Jon Ronson believes that human beings, as a rule, are living, breathing “gray areas.” In other words, Ronson feels that no one is perfect, and that everyone is constantly in the process of trying new things, exploring different kinds of views, making mistakes, and figuring out new things about themselves and others. Public discourse, Ronson believes, should reflect the messiness of the human experience. But social media’s instantaneous and frequently text-based nature tends to flatten nuanced discourse. As a journalist, Ronson is perturbed by this development. And he’s even more worried that the fear of being publicly shamed or widely misunderstood has made many people feel less free to speak up about their beliefs publicly—especially in situations of moral uncertainty. Over the course of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Ronson suggests that if people don’t find a way to eradicate feelings of shame from their lives and resist the pressures of public shamings, humanity as a whole will gradually become more and more flattened, timid, and “voiceless.”
Since social media rewards constant engagement and pithy, confident responses, Ronson believes that communicating via social media will inherently lack nuance. When someone is using the internet, they’re able to get “instant real-time feedback” on their behavior. So when someone begins a social media shaming and others quickly join the attack, those joining in receive positive feedback for their opinions, which propels their behavior and encourages others to pile on. Ronson himself admits to being “beguiled by the new technology” of the internet and participating in many, many social media pile-ons—more, he honestly reports, than he can remember. Ronson denies that the internet creates a “contagion” that spreads from person to person, as some psychological experts have suggested (akin to the phenomenon that makes some riots spin out of control). Instead, Ronson thinks it’s that social media’s remote nature enables people to do and say things virtually in the heat of the moment that they might not do face-to-face. All of this is an issue in Ronson’s view, because complicated issues discussed on public platforms require measured, considered responses that take into account the messiness and moral complexity of the human condition. When social media shamings start to spin out of control, the internet becomes an “echo chamber where what we believe is constantly reinforced by people who believe the same thing.”
As a result of this, people may be more afraid than ever to speak up about complex issues; it doesn’t make sense to weigh in if a poorly-worded tweet or a single bad take could possibly destroy their lives. The internet, in Ronson’s view, isn’t really the “new kind of democracy” that people sometimes claim. In a true democracy, everyone’s voice is equal—but on the internet, pieces of information or opinions that challenge the favored discourse “get squeezed out.” Anyone who presents an opinion that differs from the status quo creates a “furious” reaction, and others seek to “eject” that opinion and “regain stability.” This, Ronson asserts, is why social media pile-ons become so dangerous and uniform so quickly. When the internet decides to rally against a transgressor like Justine Sacco or Jonah Lehrer, anyone who sticks up for the shamed person becomes a “destabilizing fragment” that needs to be removed from the discourse. And when dissenters see what’s being done to the person they’re defending, the “tidal wave of negative feedback” can easily cow them into recanting and moving towards an opinion that’s safer to espouse but perhaps not truly their own.
Ronson’s solution is for people to refuse to give into shame—only then will people find the confidence and strength to use their voices proudly and productively. To change the norm whereby “some bad phraseology in a tweet” can topple a person’s life, people must start treating the internet as a collection of humans. “We are gray areas,” Ronson says, and because of that, he believes that people should accept that the internet was made to be a cacophony of differing opinions—good, bad, and in-between. To Ronson, a great aspect of the internet was that it “gave a voice to voiceless people”—it allowed people all over the world to connect with others and make their voices heard. But online discourse has gotten to a place that disincentivizes people from sharing their authentic selves online and instead encourages them to focus only on remaining un-shameable in order to “survive.” To Ronson, this is akin to people becoming voiceless again. Ronson admires people like Max Mosley, the British socialite who refused to let himself feel shame after a large newspaper tried to expose his sexual fetishes. By simply ignoring the pressure to feel shame, Mosley toppled the internet’s shame economy. If more people resist feeling shame themselves—and “speak up on behalf of the shamed” more often—people can, together, take away the internet’s power to make people voiceless.
Shame, Freedom of Speech, and Public Discourse ThemeTracker
Shame, Freedom of Speech, and Public Discourse Quotes in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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).
[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.”
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.”
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.
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.