So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed


Jon Ronson

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Good, Evil, and Inhumanity Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Good, Evil, and Inhumanity Theme Icon
Shame and Social Media Theme Icon
Cycles of Shame, Trauma, and Violence Theme Icon
Shame, Freedom of Speech, and Public Discourse Theme Icon
Shame and Gender Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Good, Evil, and Inhumanity Theme Icon

Public shamings in the United States trace back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when people who transgressed against the laws or norms of their communities were publicly punished for their crimes. In writing So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, author Jon Ronson traces how contemporary public internet shamings echo the brutality and inhumanity of public shamings of yore. While conducting research on social media shamings that took place throughout the early 2010s, Ronson found that while the ringleaders of online public shamings earnestly believed they were doing the right thing, they were often behaving more immorally than the people they were trying to punish, as they were instigating devastating online abuse and harassment. Throughout the book, Ronson argues that the evil and inhumanity of online mobs are often even more severe than the perceived transgressions those mobs are trying to rebuke—and that this results in intense human suffering.

Those who participate in contemporary social media shamings often believe they’re doing the right thing by punishing someone whose actions seem to be a moral transgression or a misuse of privilege. Ronson uses the phrase “citizen justice” to describe what people who publicly shame others think they’re doing; they think they’re taking justice into their own hands and righting a wrong. People who participate in public shamings online, according to one Guardian writer, tend to “complacently think of themselves as basically nice.” In other words, people who lead public shamings think they’re doing the right thing and sticking to the side of goodness by leading or participating in a shaming against someone who’s perceived to have transgressed against the status quo. By essentially patting themselves on the back for participating in the destruction of people’s reputations, Ronson suggests, these people are remaining willfully blind to the seriousness of public shamings in relation to the (often minor) transgressions that are being shamed.

As these new public shamings spiral out of control online, those leading the mob often act even more cruelly and brutally than those they’re trying to shame in the first place. Jack Levin, a professor at Northeastern University, asserts that “[when] people get together in a group [they may] commit acts of violence that they would never dream of committing individually.” In other words, Levin believes that collective action—while a powerful tool of solidarity and social justice—can sometimes be dangerous online due to the anonymity the internet offers, which can allow people to behave in ways they normally wouldn’t. Ronson shows how online punishment can often be worse than the initial transgression by telling the story of Lindsey Stone. A warm and bubbly young woman, Stone was shamed online for taking an insensitive picture in which she flipped off a sign at Arlington Cemetery calling for “SILENCE AND RESPECT.” As a result of her online shaming, she lost her job and suffered such debilitating trauma and paranoia that she didn’t leave the house for almost a year. “I wanted to scream, ‘It was just about a sign,’” Lindsey told Ronson. While her picture might have been disrespectful, the threats she received and the invasion of her and her family’s privacy (news crews repeatedly showed up to her doorstep, harassed her parents, and painted a public portrait of the Stones as “hillbillies”) were far worse than what she did.

The intense human suffering that these public shamings create can be hard for shamers to recognize, but Ronson asserts that people who participate in online mobs must recognize the consequences of their actions. In December of 2013, PR executive Justine Sacco tweeted a tasteless joke that went viral. As a result, she became the target of an online shaming mob comprised of millions of Twitter users. She lost her job and endured “the darkest time in [her] life” as a result of the relentless shaming. Listening to Sacco’s story caused Ronson to realize that “it was decent, smart people who tore Justine apart”—it turned out a fellow journalist had started Sacco’s shaming. Someone who wanted to call out an offensive statement—on its own, a noble goal—got carried away. And in the process, they perpetrated an even worse wrong than the one they set out to right. When the flame starts “burning too hot,” Ronson suggests, it’s important for people to take a step back and examine why they’re piling on, adding their voice to a mob that’s seeking to derail a person’s life. Remembering the shared humanity of everyone involved in a public shaming—whether it’s the person being shamed or the faceless online accounts participating in the “free-for-all”—is the key to putting out the fires of public shamings.

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Good, Evil, and Inhumanity Quotes in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

Below you will find the important quotes in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed related to the theme of Good, Evil, and Inhumanity.
Chapter 1 Quotes

I won. Within days, the academics took down @Jon_Ronson. They had been shamed into acquiescence. Their public shaming had been like the button that restores factory settings. Something was out of kilter. The community rallied. The balance was redressed.

Related Characters: Jon Ronson (speaker), Luke Robert Mason
Related Symbols: Twitter
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

We were at the start of a great renaissance of public shaming. After a lull of almost 180 years […], 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.

Related Characters: Jon Ronson (speaker)
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2 Quotes

We all have ticking away within us something we fear will badly harm our reputation if it got out—some “I’m glad I’m not that” at the end of an “I’m glad I’m not me.” […] Maybe our secret is actually nothing horrendous. Maybe nobody would even consider it a big deal if it was exposed. But we can’t take that risk. So we keep it buried.

