In December 2013, Justine Sacco, a senior publicist at worldwide media company IAC, made a terrible joke on Twitter: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” The Internet gleefully tore Sacco apart, but British journalist-author Jon Ronson had a different take. “I just don’t think Justine did anything wrong,” he says. “There was a brutality to that which I didn’t think we were capable of. The democratiisation of justice on social media has turned horrific. We’ve turned into callous Stasi officers.”
Sacco’s story is at the heart of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Ronson’s new book diving into the culture of public shaming, which goes back to the Puritans and beyond but has exploded online. The author’s examples of ruined lives range from ex-New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer, who fabricated quotes in numerous articles and books, to Lindsey Stone, a charity worker who lost her job after a photo of her flipping the bird at Arlington National Cemetery went viral.
Ronson examines all aspects of the shaming process, from the online grenade-throwers to humiliation porn stars to “reputation management” experts who can expunge your previous transgressions from Google. In previous books like Them: Adventures With Extremists and The Men Who Stare at Goats, the journalist delved into the world of idiosyncratic, fringe elements of society. With Shamed, the call is coming from inside the house.
What first attracted you to the concept of public shaming?
By the time the Justine thing happened, I think I understood something that other people hadn’t realised yet: We’ve sleepwalked into creating this surveillance society where we were tearing each other apart for nothing. I found the Justine thing especially horrific. It was this jubilant tearing apart of this woman who was oblivious to the fact that she was being torn apart.
You’ve admitted to doing a decent amount of shaming yourself.
Yeah. I spent more and more time on Twitter and I was loving punishing bad people — and then it dawned on me that we were losing our moral compass. We were reducing people to the worst thing they ever did. Until this book, nobody has been confronted with the people that they’ve destroyed. I’m showing people the consequences of their actions.
You were originally going to call this book either Shame or Tarred and Feathered, but So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed sounds like a doctor’s self-help pamphlet. Why that title?
I nearly called the book The Terror at one point, but people thought it sounded a bit too much like Twilight. [Laughs] This is a terrifying book and I deliberately tried to make it terrifying because I wanted people to feel the agony that Justine Sacco felt. We are in charge of these people’s punishments, but I didn’t want people to think they were reading an academic book. I wanted readers to think it’s still funny and give it a title that was a little bit more human.
The book feels as much public service announcement as journalistic work. It’s the most moralist work of your career.
That’s true. In its earliest days, Twitter felt like a Garden of Eden; a place where people can be honest about their flaws and secrets. Then it all went to hell. We turned this Garden of Eden into this vicious, cold surveillance society. The last couple of years, we’ve changed in a really negative way. We’ve turned into the people that I don’t want us to be; people who define others by their mistakes, label people as monsters, refuse to allow them back into the world. I want to try and persuade people to be kinder and to treat others as human beings again. I want people to be more moral.
After writing about fringe societies for so long, you found the ultimate “fringe” is all of us.
Exactly. The crazy people are now us. We could be the people being destroyed; we could be the people brutalising others and that is definitely more personally agonising and anxiety-inducing than telling a far away story. I identified with Justine Sacco, but I also really identified with the people that destroyed her.
Do you think that people like her have a shot of redemption or are certain people forever tainted with the worst thing they did?
We’re not redeeming enough people right now, unless it’s somebody who we decide is heroic of us to redeem. Monica Lewinsky gave that TED talk and it got a huge standing ovation and the crowd showed their support for her. And rightly so; she absolutely deserves it. But I was also thinking, “I bet some of the people that gave Monica Lewinsky a standing ovation would still quite happily tear apart Justine Sacco.”
You have a chapter in the book on porn stars, who are some of the least shameful people. Why include them?
Porn stars have done really sterling work in de-stigmatising sex, especially in the age of the Internet. Nobody really cares about sex scandals anymore. If you’re going to be in a scandal, you want to be in a sex scandal.
So our shaming has moved to people who misuse privilege, which of course is a better thing to be annoyed about than people who go to an S&M club. But, we’ve started to just be so in love with destroying people that we start doing it to people who don’t deserve it.
When did we go from a culture of punching up to punching down?
We think that when we’re punching Justine or Lindsey Stone, we’re punching up. But we’re not. We’ve tricked ourselves, because we hate people who punch down. We hate right-wing tabloids that destroy some innocent person who we empathize with. It’s cognitive dissonance because we can’t handle the fact that we’re doing a bad thing. What we want to do is destroy somebody, but not feel bad about it. The only way to do that is to either label them a sociopath, which is basically what the Nazis did to the Jews, or we destroy somebody and think, “I’m sure they’re fine.”
