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Jon Ronson on public shaming in the social media age

Jon Ronson, author of

Jon Ronson, author of "So You've Been Publicly Shamed" (Riverhead, March 2015). Credit: Emli Bendixen

SO YOU'VE BEEN PUBLICLY SHAMED, by Jon Ronson. Riverhead, 290 pp., $27.95.

It has never been easier to know what more people in more places are saying about more topics. Thanks to social media, you can find out what a teenage girl in Oklahoma thinks about Ferguson, and what Joyce Carol Oates thinks about street harassment. Any given person will find some of these dispatches edifying and correct. But many of them will be annoying, wrongheaded, or downright offensive. Welcome to the era of outrage.

We no longer flog offenders in the public square. But we have ways of making them suffer. And what happens to the targets after the outraged mob has moved on? Journalist Jon Ronson's juicy new book, "So You've Been Publicly Shamed," follows up on some of the best-known recent cases of online opprobrium. Along the way, he meditates on social media (mostly Twitter), political correctness, sex scandals, apologies, punishment and forgiveness.

Ronson's biggest "get" is the disgraced pop-science journalist Jonah Lehrer, whose career imploded spectacularly in 2012 when he was caught inventing quotes and "self-plagiarizing." Several years later, Lehrer sounds genuinely broken by his experience. He tells Ronson, "If a conscience is living in a world defined by regrets, then, yeah, I've got a conscience." Then again, he also has a new book deal. (In the acknowledgments, Ronson says Lehrer later tried to retract one of their most significant conversations. Ronson printed it anyway on the grounds that "his experience was too vital and too public" to omit.)

Then there's monologuist Mike Daisey, who lied to "This American Life" fact-checkers about his too-bad-to-be-true observations at Apple manufacturing plants in China. In a later interview, Daisey infamously told host Ira Glass that his story was true "in a theatrical context." Ronson finds Daisey not only unapologetic, but grandiosely so. Daisey says he knew his lies would be exposed when he agreed to the initial episode, but he calculated that it was worth it because the cause was just that important. "Nobody wants to hear that I am actually a heroic crusader and that I sacrificed myself," he tells Ronson, "But that is, actually, the narrative." This "narrative" may be physically difficult to read for those prone to eye-rolling.

Not all of Ronson's shamees are unsympathetic, however. He meets up with Justine Sacco, a New York PR executive who infamously tweeted a crass joke about AIDS before boarding an 11-hour flight to South Africa. By the time she landed she had become a worldwide target of mockery and was on her way to being fired. "I'm not fine," she tells Ronson. There's Lindsey Stone, whose bad judgment in posting a jokey Facebook photo depicting her flipping the bird at Arlington National Cemetery earned her the seemingly inexhaustible ire of ultrapatriotic types. She, too, was fired.

For those who followed many of these kerfuffles as they played out online, this book will be an irresistibly gossipy cocktail with a chaser of guilt. Ronson endures a hilariously disastrous anti-shame group therapy session, cheerfully lurks around a porn set to explore why some people enjoy humiliation, and connects Stone with a reputation-management firm in an attempt to clear her name. And he ruminates with real compassion on the effect of all this shame on the souls of all participants, including those of us who tweet blithe condemnations and then move on without a second thought.

Unfortunately, Ronson's book never really grapples with the fact that Lehrer's and Daisey's sins are of a much different character than those committed by Sacco and Stone. The latter were shamed for making clumsy one-off jokes of the sort that never would have had such dire consequences even a decade ago. It's worth thinking seriously about how the online mob has punished them so harshly for a fleeting moment of dumb judgment, and why we're so eager to watch them suffer.

Lehrer and Daisey, by contrast, committed serious professional sins that they had plenty of opportunities to correct before they got caught. Even when caught, they didn't confess right away. The exact contours of the public embarrassment that ensued may look different in the Internet age than it did a generation ago, but the story itself is not new. In these cases, Ronson pays too much attention to the noisy novelty of Twitter than to the many more thoughtful chastisements from serious-minded critics. Even as we examine the effects of all this online shouting and finger-wagging -- and Ronson's book is an excellent place to start -- the truth remains that some behavior is simply, well, shameful.


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