In 2012, three academics stole Jon Ronson’s Twitter identity in order to post slightly whimsical foodie tweets. Ronson asked them to stop and they refused, in the first instance, but agreed to meet. The way in which Ronson chooses to relate this meeting makes the academics out to be somewhat strange (although that in itself isn’t a profound bombshell – academics? strange?) – but it does lead to the premise of this, his seventh book.
What he does here is engage with the way in which Twitter (for the most part, it’s Twitter, although the media itself comes under the spotlight at times too) arbitrarily decides to destroy people’s lives. So, for example, there is Justine Sacco who tweeted a completely tasteless AIDs joke whilst flying over Africa. No one is saying that the joke wasn’t tasteless. Did she deserve to lose her job, and spend months and months worrying about whether her professional life was over? Worrying about whether she would ever be able to have a relationship again? Suffering? I’m going to go out on a limb and say, you know, probably not. (Periodically, Ronson engages with the people who drive such actions, and to a man, they remain firm in their moral indignation – yeah, that person deserved it.) We engage with the story of Jonah Lehrer, whose book, Imagine – which we reviewed, before the furore – contained shit he made up. Again, not cool. We can all agree that. On a scale of one to Hitler, though? Possibly not so much. Lehrer attempts to fight his way back through the shame and indignity to reclaim the vestiges of a career, at one point giving an apology against a Twitter feed filled with people tearing him a new one. Welcome to the 21st century version of the village square stocks everybody.
Ronson admits that until fairly recently he was as vocal as anyone, deploring individuals or corporations he felt warranted his scorn. Over the course of the book, he seems to shift although he doesn’t entirely articulate a new position (although maybe that would be hypocritical or more stuffy than Ronson is given to be). Similarly, the tenor of the book shifts, from an examination of the shamed through to an examination of why people feel shamed – or why some people are shamed and some are not (there is an interesting section about Bernie Eccleston who genuinely has learned not to give two shits about what pretty much anyone thinks of him). Is there a way to rise about this new Salem? It would seem not. The recent story involving Lena Dunham (herself not backward about coming forward about the likes of Woody Allen) – where a story in her book concerning stones she placed in her sister’s vagina when they were both little drew excoriation from the great Gods of Twitter, despite the fact that she and her sister both felt this was just childhood workings-out – seems to bear out that the Gods of Twitter currently win every argument (Dunham lashed out, quickly apologised and then promised to withdraw the story from all future versions of the book).
As the book drew to its close, I couldn’t help feeling Ronson had shied away from a more rigorous interaction with the subject that set his book in motion. Meeting with a guy called Mike Daisey (someone else who looped untruths, or stretched truths, into his work and suffered as a result), he’s told:
“It feels like they want an apology, but it’s a lie. … It’s a lie because they don’t want an apology. An apology is supposed to be a communion – a coming together. For someone to make an apology someone has to be listening. They listen and you speak and there’s an exchange. There’s a power exchange that happens. But they don’t want an apology. … What they want is my destruction.”
What the book needs is an attempt to engage with that mass audience, a way in which to ask them what they think, this group mind. We know Ronson reaches out to people (there are people throughout So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, who Ronson reaches out to, sometimes successfully, and sometimes not), and there are people within this book who participated in the public shamings – but they seem to get an easy ride, for the most part. We know that Ronson participated at times. To that end, there needs to be more, more rigour, more thought, applied to the reasons why people herd in this way, to try and understand what primitive urge this amplification of schadenfreude gives people. Ronson doesn’t do this and it feels like a missed opportunity, as if he drew close to the beast and then ran for the hills.
This aside, however, his style is as captivating as ever and there are dozens of moments throughout the book that will have you ruminating and considering your own views on the subject, which is exactly what an extended piece of investigative journalism should do. What’s more, his writing this time out attains a lyrical quality at times that I can’t remember being impressed by in previous books (so, for example, when he meets with a guy called Brad Blanton, he describes him as follows: “With his sunburned face he looked like a red ball abandoned in dirty snow.”).
All told, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is I’m sure guaranteed to please his fans (it’s great to see Ronson’s work extend over book length, become more than just a collection of his Guardian essays – this is what we want: his intellect, engaging with a subject, and moving with its changes, at book length). Whilst it doesn’t feel as cohesive entirely as The Psychopath Test, it remains a solid piece of work and worth the price of entry.
Any Cop?: Sure to cement Ronson’s position as one of the UK’s most thoughtful and engaged journalists.