So You've Been Publicly Shamed

Six years after its first publication, Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed remains an important book. Ronson was moved to write about the phenomenon of Twitter pile-ons, like that faced by Justine Sacco, who made a joke in very poor taste about AIDS and Africa before boarding a plane, only to turn on her phone on arrival and discover that she was the world's most hated woman and that she'd lost her job. Years later she was still suffering the fallout from a thoughtless, stupid (and yes, offensive) tweet. Is shame something that we feel, or something that others can impose on us? What about when that shame is disproportionate to the offence? 

Generally I'm not one for joining in pile-ons, though I'm pretty sure I may have added my pebble to the heap a couple of times (though probably only for Donald Trump, who seems to be essentially unshameable). As Ronson points out, the reason why 'public shaming' was abandoned as a legal punishment (think being put in stocks) not because it was ineffective, but because it was too cruel.

Ronson interviews many people on both sides of the shaming divide, including a psychologist who believes that all violence stems from an experience of shame or humiliation. That gave me pause for thought. Ronson didn't link this idea specifically with domestic violence, but it certainly chimed with what Jess Hill said in Look What You Made Me Do

Weird link alert: I'm also reading The Mitford Murders, a novel by Jessica Fellowes featuring the Mitford family, and one of Ronson's interviewees happened to be Max Mosley, son of Diana Mitford, who was subject to an attempted shaming over a 'Nazi sex dungeon' -- oddly enough, the shaming didn't work and he continued his life with almost no consequences.* Ronson initially wonders whether this was because Mosley himself refused to feel ashamed, but later decides it was because of the nature of the scandal -- no one cares about consensual adult sexual activities these days, however kinky. Racism, sexism, trans- and homophobia, will however, bring down the full weight of public judgment.

So You've Been Publicly Shamed is full of interesting and pertinent ideas in a world where social media has claimed the power of the mob. It's also highly readable, funny and sometimes sad.

*Edited to add: I didn't realise when I wrote this post that Max Mosley had recently died. Another coincidence.

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