Monday, December 29, 2014

So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (2014)

Christmas is a stressful, tension-filled time of year for me. I hate the crowds, I hate all the socialising I have to do and I hate the pressure that comes with the compulsory annual gift-giving to people you only speak to five times a year. That said, once the horror of Christmas passes, then the nicest week of the year arrives - the time between Christmas and New Years. Lots of people are off work so the streets are empty. Everyone's all fed up with mass gatherings so nights out tend to only be with small groups (my favourite type of gatherings!). The weather's usually not too hot but also not too cold and the days are perfect for one of my favourite pastimes...reading a book! True to form, this year I have read two books in this week and they were both absolute crackers.

The first is the one I'm talking about today - So You've Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson (every time I type this I put in a "h". Why not John? Apologies in advance if I miss one in this piece). I'd heard of Ronson because of two of his previous books: The Men Who Stare at Goats (adapted into a fairly average film starring George Clooney) and The Psychopath Test: A  Journey Through the Madness Industry. While I liked the ideas of these books, I'd never actually got around to reading them and (honestly) I probably wouldn't have ever read a Ronson book unless prompted, which I was this year when I received his most recent one. It is an interesting book and a great holiday read - not too heavy but not too fluffy either. Let me explain.

In 2012, Jon Ronson's online identity was kind of stolen when a bunch of academics created a bot on twitter (@Jon_Ronson) that tweeted like someone who was a crazy, fusion-food dildo-owning inspired version of Jon. His friends started following that account and Ronson got increasingly upset by it. In an filmed interview with the academics, he pleaded with them to take down the bot. They refused. The interview that was later uploaded to YouTube and the comments vociferously, even violently, condemned the academics' actions. Effectively, the internet shamed them into discontinuing their work and discontinuing the bot; they took down @Jon_Ronson soon after. Ronson was pleased to be part of what he saw as right being done (as he says, "Strangers all over the world had united to tell me I was right.) He then noticed that what happened to him was part of a wave of public shamings: the author of a homophobic Daily Mail article was punished; a fitness company was forced to change their policy when they were shamed after refusing to let an unemployed couple cancel their gym membership. Ronson hypothesised that, after a lull of 180 years, we were at the start of a great renaissance of public shaming. He vowed to investigate the next public modern shaming, to "investigate it close up and chronicle how efficient it was in righting wrongs."

This book recounts that journey and the answer is both not very and very very good. Ronson looks at examples like Jonah Lehrer, who I wasn't aware of but who had been very publicly shamed for self-plagiarism and using fake quotes in his books. While it's possible to argue that Lehrer was justly exposed for years worth of deceitful behaviour, Ronson also looks at other situations where an off-colour or inappropriate joke was (rightly) deemed to be offensive but where the public shaming was vicious and almost destroyed the lives of those who were shamed (examples include Justine Sacco, who sent off a racist tweet before getting on an eight-hour flight, only to be met at her destination by someone to escort of her off the plane, her tweet having caused a really disturbing Twitter frenzy of people all around the world waiting for her flight to land to see her publicly berated, and Linsey Stone, who was fired after posting a photo on Facebook of her mock-disrespecting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier). While Ronson notes that yes, their actions were inappropriate, the result of the shaming was catastrophic; at the time of writing the book Sacco is still unemployed and Stone was unable to leave her house for a year.

Public shamings were phased out not, as Ronson assumes, because people were moving from towns to the city, but they were deemed too brutal to continue. After reading about the effects of public shamings today, I, like Ronson, will not participate in one again. This was a very interesting book: 4 stars.

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