movie.
It's interesting and entertaining from beginning to end. I was particularly fascinated to learn that there are now companies who (for a very large fee) will "obscure" your internet presence, so embarrassing things won't be quite so prominent.
My heart gave it five stars because it was fun to read. My head might ding it one, because it never really comes together with a coherent theme. Much as he did in The Men Who Stare at Goats, he tells a lot of very entertaining stories, and then tries to tie it together by connecting dots that don't really connect. A lot of things - like the trip the the S&M club - are just enjoyable non-sequiturs. It seems like he's trying to overthink something that's not really that complicated - just a natural extension of human nature into the digital age.
There's no great epiphany, and it's not clear anything can be "done" about the situation. Still, the book is very entertaining, and serves as a good cautionary tale, both for our own behavior, and for our reactions to the behavior of others. Highly recommended.