Ronson recalls going hiking in Runyon Canyon with Jonah Lehrer, who insisted that he did not belong in Ronson’s book. Lehrer claimed that Americans only liked reading about tragedies with happy endings—and that his story was thus unfit for Ronson’s book. In that moment, Ronson felt deeply for Lehrer—he could tell that Lehrer was suffering terribly. “The shaming process is fucking brutal,” Lehrer had written in an email to Ronson prior to their hike. At only 31, Lehrer believed he was staring down a “lifetime of ruin.” Ronson, however, still believed Lehrer could find a way back into the public’s good graces.
Lehrer conceives of his own story as a tragedy, as he sees himself as a casualty of an inhumane public shaming. One thing that Ronson repeatedly points out in his book, though, is that women who are the victims of public shamings are often treated worse than men and often have fewer opportunities to publicly redeem themselves. Perhaps Ronson’s confidence that Lehrer can work his way back into public favor has to do not only with his youth and talent, but also with his gender—as a man, he might be forgiven more easily.
A former Rhodes Scholar, Lehrer published his first book on neuroscience when he was still very young. He wrote books and essays, and he earned a lot of money as a popular public speaker. In 2012, he made a much-anticipated career move by joining the staff of The New Yorker. But weeks after taking the job, Moynihan’s article broke—and Lehrer resigned. His publisher withdrew and destroyed every copy of Imagine still in circulation, offering refunds to readers. The internet was suddenly abuzz with commenters who excoriated Lehrer’s work. Investigations into columns he’d written for magazines like Wired revealed ongoing instances of journalistic malfeasance. Moynihan was relieved to find that there was more corruption in Lehrer’s career than even he had realized.
By showing how illustrious Jonah Lehrer’s career was before his public shaming, the book calls attention to the devastation of Lehrer’s fall from grace. But the book is not simply calling attention to the devastating effect that this shaming had on Lehrer’s life—it’s also taking seriously the transgression that earned the shaming. As it turns out, Moynihan’s article was only the tip of the iceberg, as online sleuths found many more instances of plagiarism in his old articles. This makes Moynihan’s shaming a grey area—his career wasn’t ruined for a single tasteless joke or even a single instance of plagiarism, but rather for a pattern of professional malfeasance that affects a reader’s ability to trust his writing, which arguably justifies his loss of a job.
Lehrer essentially disappeared after his shaming, abandoning his Twitter presence and ignoring interview requests. Ronson was surprised when Lehrer agreed to speak with him—and he was amused when the two selected a desert canyon as their interview site, since Lehrer’s punishment was indeed “biblical.” After their hike, on the way back to Ronson’s hotel, Lehrer told Ronson that he was planning to make a public apology at a luncheon held by the Knight Foundation—a fund for young journalists. Lehrer asked Ronson to look over his statement, and Ronson agreed to do so.
By calling attention to the “biblical” nature of Lehrer’s punishment—implicitly comparing Lehrer to the Israelites wandering the desert in exile in the Book of Exodus—Ronson suggests the intensity of Lehrer’s suffering. But in this moment, Lehrer is already plotting his comeback, and breaking his exile to speak with Ronson is part of that. Ronson is doing a bit of a tightrope walk here as a journalist, since he wants to understand Lehrer’s suffering, which requires speaking with Lehrer, but Lehrer has seemingly agreed to speak with Ronson in part to help rehabilitate his ruined image. So now Ronson is an inextricable part of the story.
On the plane home from Los Angeles, Ronson read the introduction to Lehrer’s surprisingly stark and contrite speech. But he was surprised to find that the speech quickly pivoted away from shame as Lehrer compared himself to “imperfect” forensic scientists who find themselves swayed by confirmation bias—people who are “victims of their hidden brain[s].” Lehrer vowed that, should he return to journalism, he would hold himself to high standards and submit to rigorous fact-checking at every step of the writing process; he had laid out the “happy ending” he felt America wanted. Ronson, though, felt Lehrer’s speech was evasive.
