Justine Sacco made a bad joke, got on a plane, and discovered, when she got back on ground, that she had not only been fired but was the subject of outrage on the internet. Lindsay Stone made a bad joke, was shamed on the internet, and also lost her job. Jonah Lehrer self-plagiarized, fabricated quotes, had two of his books pulled, and issued an apology in front of a screen of people shaming him on Twitter. They all share something in common. Their careers were derailed by a very public judgment of their mistakes.
In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson explores the idea of public shaming, how social media has changed it, and how a mob atmosphere can develop. There are examples, unlike the ones above, of people who have made it through a shaming relatively unscathed. Ronson wonders what the difference is between those who are seemingly ruined by their shaming and those who seem less affected by it. He compares the treatment of various people who have been shamed, interviewing them for insights into their personal reaction to the shaming and offering some ideas about the best way to handle a similar situation.
What I got most out of the book is the idea that a public shaming says more about us than it does about the subject of the shaming. As a society, we have an obsession with perfection and tend to tear down others for their flaws. The people Ronson talks about in his book have made mistakes, but the public reaction seems to be all out of proportion. Outrage turns into a mob that demands justice. People’s lives are ruined. Those who called for them to be ruined feel a moment of satisfaction and then move on to the next subject.
At one time in history, criminals were publicly punished by being put in the pillory or stocks. With social media, the audience for public humiliations has grown, the word of a mistake can spread from one person to another in an instant, journalists write articles about the mistake, and a person is quickly condemned. Then that person is punished when their crime was a stupid comment, a stupid joke, a flaw, something that is not criminal, but which we feel the need to incite rage over and see that person ruined, professionally, financially, and personally.
This book was not only very intelligent and thought-provoking, it was a quick read. The examples Ronson provides effectively illustrate the problems with public shaming. After reading this book, I will think more carefully about my own response the next time I see someone publicly shamed.