APRIL 9, 2015
BRITISH JOURNALIST Jon Ronson crafts narratives from investigations into the lives of marginalized people: Islamic fundamentalists, artists fueled by prescription pills, conspiracy theorists. Well known in the United States for his 2004 book The Men Who Stare at Goats (made into a 2009 movie co-produced by George Clooney), and the 2011 New York Times bestseller The Psychopath Test (a left-field look at the mental health industry), he is awkward, self-effacing, and funny, a more approachable version of Malcolm Gladwell, insofar as he strings together academic research and interviews to create compelling stories.
In his new book, an amusing examination of 21st-century public shaming, Ronson reaches the limits of his form. His method, as in his previous work, is to focus on members of a niche (and usually unpopular) section of society, to spend time with them in an attempt to humanize them, to document his attempts to interview them, and then to extrapolate their failings to the population at large. This time his subjects are an assortment of perpetrators whose acts have led to their widespread vilification, especially online. Among them are Jonah Lehrer, the disgraced former New Yorker writer and plagiarist; Justine Sacco, a public relations professional who made a poorly judged joke on Twitter about AIDS; Adria Richards, who lost her job after photographing two men at a conference making ill-advised innuendo; Mike Daisey, a performer caught out for embellishing a monologue about the exploitation of Chinese workers assembling Apple products; and charity worker Lindsey Stone, who was pictured on Facebook fooling around at a war memorial in 2012.
Ronson’s aim is to explore what unites these characters, to consider who is involved in their public humiliation, and to put these events into a historical context. “One day it hit me,” he writes.
Something of real consequence was happening. We were at the start of a great renaissance of public shaming. After a lull of 180 years (public punishments were phased out in 1837 in the United Kingdom and 1839 in the United States) it was back in a big way.
As ever, he’s adept at securing access: a number of shaming victims are given a platform. Adria Richards, who was bombarded with abuse over her actions (her employer was also targeted), defends herself this way: “He’s a white male. I’m a black Jewish female. He was saying things that could be inferred as offensive to me.” Lindsey Stone tells Ronson, “Literally overnight everything I knew and loved was gone.” Though he was called out on This American Life and considered suicide, Mike Daisey continues to believe he acted for the greater good.
But the chapters spent with Lehrer and Sacco are perhaps the most insightful. Lehrer, who is currently trying to rehabilitate his career, comes across as deluded, if sympathetic, as he makes a misplaced apology — more exculpatory dodge, than the overt mea culpa required — at the Knight Foundation in 2013. He blames his self-plagiarizing and invention of quotes — as when he fabricated Bob Dylan’s words in his 2012 book Imagine: How Creativity Works — on the pursuit of quick success. “It was some toxic mixture of insecurity and ambition,” he says.
Sacco is more congenial — or at least more honest with herself. In December 2013, she was roundly castigated after she misguidedly posted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Her detractors willfully (and predictably) ignored her ironic intentions. Ronson speaks to Sam Biddle, a Gawker journalist who publicized Sacco’s joke, and who expresses regret at the ruination of her life — the losing of her job, and destruction of her online reputation — then checks in with Sacco to see how her world has changed. “I did something stupid, but I didn’t trash my integrity,” she says, drawing a line between herself and Lehrer. But looking for work and going on dates is tough. “How am I going to meet new people? What are they going to think of me?”
Ronson’s writing is at its heart episodic. It is no surprise that he has tried to craft a coherent whole from such disparate examples. The stories of Lehrer, Sacco, Richards, and Stone are the material for their own dedicated chapters. In other sections Ronson undergoes group therapy for “shame eradication,” and meets politician Jim McGreevey, who runs a therapeutic community attempting to “eradicate shame” among prisoners. He speaks to Max Mosley, the former motor racing chief involved in a British tabloid sex scandal, and considers Kennebunk, the small town where a prostitute’s client list leaked. Throughout the book, key interviews are paused and then reintroduced for dramatic effect.
While fun to read, this structure is contrived. One chapter ends, “I knew just where to start” — glossing over the blind alleys and fruitlessness that comprise hours of every journalist’s day — and Ronson suggests various emails and phone calls fall into his lap at just the required moment in his narrative. He reuses personal anecdotes across his several books, directly quoting from his previous work (he recognizes his self-plagiarizing in this book’s acknowledgements). And it’s not as though Ronson’s “artistic license” hasn’t been called into question before: after The Psychopath Test was released, academics from 13 universities on both sides of the pond complained about his “liberal and/or fictional accounts of their interactions with him.” All this can’t help but undermine the reader’s confidence in Ronson’s account of alleged plagiarism by Lehrer; how not to wonder what liberties he has taken himself.