Even though Lehrer’s speech revealed his desperation to rehabilitate his image and right his wrongs, Ronson also found that the speech sought to minimize and excuse his journalistic malfeasance. By claiming that he was merely an “imperfect” person or even a “victim,” Lehrer was trying to imply that he wasn’t deserving of the shaming he’d been through. Ronson is often sympathetic to that notion with other victims of public shamings, but it’s more complicated with Lehrer whose malfeasance was a pattern of behavior across his whole career and whose transgression directly affected his ability to do his job (as he has lost the trust of readers). In this case, it’s not clear that Lehrer is a victim—perhaps the vitriolic nature of the public’s reaction was excessively cruel, but the professional consequences he faced are arguably fair.
Lehrer denied Ronson’s request to accompany him to Miami to give the address at the luncheon, so Ronson watched a livestream. The Knight Foundation had placed a large screen behind Lehrer that displayed a live Twitter feed of users’ real-time opinions of Lehrer’s speech as they rolled in. For the first part of Lehrer’s speech, the tweets coming in were supportive and encouraging—but as he turned to the forensic science metaphor, the tweets became angry and vitriolic. Many accused Lehrer of being a sociopath or a narcissist.
Lehrer’s speech at the Knight foundation constituted yet another public shaming—and this time, everyone could watch in real time as the internet mob turned against Lehrer and began intensely shaming him yet again. Lehrer’s speech was too transparently aimed at shifting blame away from him and rehabilitating his image—and the public did not respond kindly. Lehrer’s real-time public shaming illustrates how swiftly and irrevocably the tide of public opinion can turn.
Lehrer “was perceived to have misused his privilege,” and the internet was responding accordingly. Some tweets called for the internet to stop kicking Lehrer when he was down, but just as quickly, other tweets began to expose that Lehrer had been paid $20,000 to appear at the luncheon. Later that day, Lehrer would email Ronson to complain that he was filled with regret and that he felt nothing could turn his career around.
This is one of the first moments in the book in which Ronson makes the connection between public shamings and misusing privilege. Throughout the book, Ronson will continue to explore why privileged individuals who live life in the public eye are often so brutally, forcefully, and swiftly taken down through social media shamings—many people are ready to pounce when privileged people appear to misuse their privilege.
Moynihan, too, told Ronson he felt that Lehrer’s apology was halfhearted, as if Lehrer were on “autopilot.” But Ronson could sense some bitterness coming from Moynihan—he’d been paid very little for his exposé of Lehrer, and now, many other writers and journalists were a little bit afraid of him. He was seen as the head of a “pitchfork mob,” even though he’d never intended to take Lehrer down. But the mob had taken up their weapons nonetheless—and now, in Ronson’s view, everyone on the internet had cast themselves as a “hanging judge” in Lehrer’s imaginary public trial.
This passage shows how the consequences of a public shaming are often not straightforward. Lehrer certainly suffered at the hands of the public, but Moynihan did too, as he was paid much less to expose Lehrer than Lehrer himself was paid to try to apologize and, besides, others assumed that Moynihan was cruel, which affected him personally and professionally. It seems that Moynihan has mixed feelings about exposing Lehrer, as he still finds Lehrer a bit insincere and seems perhaps jealous of Lehrer’s financial success, which might make him grateful for Lehrer’s shaming, but it seems that Moynihan also feels shame about provoking a mob. Moynihan’s exposé spiraled out of control into an all-out assault on Lehrer’s career and livelihood—and while Moynihan might not have been responsible for the brutality Lehrer endured, he did arm the public with the information they needed to become their own “judge[s]” in Lehrer’s metaphorical extrajudicial “hanging.”
Ronson traveled to Boston to visit the Massachusetts Archives and the Massachusetts Historical Society, hoping to explore the origins of public shamings in the U.S. and why they’d ended. As he combed through centuries-old documents, he found records of a woman who was to be whipped alongside her lover for having an extramarital affair. She petitioned the judge to carry out her punishment early in the morning, before her neighbors were awake. Ronson began to think more deeply about the contemporary “shaming process” versus the public punishments of yore.