Related Characters: Jon Ronson (speaker), Jonah Lehrer, Michael Moynihan
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

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 some volunteer scarlet letter. But at the archives I found no evidence that public shaming fell out of fashion as a result of newfound anonymity. I did, however, find plenty of people from centuries past bemoaning its outsized cruelty, warning that well-meaning people, in a crowd, often take it too far. […] They were stopped because they were far too brutal.

Related Characters: Jon Ronson (speaker)
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

It didn’t seem to be crossing any of our minds to wonder whether the person we had just shamed was okay or in ruins. I suppose that when shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be.

Related Characters: Jon Ronson (speaker)
Related Symbols: Twitter
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

A life had been ruined. What was it for: just some social media drama? I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people. What rush was overpowering us at times like this? What were we getting out of it?

Related Characters: Jon Ronson (speaker), Justine Sacco
Related Symbols: Twitter
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

All these people had […] come together spontaneously, without leadership. I wasn’t one of them. But I’d piled on plenty of people like Justine. I’d been beguiled by the new technology—a toddler crawling toward a gun. Just like with Dave Eshelman, it was the desire to do something good that had propelled me. Which was definitely a better thing to be propelled by than group madness. But my desire had taken a lot of scalps—I’d torn apart a lot of people I couldn’t now remember—which made me suspect that it was coming from some very weird dark well, some place I really didn't want to think about.

Related Characters: Jon Ronson (speaker), Dave Eshelman, Justine Sacco
Related Symbols: Twitter
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

It seemed to me that all the people involved in the Hank and Adria story thought they were doing something good. But they only revealed that 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.

Related Characters: Jon Ronson (speaker), Hank, Adria Richards
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7 Quotes

I received an interesting e-mail from Max Mosley. Like me, he’d been thinking a lot about what it was about him that had helped him to stave off even the most modest public shaming. And now, he wrote, he thought he had the answer. It was simply that he had refused to feel ashamed.

“As soon as the victim steps out of the pact by refusing to feel ashamed,” he said, “the whole thing crumbles.”

Related Characters: Jon Ronson (speaker), Max Mosley (speaker)
Page Number: 156
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 8 Quotes

Almost none of the murderous fantasies were dreamed up in response to actual danger—stalker ex-boyfriends, etc. They were all about the horror of humiliation. Brad Blanton was right. Shame internalized can lead to agony. It can lead to Jonah Lehrer. Whereas shame let out can lead to freedom, or at least to a funny story, which is a sort of freedom too.

Related Characters: Jon Ronson (speaker), Brad Blanton, Jonah Lehrer
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 9 Quotes

Inside Court One of the Biddeford District Courthouse half a dozen of the men from the Zumba list sat on the benches, staring grimly ahead while news crews pointed their cameras at them. We in the press area were allowed to stare at them and they weren’t able to look away. It reminded me of how Nathaniel Hawthorne had described the pillory in The Scarlet Letter: “[An] instrument of discipline, so fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp, and thus hold it up to public gaze. The very ideal of ignominy was embodied and made manifest in this contrivance of wood and iron. There can be no outrage, methinks . . . more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame.”

Related Characters: Jon Ronson (speaker)
Page Number: 179-180
Explanation and Analysis:

As it happens, Max’s and Andrew’s sins would in Puritan times have been judged graver than Jonah’s. Jonah, “guilty of lying or publishing false news,” would have been “fined, placed in the stocks for a period not exceeding four hours, or publicly whipped with not more than forty stripes,” according to Delaware law. Whereas Max and Andrew, having “defiled the marriage bed,” would have been publicly whipped (no maximum number was specified), imprisoned with hard labor for at least a year, and on a second offense, imprisoned for life.

But the shifting sands of shameworthiness had shifted away from sex scandals—if you’re a man—to work improprieties and perceived white privilege, and I suddenly understood the real reason why Max had survived his shaming. Nobody cared.

Related Characters: Jon Ronson (speaker), Max Mosley, Andrew Ferreira, Jonah Lehrer, Alexis Wright
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10 Quotes

I think she still felt ashamed, but maybe not quite so much. Instead, she said, she felt humiliated.

Related Characters: Jon Ronson (speaker), Justine Sacco
Page Number: 203
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 11 Quotes

“Literally, overnight everything I knew and loved was gone,” Lindsey said.

And that's when she fell into a depression, became an insomniac, and barely left home for a year.

Related Characters: Lindsey Stone (speaker), Jon Ronson (speaker), Justine Sacco
Page Number: 210
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

I thought about Justine Sacco. How many of the people piling on her had been emotionally damaged by what they had read? As far as I could tell, only one person was damaged in that pile-on.

Related Characters: Jon Ronson (speaker), Justine Sacco, Lindsey Stone
Page Number: 228-229
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 13 Quotes

“Universal among the violent criminals was the fact that they were keeping a secret,” Gilligan wrote. “A central secret. And that secret was that they felt ashamed—deeply ashamed, chronically ashamed, acutely ashamed.” It was shame, every time. “I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed or humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed.”

