by Jon Ronson
It took me a little while to warm up to this book, but it left me with a lot to think about.
Ronson explores the recent phenomenon of online shaming, in which someone posts a comment or photo that goes viral and results in massive condemnation and hatred from others online. The most recent incidence of this that I can think of is that dentist who killed Cecil the lion. There was some talk of extraditing the guy to Zimbabwe to face prosecution, but that didn’t happen.
At first Ronson seemed to be rather gleeful about his own participation in such shaming, and that bothered me a bit. But as he continued to explore various topics for this book, he seemed to realize how devastating it can be for these people and how the initial satisfaction we might get from firing off a nasty tweet is not really worth it when it comes to people losing their jobs, being afraid to leave the house due to death threats, and generally feeling like worthless pieces of shit.
He explores various people who have had to deal with this, some who weathered it well and some who didn’t; he visits a therapy group that practices Radical Honesty, and his description of the encounter had me laughing out loud; he works with a group who does reputation rehabilitation online to successfully remove the egregious searches from the front page of Google (fascinating stuff) of someone who was a “shamee.”
In one of the most interesting sections, he interviews prison reformers who believe that much of the violence perpetrated in this country stems from people being shamed as children. They feel helpless in the face of such humiliation so they lash out at others in order to take control and make others feel the same helplessness and humiliation that they did as children. Our current prison system perpetuates that humiliation and the subsequent violence.
It made me think about Good Internet vs Bad Internet. Used wisely, the Internet can bring us new friendships, new connections, and even lasting love. However, we’ve all seen the dark side of the Internet, in which people are attacked, belittled, verbally abused, and threatened. It has been my experience that the Anonymous Comment is detrimental to courteous and productive discourse (and that’s why I stopped allowing anonymous comments here some time ago). When they don’t have to worry about accountability, it’s far too easy for people to say whatever vile things they want.
It also made me think about whether I have ever engaged in public shaming. I have written about real people like Kim Davis, but I did my best to criticize what I felt were her discriminatory attitudes rather than criticize her personally. I totally disagree with what she was doing, but I would never send her death threats or anything like that. I honestly don’t understand that mentality. But there are people out there who do that, and I feel that it is counterproductive. It’s one thing to criticize for a belief or a policy; it’s quite another to threaten a person and call them names.
Maybe I’m a little more sensitive to it because I have experienced such shaming on a personal level. An ex went around town telling people that I was an alcoholic lesbian who took him for everything he had. He was doing this to friends and family members and it got pretty embarrassing. I had a clerk in Waldenbooks tell me that they knew who I was and that my ex was in there talking about me; my parents’ neighbor told them that the ex was telling them about all this stuff. I weathered it with the help of some good advice from my parents. They said that the people who know and love me won’t believe it and will think less of the ex for going around and saying it. I think that turned out to be the case.
I thought about that when reading this book and imagined what I went through multiplied by about a million. That’s what it would be like to be shamed online and have it go viral.
It made me resolve even more to try to keep things civil and focus on the topic rather than resorting to ad hominem attacks. I can’t stop others from doing that, but that doesn’t mean that I have to participate.