Also by this author: The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry
Published by Riverhead Books on March 31, 2015
Genres/Lists: Non-Fiction, Science/Technology/Psychology
Length: 7 hrs, 26 mins
Read synopsis on Goodreads
Buy the book: Amazon/Audible (this post includes affiliate links)
What do the stocks, public whippings, and the gossip’s bridle have in common? They were all instruments used to punish wrongdoers. The alleged crimes were varied, from violent crimes to gossiping too much, but the goal of the punishment was the same: to punish citizens and turn them into social pariahs via public shamings. This sentiment is still alive and well today, from the nonstop coverage of trainwrecked celebrities to parents who force their children to hold signs displaying their crimes on street corners. There are, of course, various degrees of shaming and, some might argue, a use for it. Shame is a powerful thing and can shape the behaviors of both the person being shamed and those around them. Thinking back to high school and college, there were (stupid) things I didn’t do simply because I saw how others were ostracized for it, just as there were (stupid) things I never did again because I, myself, was ostracized for it.
So is public shaming a bad thing? And do regular people deserve the same level of scrutiny as celebrities (and really, do celebrities deserve it?). It depends on who you ask but one thing I think we can all agree on is that it has gotten out of control, and that’s the underlying point of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. For all that social media does to unite us, it also divides us. Today, anyone can be shamed at any time for any reason. All it takes is one tweet or one photo to ruin your life, both professional and personally, and society is happy to gather around with their digital pitchforks and stoke the fire. I, myself, am guilty of having watched with a fascinating horror as the internet turned against someone I believed to have done wrong. On the flip side, I have also watched in horror when the internet turned against someone I believed to have done nothing wrong. But at the end of the day, my opinion doesn’t matter – what matters is that these people didn’t deserve to have their entire lives uprooted because of one mistake.
These are just a few of the questions that were raised in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, who interviewed some of the most infamous shamed folks on the internet, including Justine Sacco (the AIDS tweet), Jonah Lehrer (plagiarism), and Lindsey Stone (Arlington photo). To be fair, they each made terrible choices, but did they deserve to be branded for life as horrible people? Or to be name-called or threatened with their lives? Or to be linked, forever, to their worst possible moments? The answer is, for me at least, no. In fact, I shudder to think what the world would be like if each of us was forever remembered as our worst possible decisions. The problem is that with public life comes public shame, and even though these people were not celebrities, their mistakes were put into the public domain by themselves.Do you deserved to be shamed for what you put on the Internet? #publiclyshamed Click To Tweet
And this, I think, is the tricky thing when it comes to public shamings on social media. Name-calling and death threats are not okay – ever. This shouldn’t even need to be said but it does. But as we put more and more of our lives online, how should the world react when we broadcast our own mistakes to the world? I don’t have the answer to this but I’m sure some academic has written their dissertation on it, so if you’re that person, please send it on over. What I do know is that we have a problem. We live in a society where you can’t even go to a baseball game without risking being made fun of by the announcers. And the impacts of these shamings run deep and can lead to longterm psychological damage and, at times, suicide.
So why do we do it and what can we do about it? First, we have to figure out a way to move forward. In the old days, public shamings were only witnessed by those within the community – by those who knew the “wrongdoers” and could judge them within that context. This is no longer the case and now millions of strangers can, and will, weigh in on you, your life, and you right to live that life. We have moved beyond embarrassment and short-term punishment to the destruction of lives, families, and careers. Second, we have to understand why we shame some more than others. Women, for example, are more likely to be publicly shamed than men, which is a whole other issue that only complicates an already complex issue. Lastly, we have to recognize that our individual actions have a collective impact. On our own, our words on Facebook or Twitter may not have power, but together they breathe life into something that may not actually exist. Does Lindsey Stone hate veterans? Does Justine Sacco hate black people? The internet thinks so, but what do the people who know them think?
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed doesn’t have all of the answers or a definitive path forward, either, but it does shine a light onto the other side of public humiliation. It reminds us that the victims are people – real people – who made mistakes and deserve the chance to redeem themselves. It reminds us that we have all done things that we wouldn’t want the entire world to pass judgment on and that it’s up to us to be better, kinder, and more empathetic. The book reminded me a lot of the Trainwreck by Sady Doyle, which is about our love affair with the demise of female celebrities (also a great listen) and anyone who has ever felt that tug of guilt when watching someone else fall victim to the internet’s viciousness should give it a go.
Recommended for: Everyone who is on social media.