Related Characters: James Gilligan (speaker), Jon Ronson (speaker)
Page Number: 247
Explanation and Analysis:

“Normal prison is punishment in the worst sense,” Jim told me. “It’s like a soul-bleeding. Day in, day out, people find themselves doing virtually nothing in a very negative environment.”

I thought of Lindsey Stone, just sitting at her kitchen table for almost a year, staring at the online shamings of people just like her.

“People move away from themselves,” Jim said. “Inmates tell me time and again that they feel themselves shutting down, building a wall.”

Related Characters: Jim McGreevey (speaker), Jon Ronson (speaker), Lindsey Stone
Page Number: 254
Explanation and Analysis:

Six months later. Three people sat together in the council chamber at Newark City Hall: Jim, Raquel, and I.

Jim had intervened. The prosecutors were persuaded that Raquel was a victim of an “abuse cycle.” And so instead of twenty years she served four more months and then they let her go.

Related Characters: Jon Ronson (speaker), Jim McGreevey, Raquel
Page Number: 259
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 14 Quotes

But the Stasi didn’t only inflict physical horror. Their main endeavor was to create the most elaborate surveillance network in world history. It didn’t seem unreasonable to scrutinize this aspect of them in the hope it might teach us something about our own social media surveillance network.

Related Characters: Jon Ronson (speaker)
Page Number: 269
Explanation and Analysis:

Social media gives a voice to voiceless people—its egalitarianism is its greatest quality. But I was struck by a report […] that had been written by a Stasi psychologist tasked with trying to understand why they were attracting so many willing informants. His conclusion: “It was an impulse to make sure your neighbor was doing the right thing.”

Related Characters: Jon Ronson (speaker)
Related Symbols: Twitter
Page Number: 271
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 15 Quotes

We have always had some influence over the justice system, but for the first time in 180 years—since the stocks and the pillory were outlawed—we have the power to determine the severity of some punishments. And so we have to think about what level of mercilessness we feel comfortable with. I, personally, no longer take part in the ecstatic public condemnation of people unless they've committed a transgression that has an actual victim, and even then not as much as I probably should. I miss the fun a little. But it feels like when I became a vegetarian. I missed the steak, […] but I could no longer ignore the slaughterhouse.

Related Characters: Jon Ronson (speaker)
Page Number: 275
Explanation and Analysis:

Feedback loops. You exhibit some type of behavior (you drive at twenty-seven miles per hour in a twenty-five-mile-per-hour zone). You get instant real-time feedback for it (the sign tells you you're driving at twenty-seven miles per hour). You change your behavior as a result of the feedback (you lower your speed to twenty-five miles per hour). You get instant feedback for that decision, too (the sign tells you you're driving at twenty-five miles per hour now. Some signs flash up a smiley-face emoticon to congratulate you).

Related Characters: Jon Ronson (speaker)
Page Number: 279
Explanation and Analysis:

[Feedback loops are] turning social media into “a giant echo chamber where what we believe is constantly reinforced by people who believe the same thing.”

We express our opinion that Justine Sacco is a monster. We are instantly congratulated for this […]. We make the on-the-spot decision to carry on believing it.

“The tech-utopians […] present this as a new kind of democracy,” [my friend wrote]. “It isn’t. It’s the opposite. It locks people off in the world they started with and prevents them from finding out anything different.”

Related Characters: Jon Ronson (speaker), Justine Sacco
Related Symbols: Twitter
Page Number: 280
Explanation and Analysis:
Afterword Quotes

If anyone should change their behavior, I thought, it ought to be those doing the shaming. Justine’s crime had been a badly worded joke mocking privilege. To see the catastrophe as her fault felt, to me, a little like “Don’t wear short skirts.” It felt like victim-blaming.

“The essay might be a turning-point,” wrote Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. “Twitter-shaming allows people who complacently think of themselves as basically nice to indulge in the dark thrill of bullying—in a righteous cause. Perhaps Ronson’s article will cause a questioning of Twitter’s instant-Salem culture of shame.”

People were realizing […] that what happened to Justine wasn’t social justice. It was a “cathartic alternative.”

Related Characters: Jon Ronson (speaker), Justine Sacco
Related Symbols: Twitter
Page Number: 284
Explanation and Analysis:

Using social media to distribute […] videos [of police brutality] was a world away from calling a woman who’d just been in a train crash a privileged bitch because she wanted her violin to be okay. One act was powerful and important—using social media to create a new civil rights battlefield. The other was a pointless and nasty cathartic alternative. Given that we are the ones with the power, it is incumbent upon us to recognize the difference.

Related Characters: Jon Ronson (speaker)
Page Number: 309
Explanation and Analysis:

What’s true about our fellow humans is that we are clever and stupid. We are gray areas.

And so, unpleasant as it will surely be for you, 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.

Related Characters: Jon Ronson (speaker)
Page Number: 310
Explanation and Analysis: