Review: So You’ve Been Publically Shamed, by Jon Ronson

So You’ve Been Publically Shamed, by Jon Ronson

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed chronicles the digital super-charging of an ancient human tactic: public shaming. Today, people aren’t shamed in the local public square, but globally, with all the speed and scale the Internet can bring to bear.

The rush to judgement--without all the facts--is a hallmark of cancel culture. A situation is often different than it appears on the surface. The human brain has to simplify the information it takes in, so it quickly crafts narratives to help us understand and act.

This process can be disastrous online, creating an overwhelmingly disproportionate--and often incorrect altogether--response to a situation shared online. We see this mistake over and over again, but we never learn. Or we don’t want to. The power in shaming feels too good, overwhelming our ability to stop, think, and to borrow an analogy from carpentry, measure twice before we cut once.

Ronson takes us briefly through the violent backstory of shaming, which included public whippings and worse, before moving on to modern cases.

Jon Ronson is a gifted storyteller and covers a range of high-profile cancelees, including:

Max Mosley, a Formula One racing chief who’s tryst with prostitutes was captured on camera, and slandorously framed by British Tabloids as a Nazi reinactment

An up-and-coming writer, Jonah Lehrer, caught fabricating Bob Dylan quotes in a popular book.

A public relations professional, Justine Sacco, who made a bad Twitter joke about how she couldn’t get AIDS because she’s white.

At its most interesting, the book examines how the shamed respond and the corresponding after-effects. We get responses in several flavors: denial, complete ownership--without regret--and something in between, a laying low and slow recovery.

Mosley, for example, refused to be shamed. He sued the tabloids for slander and won, and didn’t care that his time with prostitutes was caught on camera:

If our shameworthiness lies in the space between who we are and how we present ourselves to the world, Max was narrowing that gap to nothing.

Jonah Lehrer was paid $20,000 to publicly apologize, in a speech about plagiarism. It was disastrous, because it was seen as disingenuous. He still writes, but is nowhere near the success he reached with “How we Decide” in 2012.

Justine Sacco apologized authentically. Her career recovered. She’s a chief comms officer today.

I’m not sure the book reaches actionable conclusions about shaming. I believe, ultimately, shame is an internal battle, and it's up to us to decide how to carry or discard it.

That said, Ronson tells a series of entertaining stories that should, at a minimum, make us pause and think about our natural propensity to participate in online mobs. And hopefully make a better choice.