It is worth pausing, momentarily, to consider the relationship between story and truth. A 2013 paper published by Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism warns journalists to be vigilant against “overvaluing and fetishizing storytelling techniques” but also emphasizes that reading should be “enjoyable, not boring, not a struggle.” However, in my opinion, the writer’s own processes need to be more openly admitted when his subject matter — as with Ronson on Lehrer — is the forensic analysis of another writer’s text.
Furthermore, though we expect transparency in the age of hypertext, Ronson’s accessibility relies on what he excludes. His interviewees are chosen for their narrative potential, their indiscretions ranging from the illegal to the ill-advised. But their experiences are too different for us to come to any meaningful or universal conclusion about all of their actions. What unites them is the method of their shaming, and the huge amount of literature on mobs, trolling, and internet culture only gets the briefest of mentions.
There is fascinating material to explore in this field, including studies about how people decide to join groups and why. Cultural critic Howard Rheingold touched on this over a decade ago in Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. “A conservative person would demonstrate against the government only if thousands were already committed,” he wrote. And researcher Jamie Bartlett, in his 2014 book The Dark Net, describes the long history of virtual transgression: “From the early 1980s onwards [a dial-up Bulletin Board System (BBS)] was most people’s first experience of life online […] within a year, insulting strangers on boards became a widely acknowledged and accepted part of BBS.” But such matters, as with professor of psychology John Suler’s famous 2001 disinhibition effect — exploring the reasons for people’s changed behavior online — are largely ignored here.
The book makes earnest if cursory progress when Ronson interviews Steve Reicher, a professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews. Reicher says that there is an “interesting story about the limits of influence coinciding with the boundaries between groups, about class and power. Even the most violent crowds are never simply an inchoate explosion.”
But mostly, Ronson’s research seems to have been selected to allow for neat solutions. To provide historical context and weight to his inquiries, he travels to Boston to visit the Massachusetts Archives and the Massachusetts Historical Society.
It turns out public shaming had once been a process. A book of Delawarean law I discovered revealed that if Jonah had been found guilty of “lying or publishing news” in the 1800s, he would have been “fined, placed in the stocks for a period not exceeding four hours, or publicly whipped with not more than forty stripes.”
He later discovers that “public punishments died out […] because they were far too brutal,” questioning why the likes of Lehrer have had to undergo the modern-day equivalent. The shaming processes may be alike, but involve different levels of physical and psychological trauma. Is humiliating someone online really as bad as whipping them publicly?
Similarly, the author’s attempts to reconsider the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment — to explore what he calls “group madness,” and how it might cause shaming — are contrived. This controversial study, conducted by psychologist Philip Zimbardo, took students and placed them into a role-playing scenario of prisoners and guards. The “guards” apparently soon exhibited sadistic tendencies towards inmates, their behavior bordering on psychological torture. Ronson resolves to discover “what had really gone on in that basement,” by tracking down and questioning those involved. One of the former guards tells him the experiment was mostly uneventful, another says he was hamming it up.
After I put the phone down I wondered if Dave had just told me a remarkable thing — something that might change the way the psychology of evil was taught.
It is surprising that Ronson thought, much less expressed this idea. One presumes he’d have to know that the experiment fails to meet the ethics code of the American Psychological Association and has been criticized on the website of the British Psychological Society. A more interesting line of inquiry might be to consider how an experiment involving 21 people from similar backgrounds, which any high school math student could tell you is unlikely to yield statistically significant results, could become one of the most famous in psychology history. The answer, surely, is because it makes good copy.
Ronson himself has alluded to one of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’s central flaws. “We journalists love writing about eccentrics,” he says in a recent interview in Vice. “We hate writing about boring people. It makes us look bad: the duller the interviewee, the duller the prose. If you want to get away with wielding true, malevolent power, be boring.”
So Ronson knows how to write readable books: but in this one he tackles a demanding subject and veers toward glibness. The work lends itself to publishable extracts and may be widely read; but how to take the author seriously as he propels these stories back to the top of Google’s search results, this time with his own name attached?
As Astra Taylor writes in her engaging 2014 book The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, “wealth and power are shifting to those who control the platforms on which all of us create, consume and connect.” However these accounts don’t necessarily make for compelling journalistic material. And by perpetuating an old model — assuming the persona of a naive interviewer, blundering into the cultural hinterland, and hoping his subjects slip up — Jon Ronson is more entertaining than he is illuminating.