There’s also bit of self-reflection, like, “How is the world seeing me and how am I adapting to that?” It’s this weird Möbius strip of approval.
Yes, absolutely. Justine was yanked, deliberately and maliciously, out of her social circle where it once was understood. It annoys me when people say, “Justine Sacco posts something on Twitter. She should know she’s potentially broadcasting to the world. It’s her own stupid fault.” I don’t buy that. Justine had 170 Twitter followers. Practically nothing she’d written had ever been retweeted by anybody.
It’s harder to feel bad for Jonah. His transgressions seemed more deliberate and patterned.
It’s definitely harder because he broke journalistic rules. For a smart man, everything that Jonah did was a giant miscalculation. When he basically said, “My Bob Dylan quotes are correct,” it’s incredibly stupid, but I still think it’s human stupidity. It’s a real cautionary tale, like in that moment when you’re about to be found out, don’t do what he did. Still, I tried to humanise Jonah. But it felt like a huge relief to me when I realised after months of writing those chapters, I don’t have to exonerate him.
You once said you were a “mixture of self-absorbed and defensive sarcasm, malevolent social awkwardness and Jewish guilt.” Is that accurate?
Not malevolent, but probably all the others though. I am a bit too self-absorbed. The other day I was on a train, going from Manchester to Glasgow and I looked out the window and I saw an eclipse and I thought, “My God, there’s an eclipse.” [Laughs] “Does anyone know?” Everyone knew. And I suddenly realised, the only way I would’ve known there was an eclipse was if it had been mentioned in one of my book reviews.
But I still think to this day that every thought I’ve ever had has already been had by Randy Newman, and I really believe that. He received a public shaming with “Short People,” so I do feel like my life is just this bizarre echo of Randy Newman’s life.
Jon Stewart is the highest-profile example of a comedian who skirts the line between humour and information. Where do you find that line in your work?
It’s different with every book. I see The Psychopath Test as a cautionary tale to not get drunk with your psychopath-spotting powers the way I did. In the first half, the joke’s on me, but you should take the second half of the book, where I question labeling and people falling too much in love with diagnoses and confirmation bias, seriously. In my mind, these distinctions are very clear. In Shamed, you should take it all seriously and it should be considered proper, rigorous journalism.
What’s the status of the film version of The Psychopath Test?
The way it always works — and the way it should work — is that the screenwriter just takes over. It’s hard enough to write the screenplay without having someone restricting you, so I pretty much just left it to [director] Jay Roach and [screenwriter] Kristin Gore. I remember Nick Hornby saying to me, “Never adapt your own work.” Gone Girl is a good example of that. I thought that was a terrible movie of a great book.
Jay and Kristin are incredibly smart people, so I think I’m in good hands. I think they’ll fictionalise it massively, and that’s their prerogative. I’m totally fine with it. All I can do is just completely step out of it, and it’s as it should be.
You’ve mentioned Hunter S. Thompson as a big influence. What do you think he brought to journalism and what did you take away from his work?
On a narcissistic level for a young journalist, or even a teenager, he made journalism seem incredibly heroic and exciting. But he and Tom Wolfe and P.J. O’Rourke also made journalism more honest. When a journalist walks into the room, everything changes, so the honest way to do it is to put yourself in the story. The mistake other people made was to think that the way to be Hunter was to be Hunter. Only he could be him. I’m much more nebbish-y and neurotic.
I also just found writing first person narrative the easiest way of writing. Maybe it’s just lucky coincidence that what I learned from Hunter and P.J. was the kind of writing I was naturally most good at anyway. The worst thing is when Loaded magazine started in London and every fucking journalist was trying to be Hunter S. Thompson. It was so lame. I remember one in particular: It was like, It’s four o’clock in the morning! I’ve been taking speed for 15 days! In 10 minutes time, I’ve got to interview Iggy Pop [Laughs]. The stakes aren’t as high there as withFear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Going back to the book, how have your feelings changed towards the people that have been shamed?
I feel really deeply sympathetic to people like Justine and Jonah. I just don’t think Justine did anything wrong. I sincerely hope they get other chances because that’s the world I want to live in: where people aren’t just defined by the worst things they did. After writing this book, I never want to write another piece that shames anybody. Justine and Lindsey said to me, “I’m so glad you told my story.” The people to attack in the story are the ones who tore them apart. It’s so nice to be able to find people who had been demonised by others and give them back their humanity.
An abridged version of this article features in the latest issue (#763, June 2015), available now.