The 21st Century Stockade

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Title: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

Rating: 3 Stars

In a way, this is a timely book. Public shaming via Twitter is certainly on the rise. The impact that this has on our society and the dampening effect that it is having on public discourse is a subject worthy of discussion. I’m just not sure if it warrants a full book.  At least, this book didn’t seem to warrant it.

The main point that Ronson was making is that modern day Twitter public shaming has echoes back to our Puritan past. Just like in the 17th century, moral transgressions were punished by putting someone in the stocks and then pelting rotten fruits at them as a way to demonstrate cultural shame and disdain of the person’s actions, today’s Twitter pile-on serves a similar purpose. It’s a way that we all (and I do mean all, now that we are a globally interconnected world), can show our obedience to cultural norms by publicly flagellating those who transgress them.

And just like old times, the crowd can get pretty bloodthirsty. If someone crosses a cultural line, especially if you’re a woman, it’s not enough to be roundly condemned. You are flooded with hate speech. If you’re a woman, you’ll be deluged with comments threatening to rape you in every conceivable and violent method and you’ll be flooded with extreme graphic violence and death threats. Once the mob feels offended, there are no limits to how it will act (especially in a completely anonymous environment).

Several cases were discussed. Probably the  most notorious was Justine Sacco, the woman who made a very ill advised racist AIDS joke just before embarking on a flight to South Africa. The tweet went viral while in flight and she was fired by the time the plane landed.

It was clearly a joke. A bad joke, but a joke. Similar jokes are probably told onstage everyday by comedians. At the time, she had barely over a hundred followers. She was just making an insanely rude joke to an inside group of friends. Possibly one of her friends forwarded it to something like BuzzFeed or Gawker (it’s not clear exactly how it happened), and within hours she was the number one trending person in Twitter.

Not only did she lose her job, but she got the usual onslaught of rape, torture, and murder threats. Granted she showed really bad judgment, and considering she was a PR person, that kind of naivety and poor judgment could certainly be used as grounds for firing her, but the onslaught was such that her life has become totally wrecked. It took her eleven months to find another job.

Another interesting case was Max Mosley, Formula One racing chief and son of the most prominent fascist in England before WWII. He was caught in a sex scandal that involved prostitutes, spanking, and German uniforms. This had the potential to be seriously humiliating, but interestingly enough, once it died down, he was ultimately unaffected. There are multiple reasons why. The most logical one is that he faced it head on and completely owned it. He did not hide from it. He even sued the paper that published the article.

There were a couple of last successful chapters. There was a chapter on a shame eradication workshop that just felt like a typical Ronson stunt article. The article on the companies that make a living ‘fixing’ people’s search results so that the shame-inducing information is pushed off of their Google search home page was actually kind of boring.

So, a mixed bag. Often times, essays like these earn a three star rating, despite my tendency to try to avoid it (it seems like a cop-out). However, in this case, the number of interesting chapters and boring / annoying chapters pretty much cancelled each out, and I guess that I just wasn’t interested in the larger conclusions that he was aiming for.

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