When Lehrer previously used the word “process” to describe his public shaming, it triggered Ronson’s curiosity, which led him to investigate how public shamings did in fact originate as legal processes. While contemporary public shamings do still follow certain patterns, Ronson had a feeling that the contemporary “process” (which is not a defined or orderly process at all) was very different from what it had once been.
Ronson found that public shaming used to be an intricate process, with particular punishments meted out for certain crimes. The details of these public punishments—whippings, hangings, and more—were often published in local newspapers in extreme detail. Ronson had assumed that public punishments fizzled out because, as more people moved to cities, there was more anonymity and less interest. Instead, he found that they’d stopped because they became “too brutal,” and high-profile officials began calling for an end to public brutality.
While many people might like to think that human society has moved past the brutality of punishments that were doled out hundreds of years ago, Ronson is laying the groundwork to argue that, in fact, people recognized generations ago that public shaming was a particularly inhumane form of punishment and banned it as a result.
Realizing that Jonah Lehrer had been subjected to something that would’ve been considered “appalling” centuries ago, Ronson started to wonder whether Twitter had become a kind of “kangaroo court.” But one of Ronson’s followers pointed out that courts can impose sentences—Twitter can only offer commentary. Still, remotely-administered shamings seemed even more intense to Ronson—no one meting out the “commentary” considered how powerful the collective could be.
By showing that contemporary social media shamings are, in some ways, even more out of control, unpredictable, and destructive than the brutal and humiliating shamings of yore, Ronson reminds his readers that modern-day society is not necessarily more humane than the societies of days gone by. Social media shamings are even more inhumane than public whippings in some ways, because technology has made it possible for shamings to involve millions upon millions of rageful, highly focused individuals.
Ronson reached out to Lehrer again, and Lehrer consented to a lengthier interview. He admitted that it was a mistake to take the payment that the Knight Foundation offered him—but that having been unable to make any income as a journalist for months, he was growing desperate. Lehrer pointed out an article about him that had called him a “sociopath,” and—knowing Ronson had written a book about psychopathy years ago—he asked Ronson if he fit the bill. But Ronson knew Lehrer wasn’t one, and he suspected that Lehrer knew it, too, and was just fishing for pity.
Lehrer wasn’t a sociopath—a fact that both he and Ronson already knew. After all, Lehrer seems acutely able to feel shame, which no psychopath would be capable of doing. But it’s still notable that so many people online called him one, implying that he was devoid of the capacity to feel and express emotion. This begins to make a connection between the perception of being remorseless and the intensity of public shaming—people seem to want to shame someone more if they’re not reacting to a shaming in the way that the mob desires.
Lehrer told Ronson he recalled shutting down emotionally as critical tweets began pouring in on the screens around him—and his flat affect only allowed the audience to see him even more as some kind of “monster immune to shame.” Ronson admitted that what had happened to Lehrer was his own “worst nightmare.”
The tweets critical of Lehrer’s demeanor were mostly about the internet’s perception that he wasn’t adequately ashamed—or was perhaps even unable to feel shame at all. But Lehrer makes clear that actually what happened was the opposite; he was so ashamed when all the critical tweets started appearing, and this made him shut down emotionally in order to get through his speech. This created a horrible feedback loop whereby the less emotion Lehrer showed, the more he was shamed, and the less he was able to feel.
Four months later, Lehrer’s agent Andrew Wylie began shopping a new book proposal of Lehrer’s to publishers. Its title was A Book About Love—and, among other things, it discussed Lehrer’s recent public shaming. But when the proposal leaked, journalists began fact-checking and proofreading it, and they found even more evidence of plagiarism, erroneous facts, and recycled language from other projects. Still, the book was picked up for publication.
Even though Ronson expresses a lot of sympathy for Lehrer throughout this chapter, this passage shows that Lehrer perhaps didn’t really learn his lesson as a result of his repeated public shamings. So while public shamings do create emotional turmoil, numbness, and embarrassment, this passage suggests that they’re not necessarily effective in terms of rectifying bad behavior. And if public shamings aren’t doing much public good or righting wrongs—when that seems to be the reason they were designed in the first place, centuries ago—then it raises the question of why they keep happening.