Loaned to me with a strong recommendation, Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed was not a book that originally appealed to me. I’m not on Twitter, I don’t pitch into online all-in public shamings, and I don’t see how a book about it can be funny. But actually Ronson is an intelligent, sensitive and self-aware reporter, and has written a well-researched, deeply interesting, and, yes, humourous book.
Prompted by personal experiences, Ronson one day stepped back and noticed a new great renaissance of public shaming sweeping the internet. At first, he was part of it, the great democratisation of voices, giving everyone an equal platform, allowing justice to occur where the law lets us down. But all those little voices adding up created a new, very loud, very large majority, and how they were beginning to use it seemed to unsettle him.
The way he writes makes this book as much about the process of writing as it is about the subject. We are taken on the journey of investigation with Ronson; he shares his lightbulbs and doubts and dead-ends. It is subtly argued – sometimes it is not clear the end result of what he is actually arguing – very funny, but very serious. His curiosity serves him well as he travels the world to speak with people who have the subject of high-profile online shaming, with those who have done the shaming (judges; 4chan members), and investigates historical, judicial and psychological reasons and repercussions for this behaviour.
Ronson’s personal fears and insecurities are apparent, but he presents a lot of this story seemingly without judgement. He is almost Louis Theroux– or John Safran-like to be able to delve into the darker, harder aspects of a subject without presupposition clouding investigations. Ronson is articulate but almost directionless, as it is his subjects themselves who lead him to consider victim blaming, misogyny, and how the apology requires the cooperation of those it is directed too. He covers what feels like a complete spectrum around this subject of public shaming but afterwards I felt dirty, and a little insecure. Maybe it’s because these public shamers and shamees are all just people, and it could be me next time. Or maybe it’s because while I don’t join in public shaming, I don’t shout in protest either, enabling behaviour that I find concerning. Even more uncomfortably, perhaps it is because I sometimes agree with these hasty, black and white judgements made on minor, publicly exposed mistakes.
Empathy as the cure for shame is only incidentally uncovered by Ronson in his new final chapter in this re-issue edition. He is a journalist, not a self-help writer, but it seems striking to me that someone who is so curious about this subject, its causes and repercussions that he doesn’t explore the antidote. That’s ok, but it undersells the power of the prescription.
I was surprised at how bewitching and compelling this book is. It’s funny, thorough, and created great feelings of both fear and empathy in me. After reading this book I’m going to remain not on Twitter, but So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is bigger than that: it’s about humanity and punishment, how it evolves, it’s shifting volume and implications. It’s a fascinating read.