We Are Not Who We Are Online: Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

The big eye-opener for me, in Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, had to do with a line he cut from the book in its final edits. You’ve probably heard of the book by now, what with Ronson’s viral February New York Times piece about social media shaming victim Justine Sacco, which came two months after Sam Biddle — the Gawker writer apparently at the center of Sacco’s shaming — wrote about how he came to terms with Sacco; or Ronson’s recent New York magazine Q&A about Monica Lewinsky; or his “Daily Show” appearance; or any one of the slew of reviews and interviews surrounding the book.

I think the book is getting this much attention (every time I said I was interviewing Jon Ronson about social media shaming, someone said, “Oh! I heard there was a book coming out about that soon”) thanks, in part, to GamerGate. Social media shaming was bad before Eron Gjoni, a hoard of put-upon gamers, and ultimately, inevitably, mens’ rights activists decided to tear apart Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu, Katherine Cross, and any woman who had an opinion on the subject, but this — this was harrowing. Looking at it as a woman, a writer, and a lover of video games, it felt like human beings were making themselves monstrous on Twitter. It felt hard to make anyone on the other side of the issue see me as a human being, and it was certainly hard to see them as human beings if they couldn’t muster genuine compassion for these women, who had been rape-and-death-threatened into deep and justified paranoia.

“Somebody wrote me a very long e-mail that said, ‘Does he not realize that there’s a line in this book that would get him publicly shamed?’” Ronson told me when we spoke about the book last week, and specifically about the one line that he removed, that I had loved. “And people I really respect said I was wrong to have that line in there, so I have to assume that they’re right.”

I’ll admit the line was jarring to read. It landed in a conversation Ronson was having with a 4channer and hacker named Mercedes, on the subject of Adria Richards and how women are shamed differently than men. Mercedes explained that from her point of view, “4chan takes the worst thing it can imagine that person going through and then shouts for that to happen” — and that:

“4chan aims to degrade the target, right? And one of the highest degradations for women in our culture is rape. We don’t talk about rape of men, so I think it doesn’t occur to most people as a male degradation. With men, they talk about getting them fired. In our society men are supposed to be employed. If they’re fired, they lose masculinity points.”

Then came the line. Ronson reflected on what, subjectively, in his experience, would be the worst thing that could happen to him. And then he said, “I don’t know if Mercedes was right, but I do know this: I can’t think of many worse things than getting fired.”

I’ve known for a while that our culture’s gender roles can force men into feeling that their intrinsic worth lies in their ability to be productive and earn income, the same way that they can force women into feeling like our inherent worth lies in our sexual reputations. But I hadn’t really thought about what that means for men, and Ronson put it to me well: “I wonder, is this waking-up-in-the-middle of the night fear of getting fired — is that a similar thing to women waking up thinking that they’re going to get raped?”

I asked Ronson if it would be all right to print the line, and he paused and then said, “I think so, if you explain the nuance and context around it.” The context is subjectivity. Any one person is going to fear, and be insecure about, the worst plausible thing they can imagine happening to them. And maybe fears of being raped or fears of getting fired are the domain of the very most anxious of us human beings: Those of us women who have been hurt by men repeatedly; those of us men who have been economically unstable. Maybe it’s broader than that. But reading Ronson’s book, it started to feel like those were the fears that motivated us — Twitter shamers — to be monstrous online.

After all, many (but as always, #notall of) the men who joined GamerGate were gleeful about threatening Zoe Quinn with rape, but far less enthusiastic about targeting Nathan Grayson, the journalist who supposedly broke ethics with Zoe Quinn, such that he would lose his job. And maybe we can chalk that up to insecurities about money, and maybe — on the anti-GG side — we need to take a more serious and sympathetic look at those insecurities and just how deep-seated they are. Maybe they’re as deep-seated as our own insecurities about our bodily safety. Opening up that discussion might be more productive than trying to tear the GGers down.

On the subject of women who have been the target of gender-influenced shaming campaigns, I asked Ronson about the way he writes about Adria Richards in the book. He calls her an “inappropriate shamer” — that taking the picture of two men joking about “forking” and “dongles” during a talk on diversity at PyCon and tweeting it was an inappropriate action on her part.

“I think you’re going to get a lot of flack for that,” I told him.

“I do point out that she didn’t call for them to be fired,” he responded. “I don’t think for a second that Adria intended anything negative to happen as a result of her posting the picture. Her story became redefined by misogynists as ‘She meant to get those men fired.’ She didn’t. I know she didn’t.”

And as far as her being an inappropriate shamer goes? “It goes back to that line early on in the book: ‘With social media, we’re like toddlers crawling toward a gun.’ When Adria did that, I think a lot of people were doing that kind of thing, posting photographs on Twitter. Like, if a famous comedian was being attacked by a troll, they’d get their six million followers to bombard this person. Twitter was being used as this weapon a lot around then. I’m not entirely sure that I think it was inappropriate for Adria to tweet that photograph, because a lot of people were doing that kind of stuff. These were idealistic times, when people thought Twitter could be an incredible force of good. I think it was inadvertently inappropriate in the same way that all sorts of people were doing inadvertently inappropriate things for what they thought was for the better good.”

Today, Ronson argues in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, we’re not using Twitter shaming as a tool for the greater good anymore (if we ever truly were). He says, at one point, “I had shamed a lot of people. A lot of people had revealed their true selves for a moment and I had shrewdly noticed their masks slipping and quick-wittedly alerted others.”

He laughed when I read that quote aloud to him. “Of course, I meant that jokingly. There’s this huge misconception going on that a tweet is a clue to someone’s inherent evil and we’re all detectives trying to spot clues about other people’s true evil. It’s the reason why so many people get destroyed, because we think we’re all witchfinder generals looking for actual witches. But bad phraseology is human.” And he went on: “We create these false worlds where everything’s oppositional, everyone’s a hero or a villain, if someone messes up in an interview, they’re screwed forever. We create these artificial high dramas.”

And that’s the rub, to me: We’re neither the monsters we can look like when, like Justine Sacco, we tweet a really, really bad joke about race and the perception of AIDS. We’re also not the monsters we make ourselves out to be when we become part of the avalanche of tweets that are meant to shame other people, if not into our own perceptions of good behavior, then at least out of our perceptions of bad behavior.

But as Ronson told me repeatedly, “There’s nothing more dangerous than putting ideology over other human beings.” So what do we do instead? I liked Ronson’s response; “The only way to progress is to treat every individual as an individual, and be kind and compassionate and empathetic to whoever they are.”

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson is available today, March 31st, from Riverhead Books. Check out his speaking tour dates on his blog.

[Image via Jon Ronson/Riverhead Books]

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