Every week there seems to be a news story circulating featuring people who have brought humiliation on themselves. While the disgraced individuals are occasionally hapless and sympathetic, quite often — like the Oklahoma frat boys and their elderly “frat mom” who recently exposed themselves as bigots when cellphone videos and Vine clips of them gleefully spouting racist bile went viral — they are deserving victims, and a unique kind of gratification attends witnessing their ignominy set in from a safe distance.
Two new books analyze this trend from very different angles: Jon Ronson’s “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” is a breezy and entertaining inquiry into the human costs of social media mortification, while Jennifer Jacquet’s “Is Shame Necessary?” is an earnest call to employ chastisement for the greater good. That both titles have an element of uncertainty to them — Ronson’s “So,” Jacquet’s question mark — seems indicative of the trepidation the specter of Internet opprobrium evokes.
Ronson has described his own writing style as “investigative humorism,” and in this new book he employs it to mixed effect. Many of Ronson’s examples will already be familiar to his readers. He meets with toppled literary wunderkind Jonah Lehrer as well as the playwright and radio presenter Mike Daisey, whose “investigation” into the conditions at Apple’s factories in China was largely fictionalized. He talks to Adria Richards, who shook the tech community by tweeting a photo of two men sitting behind her at a conference as they made sexist comments about what one referred to as “big dongles,” and Justine Sacco, the 30-year-old publicist who also attained notoriety via Twitter with a tone-deaf wisecrack sent before boarding an international flight: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Before she landed she was loathed around the world and out of a job.
A reformed Twitter bully himself, Ronson’s attitude is one of reasonable ambivalence. Public shaming might provide moments of catharsis and self-congratulation, the book seems to argue, but we shouldn’t get too comfortable on our virtual high horses, lest one day we find ourselves being judged by an online mob. Who, after all, hasn’t made a dumb joke or aired an ill-informed opinion?
Ronson tries his best to contextualize and explain the impulse to shame through historical precedents (the Colonial days of whipping posts and branding) and popular psychology (the Stanford prison experiment and “Radical Honesty” workshops), but these forays are ultimately unfulfilling. In the end, Ronson asserts that our urge to punish others has spiraled out of control thanks to technologies that enable us to effortlessly join ill-conceived crusades against total strangers. And yet, however ubiquitous shaming may appear, it doesn’t affect everyone equally — which Ronson’s almost exclusive focus on white middle-class targets obscures.
What’s more, while plenty of individuals are pilloried online and face devastating consequences, few get the high-profile chance at redemption that Sacco and the men Richards confronted for sexism were offered when the New York Times Magazine excerpted a section of “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.” It might seem cruel to second-guess Ronson’s compassion for his subjects, but doing so complicates the story he tells in important ways. That Sacco and Richard’s antagonists were young, fair-skinned professionals — and that many journalists and opinion makers could relate to and empathize with them as a result — is no doubt part of why they have been granted a degree of public absolution. People of color and other minorities, who are disproportionately targeted by virtual hordes, are less likely to have the mainstream media rush to their rescue. As sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom has noted, shaming episodes can be particularly shocking to white people who, accustomed to perceiving themselves as individuals unencumbered by race, suddenly come to personify the “sins of whiteness” the way black people are routinely perceived as representatives of their race.
Ronson repeatedly bumps up against promising insights about the way shaming is inextricably linked to other social problems — like racism, for example — but moves on to the next anecdote instead of digging deeper. He notes in passing, for example, that men who are shamed ultimately fare better than their female counterparts and are more quickly forgiven for their transgressions (consider that Richards lost her job over the Twitter fiasco and had not found a new one by the time Ronson profiled her; the guys she caught making inappropriate comments were also fired but quickly found new gigs). Ronson also smartly acknowledges that social media platforms profit from outrage — viral indignity leads to clicks, and clicks to cash — but doesn’t examine how economic imperatives shape our online experiences of indignation or ask if there may be ways to shift financial incentives away from short-lived scandal toward more meaningful modes of engagement.
In the end, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” is worthwhile despite its flaws; Ronson spins good yarns and asks interesting questions even if he isn’t able to answer them. His skepticism is also welcome, especially when coupled with Jennifer Jacquet’s “Is Shame Necessary?”
The deeper structural social and economic issues Ronson sidesteps are precisely the kinds of problems Jacquet believes shame can be harnessed to solve. Her polemic isn’t completely convincing, but her arguments are backed by interesting research and her moral conviction is refreshing, particularly given how destructive the emotion she analyzes can be.
A professor of environmental studies, Jacquet believes shame is one of the best methods we have to force corporations to cease bad behavior. Unlike guilt, which is individualized, shame has a social dimension. Guilt might make you use a canvas tote bag at the store or recycle the mountain of disposable containers in your kitchen; if properly implemented, shame could cause companies to manufacture less plastic in the first place.
I am sympathetic to Jacquet’s ends, but I have less faith in her means. What she calls shaming is actually bad publicity. Companies, after all, are not human beings; they can’t feel shame.
Stokely Carmichael once observed that nonviolence works only if your adversary has a conscience to appeal to. The same could be said of shaming. Corporations have no intrinsic sense of right or wrong, only the bottom line. The act of shaming doesn’t work if your adversaries are shameless, which is why we need consumers to boycott, workers to strike, and regulators to make meaningful rules.
Taylor is the author of “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age.”
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
Riverhead: 304 pp., $27.95
Is Shame Necessary?
New Uses for an Old Tool
Pantheon: 224 pp., $24