Public Shaming and the 21st-Century Crowd

Witch-hunts (and stories such as The Scarlet Letter) have puzzled me but I thought they were things of the past. Then, I saw the uncomfortable-to-watch talk by Monica Lewinsky in which she argues she was patient zero of the new era of Internet shaming. So, when a book club I have been thinking of joining decided to read So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Riverhead, 2015) by journalist Jon Ronson, promising to shed light on the 21st-century version of public shaming, I could not resist. The book ended up being not only an engaging vacation read but a source of important questions social scientists should think about too.

First, is public shaming really a thing on the Internet? Ronson details several cases of public shaming conducted primarily over the Internet that have achieved worldwide fame. One of Ronson’s favorite examples is the case of Justine Sacco, who lost her job and her reputation for posting a sarcastic and stupid joke on Twitter, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Public shaming in these accounts is a crowd-like behavior involving a large number of Internet users castigating and/or ridiculing someone for actions judged to be wrong. An important feature of the phenomenon is its democratic and participatory nature: anyone with Internet access can join in.

But is it that big of a deal? According to Ronson’s personal experience and according to his interviews with persons subjected to public shaming, Internet shaming resulted in the near destruction of both the public personae and the private selves of shaming targets. If persons are indeed socially valued on the basis of their public profiles, then Internet shaming is a big deal. Ronson delves into the past of public shaming and finds out that it was largely (but not completely) abandoned as a judicial practice after the 19th century because it constituted an unusually cruel punishment.

If public shaming is experienced as cruel by the persons subjected to it, why was it popular in the past? And why is it popular on the Internet again? Why do people engage in public shaming? Ronson associates this question with two other questions: What are the sources of crowd behavior? And where does evil come from? Ronson offers some fascinating details on the background of Le Bon’s crowd theory and debunks Milgram’s conclusions on his famous prison experiment rejecting both approaches. Instead, he favors Arendt’s banality-of-evil thesis. Ronson even cites a Stasi research report investigating why ordinary people so eagerly joined the East German mass surveillance program. The conclusion of the report was that people agreed to work for the secret services because they believed they were doing something good for society. In a similar vein, Ronson suggests, people engage in public shaming because they believe they are doing social good.

In one of the last chapters of the book, Ronson deviates from his main argument to look into the background of the most violent prison inhabitants. He brings up James Gilligan’s research to argue for shame being at the origin of extreme violence. As a sort of a warning, Ronson insinuates that when shame destroys a person’s psyche, particularly at an early age, this person is capable of anything that can restore her or his sense of self, including violence.

Ronson also addresses the more practical issue of how one can survive public shaming to come out of it intact. After exploring several psychological leads, he settles for a sociological explanation. Persons who breeze through public shaming attempts do so because few find their “transgressions” that objectionable, not a very encouraging conclusion for self-help aficionados. Professional help can come in handy when dealing with public shaming though. Ronson ends the book with a story about how a reputation management company helps one victim of public shaming reestablish a more positive Internet presence through creating multiple high-visibility social media accounts, such as LinkedIn and Tumblr, and feeding in continuous flows of benign information through them.

Throughout the book Ronson struggles with a normative concern he cannot quite resolve. When is it justifiable to tap into the democratic potential of the Internet to topple down oppressive practices? And when does the righteous wrath of the public turn into cruelty?

Ronson weaves together anecdotes, previous research, analogies, and more or less direct allegations in a captivating narrative. While he sometimes deviates from the main argument in order to provide justification and context for including a person or an idea in his story, his style is elegant and his argument easy to follow. One may approve or disapprove of Ronson’s approach−he is intentionally provocative−and agree or disagree with his analogies and his conclusions but the questions and hypotheses his work raises are worth considering.

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Filed under Great Books for Summer Reading 2015

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