Skip to main content

Highlighted passages from Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed

Something of real consequence was happening. We were at the start of a great renaissance of public shaming. After a lull of almost 180 years (public punishments were phased out in 1837 in the United Kingdom and in 1839 in the United States), it was back in a big way. When we deployed shame, we were utilizing an immensely powerful tool. It was coercive, borderless, and increasing in speed and influence. Hierarchies were being leveled out. The silenced were getting a voice. It was like the democratization of justice. And so I made a decision. The next time a great modern shaming unfolded against some significant wrongdoer—the next time citizen justice prevailed in a dramatic and righteous way—I would leap into the middle of it. I’d investigate it close up and chronicle how efficient it was in righting wrongs.

After the interview was over, I staggered out into the London afternoon. I dreaded uploading the footage onto YouTube because I’d been so screechy. I steeled myself for comments mocking my screechiness and I posted it. I left it up for ten minutes. Then, with apprehension, I had a look.

      “This is identity theft,” read the first comment I saw. “They should respect Jon’s personal liberty.”
      Wow, I thought, cautiously.
      “Somebody should make alternate Twitter accounts of all of those ass clowns and constantly post about their strong desire for child porn,” read the next comment.
      I grinned.
      “These people are manipulative assholes,” read the third. “Fuck them. Sue them, break them, destroy them. If I could see these people face to face I would say they are fucking pricks.”
      I was giddy with joy. I was Braveheart, striding through a field, at first alone, and then it becomes clear that hundreds are marching behind me.
      “Vile, disturbing idiots playing with someone else’s life and then laughing at the victim’s hurt and anger,” read the next comment.
      I nodded soberly.
      “Utter hateful arseholes,” read the next. “These fucked up academics deserve to die painfully. The cunt in the middle is a fucking psychopath.”
      I frowned slightly. I hope nobody’s going to actually hurt them, I thought.
      “Gas the cunts. Especially middle cunt. And especially left-side bald cunt. And especially quiet cunt. Then piss on their corpses,” read the next comment.

The common assumption is that public punishments died out in the new great metropolises because they’d been judged useless: Everyone was too busy being industrious to bother to trail some transgressor through the city crowds like a volunteer scarlet letter. But according to the documents I found, that wasn’t it at all. They didn’t fizzle out because they were ineffective. They were stopped because they were far too brutal...

Someone's response to somebody making a joke about dongles nearby (one not directed at her):
    "You felt fear?" I asked.
    "Danger." she said. "Clearly my body was telling me, 'You are unsafe'."

Which was why, she said, she “slowly stood up, rotated from my hips, and took three photos.” She tweeted one, “with a very brief summary of what they said. Then I sent another tweet describing my location. Right? And then the third tweet was the
[conference's] code of conduct.”

    “You talked about danger," I said. "What were you imagining might...?"
    “Have you ever heard that thing, men are afraid that women will laugh at them and women are afraid that men will kill them?” she said.

I told Adria that people might consider that an overblown thing to say. She had, after all, been in the middle of a tech conference with 800 bystanders.

    “Sure,” Adria replied. “And those people would probably be white and they would probably be male.”

This seemed a weak gambit. There is some Latin for this kind of logical fallacy. It’s called an ad hominem attack. When someone can’t defend a criticism against them, they change the subject by attacking the criticiser.

    “Somebody getting fired is pretty bad,” I said. “I know you didn’t call for him to be fired. But you must have felt pretty bad.”

“Not too bad,” she said. She thought more and shook her head decisively. “He’s a white male. I’m a black Jewish female. He was saying things that could be inferred as offensive to me, sitting in front of him... I’ve seen things where people are like, ‘Adria didn’t know what she was doing by tweeting it.’ Yes, I did. Hank’s actions resulted in him getting fired, yet he framed it in a way to blame me. If I had two kids, I wouldn’t tell ‘jokes’”

I am mostly just amazed by how stupid she is. After suffering the worst of the phenomenon, she still thinks shaming is great - still sees herself as an agent of justice: "If I had a spouse and two kids to support I certainly would not be telling ‘jokes’ like he was doing at a conference. Oh but wait, I have compassion, empathy, morals and ethics to guide my daily life choices."

...our imagination is so limited, our arsenal of potential responses so narrow, that the only thing anyone can think to do with an inappropriate shamer like Adria is to punish her with a shaming. All of the shamers had themselves come from a place of shame, and it really felt parochial and self-defeating to instinctively slap shame onto shame like a clumsy builder covering cracks.

If it had previously existed in
[the shamed person’s] bosom a spark of self-respect this exposure to public shame utterly extinguishes it. Without the hope that springs eternal in the human breast, without some desire to reform and become a good citizen, and the feeling that such a thing is possible, no criminal can ever return to honorable courses. The boy of eighteen who is whipped at New Castle [a Delaware whipping post] for larceny is in nine cases out of ten ruined. With his self-respect destroyed and the taunt and sneer of public disgrace branded upon his forehead, he feels himself lost and abandoned by his fellows

in our line of work the more humiliated a person is, the more viral the story tends to go. Shame can factor large in the life of a journalist — the personal avoidance of it and the professional bestowing of it onto others.

Contains one highly original and poignant thought experiment, via a human rights lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith:
“Let me ask you three questions,” he said. “And then you’ll see it my way. Question One: What’s the worst thing that you have ever done to someone? It’s okay. You don’t have to confess it out loud. Question Two: What’s the worst criminal act that has ever been committed against you? Question Three: Which of the two was the most damaging for the victim?”

The worst criminal act that has ever been committed against me was burglary. How damaging was it? Hardly damaging at all. I felt theoretically violated at the idea of a stranger wandering through my house. But I got the insurance money. I was mugged one time. I was eighteen. The man who mugged me was an alcoholic. He saw me coming out of a supermarket. “Give me your alcohol,” he yelled. He punched me in the face, grabbed my groceries, and ran away. There wasn’t any alcohol in my bag. I was upset for a few weeks, but it passed.

And what was the worst thing I had ever done to someone? It was a terrible thing. It was devastating for them. It wasn’t against the law.

Clive’s point was that the criminal justice system is supposed to repair harm, but most prisoners — young, black — have been incarcerated for acts far less emotionally damaging than the injuries we noncriminals perpetrate upon one another all the time — bad husbands, bad wives, ruthless bosses, bullies, bankers.

“The justice system in the West has a lot of problems,” Poe said, “but at least there are rules. You have basic rights as the accused. You have your day in court. You don’t have any rights when you’re accused on the Internet. And the consequences are worse. It’s worldwide forever.”

I, personally, no longer take part in the ecstatic public condemnation of people unless they’ve committed a transgression that has an actual victim... I miss the fun a little. But it feels like when I became a vegetarian. I missed the steak, although not as much as I’d anticipated, but I could no longer ignore the slaughterhouse...

I favour humans over ideology, but right now the ideologues are winning, and they're creating a stage for constant artificial high dramas, where everyone is either a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. We can lead good, ethical lives, but some bad phraseology in a Tweet can overwhelm it all - even though we know that's not how we should define our fellow humans. What's true about our fellow humans is that we are clever and stupid. We are grey areas.

...when you see an unfair or an ambiguous shaming unfold, speak up on behalf of the shamed person. A babble of opposing voices - that's democracy. The great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people. Let's not turn it into a world where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless.