July 15, 2015 8:47:53 AM
It used to be that our justice system included as punishment a public shaming of miscreants. Seeing naughty persons led to the gallows and dropped was a public entertainment. We might tar and feather someone who had the wrong political views or make adulterers wear a scarlet letter. We used to whip such people publicly, or put them into the pillory so that their fellow citizens might express communal censure. We do not mete out official justice in these manners anymore, and the reason we do not is alarming. In So You've Been Publicly Shamed (Riverhead Books), Jon Ronson finds that in America where public punishments were abandoned in 1839, the abandonment was not, as is the usual explanation, because in the nineteenth century people were shifting from villages to cities, cities in which those shamed could enter anonymity within the crowds after the punishment was done. It was not because shaming had been ineffective. Ronson found documentation that showed that judges would continue, say, to condemn criminals to whippings, but would not condone whipping in public. Shaming was simply too brutal, and it was legislated away, never to be used as part of the legal system again. But the purpose of Ronson's entertaining and distressing book is to show that public shaming is back.
Public shaming is now not done by the legal system, but in a more ideally democratic way courtesy of that great leveler, the internet. Social media, particularly Twitter, have turned out to be reputation-smashing machines of enormous power. Sometimes such shaming has been merited, and sometimes it is more-or-less random. The shaming can result in changes in the person's online life, but in real life as well (it is very easy to type a death threat, and impossible for the recipient not to attach some degree of seriousness to it). The person shamed in such a fashion has a permanent label attached, and this may ruin vocational and social prospects. Given the eagerness of people to join into flame wars and vituperation with the anonymity of the internet protecting them, the degree of punishment may be outlandish for the particular crime, and sometimes there is no crime at all.
Ronson has many examples, but he looks at three main cases. The first is the writer Jonah Lehrer, a former Rhodes Scholar, a writer at the New Yorker, and an author of popular books on mind and behavior. Another writer, researching an article, found that Lehrer had added words to a quotation from Bob Dylan and had plagiarized. Confronted, Lehrer first lied about the provenance of the quotation, and then pleaded for the matter not to be revealed. Revealed, though, it was, and disgrace followed, with a loss of his job. He tried apologizing in a speech to a charitable foundation, and as he did so, he stood next to an enormous screen that showed Twitter responses real time; the screen was filled with scorn. The abuse was so extreme that the writer who had revealed Lehrer's misbehavior was shocked. "You turn around and you suddenly realize you're the head of a pitchfork mob... I don't want to be associated with this at all. I want to be out of here... I'm watching people stabbing and stabbing and stabbing Jonah, and I'm, "HE'S DEAD."
A second case is that of PR executive Justine Sacco, who in December 2013 boarded a plane for Cape Town having tweeted a dumb joke, "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get Aids. Just kidding. I'm white!" It could be taken as condescending, or racist, or Sacco making fun of herself; such a tiny, 140-character defined message can be taken a lot of ways. She merely sent this to her 170 followers, assuming that they'd know her sense of humor and lack of racism, but someone spotted it and sent it out to his 15,000 followers, and then it went out to all the world. Even if this was a stupid racist joke, it is hard not accept that the shaming was disproportionate. The shamers knew she was on a flight and would not have internet access. Someone found out what flight she was on, and photographed her when she landed. She found gleeful tweets about how her life was going to be ruined, and how merry everyone was that she didn't realize it while she was on the plane, and how bad it was going to be for her when she landed. And it was bad: she lost her job, and is easily findable on the web as a "racist tweet lady." She has no social life; any potential date who sticks her name in Google will find all the record of vituperation. And there is virtually nothing she can do to gain forgiveness; she went to Ethiopia to help with a maternal health support effort, for instance, but to learn that you'd have to dig deep into a preceding mass of angry tweets and blog essays.
The third main case is that of Lindsey Stone, a woman who had a good career of caring for adults with learning difficulties. She had a theme on her Facebook page; she and a friend would take stupid or tasteless photos of themselves mocking what was in the background. She would smoke in front of a "No Smoking" sign, for instance, or mimic the pose of a venerable statue. When they went to Arlington Cemetery, Stone got her picture taken in front of a sign that urged "Silence and Respect," and she was depicted giving a middle finger salute and cupping her mouth as if she were yelling. She admittedly had little understanding of Facebook privacy settings, but soon people were sending her photo around the world, along with obscene wishes that she would be raped and murdered. She lost her job and fell into a depression, and didn't leave her house for months. It is interesting that Ronson's interviews with her led him to hook her up as a pro bono case with a firm that specializes in rehabilitating virtual images. The whole purpose is to get other stuff online, like Stone's love of cats and pop music, and try to anticipate Google's algorithms so that those other interests, not the photo or the furor, show up on the first page of Google results. The web strategist explains that this is because the first page determines what people are going to think of you. "As a writer and journalist," writes Ronson, "as well as a father and human being - this struck me as a really horrifying way of knowing the world."
The service to rehabilitate a previously shamed online presence is expensive, and will not be available to all who need it. Ronson says that the "great renaissance of public shaming" has turned into a gleeful witch-hunt, with a mob piling on with happy malevolence and sadism. Around the cases of the shamed people he has interviewed, he weaves in historical and psychological research. Ronson admits that he had himself taken part in public shamings, but vows he never will again. Don't blame the internet; people have acted this way forever. They merely have new e-means of shaming, and it is a powerful means indeed. Ronson has again written a provocative book of intelligence and good humor, but in his stories of rampant vigilantism, he once again illuminates a darker side of human nature.