Back when I was a pre-teen, I was mesmerized by documentaries. I remember watching Michael Moore accept his Academy Award for Bowling for Columbine and being enthralled by his acceptance speech (I even asked my parents who the Teamsters were), despite only being 8 years old during the 2000 elections. For the rest of the decade, I continued to consume this very particular type of documentary; documentaries that guided us through our wacky world, all spearheaded by a charismatic host who’s more than willing to bite off more than they can chew. For a pre-teen boy, documentary filmmakers like Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore were the prophets of truth who spoke to how the World Really Worked, Man. I could tell they had an impact because of the wave of imitators they spawned, all with their unique take on post-Gonzo journalism. As time wore on, I eventually discovered that both filmmakers and their adherents were not as honest or thorough as I was led to believe. They were largely entertaining, sure, but I developed a healthy skepticism for the popular nonfiction crowd, whether they worked in film or print.
Which brings us to one Jon Ronson.
Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a bleeding edge nonfiction text that lures readers in with the promise of dissecting society’s recent infatuation with social media witch hunts and what it says about our culture. The abridged version of this review is “Ronson definitely doesn’t deliver on this promise in a meaningful way,” but I’m really fascinated with the myriad of ways that this book fails to come up with anything interesting to say about a very real social phenomenon that really should be studied in more depth. Rather than delving into the topic myself (listen, I’m an English student that really should be working on this Chaucer capstone project, I don’t have the time or resources to dissect this complicated social issue with the due diligence it deserves), I will summarize a selection of Ronson’s failings instead:
1. The Framing
I had never heard of Ronson before reading this book, but I was not surprised to find out (through a cursory googling) that he is a documentary maker, in addition to being a journalist. The entire book reads much like a slickly made popular documentary, rather than an informative foray into the phenomenon of public shamings. For the most part, the events of the book are presented in a neat chronological order, where Ronson bops around to different interviews and faux-gonzo journalism setpieces in between ruminating on Big Questions About Humanity.
Not only that, but some of the stories of public shamings are presented in ‘real-time,’ meaning that Ronson just so happened to be interviewing people as they experience different effects of the shaming over multiple interviews. The ‘real-time’ sections definitely give the book a real feeling of recency and urgency, but at the cost of losing the distance sometimes required for thoughtful analysis. It may turn pages, but hoo boy, it doesn’t exactly feed the mind.
The other sacrifice of this documentary framing is that this book is really about Jon Ronson more than anything else. Almost every single detail of this book is filtered through Jon’s own experience. One Goodreads reviewer summed the book up perfectly as “the story of how he became aware of the topic […]. He offers no conclusions, just narcissistic vignettes.” Ronson is constantly at the center of the action, whether it is important to the narrative or not. For instance, rather than simply depicting a “Radical Honesty” workshop and letting the attendees speak for themselves, Ronson butts in to tell the reader what he’s doing instead:
“Jack the veterinarian sex addict […] took the Hot Seat. He recounted a time his father physically attacked his mother in front of him. It was a heartbreaking story. He closed his eyes tightly as he told it, so I took the opportunity to quickly check Twitter. I hate not knowing what’s happening on Twitter.”
I understand that this is supposed to be a humorous juxtaposition or a commentary about how social media-addled our minds are, but Ronson’s irreverent tone rarely comes across as funny or clever. Ronson does have a more respectful tone, but unfortunately it contributes to the next problem with the book.
2. Jon Ronson is Naïve as Hell
Over the course of the book, Ronson interviews several individuals who have been publicly shamed for various reasons, from Justine Sacco to Max Mosley, sometimes mere weeks after their social media shamings. Normally, this level of dedication to the topic would be applauded, except Ronson doesn’t actually challenge the narratives of his subjects, he just regurgitates them.
For instance, Justine Sacco, the woman who infamously tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” before hopping on an international flight to South Africa, is painted in a sympathetic light. Her racist, classist tweet isn’t depicted in the book as a grossly insensitive comment worthy of scorn, but rather as “a joke about a dire situation that does exist in post-apartheid South Africa that we don’t pay attention to,” in Justine’s own words. So actually it wasn’t a mean joke, it was actually spreading awareness of an issue and Justine Sacco is more of an activist for change than the hordes of shamers lying in wait on Twitter. Rather than grilling Sacco on this, Ronson goes to bat for her and details the time he made a joke about his own white privilege in a column for The Guardian:
“There are signs everywhere saying: ‘The use of cell phones is strictly prohibited.’ I’m sure they won’t mind me check my text messages I think. I mean, after all, I am white.
My joke was funnier than Justine’s joke. It was better worded. Plus, as it didn’t invoke AIDS sufferers, it was less unpleasant. So mine was funnier, better worded, and less unpleasant.”
Somehow this illustration of how “[Sacco’s] reflexive sarcasm had been badly worded,” failed to drum up any sympathy from me.
One of the main narrative through lines of the book centers on the shaming of Jonah Lehrer, the pop-science wunderkind whose books How we Decide and Imagine were recalled after a journalist uncovered that one of his books featured fabricated quotes and plagiarized content. Ronson opens the book with an exhaustively detailed story about journalist Michael C. Moynihan’s interactions with Lehrer, characterizing Lehrer as a sniveling man who would desperately do anything to avoid being outed as a fraud. However, Ronson interviews Lehrer over the course of the entire book, going to great lengths to humanize the man who was shamed. I don’t necessarily have anything against Ronson’s attempts to humanize Lehrer, but he doesn’t even seem to entertain the idea that Lehrer was a compulsive liar who actively attempted to cover up his own tracks. Additionally, recent press for Lehrer’s latest book seems to suggest that he has moved on from fabrication to broad, general statements that cannot be proved or disproved. Ronson spends way more time actively defending the actions of his subjects instead of questioning them, which makes him seem like a naïve, ineffective journalist more than anything.
Ronson’s worst tendencies come to a head when he interviews Max Mosley, a former British auto racer who was embroiled in a sex scandal in the late 00s. In 2008, a journalist at News of the World published a tell-all account of how Mosley frequented a BDSM club and engaged in what was later defined as a “’standard’ S-and-M prison scenario” that featured “German military jackets, striped prison uniforms, and medical examinations and Mosley speaking in German or with a fake German accent.” The rub of this story is that Max Mosley is the son of Sir Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford, two prominent British Nazi-sympathizers who were personally acquainted with Hitler in the 1930s. Because of this connection, News of the World spun the story as “F1 Boss has Sick Nazi Orgy with Five Hookers,” leading to an extended court case where Mosley successfully argued that his privacy was violated by the article. After all of the explanation of Mosley’s case, Ronson does not approach him as a man with Nazi ties who engaged in coincidentally concentration camp-esque BDSM play, but as “a standard-bearer for our right to feel unashamed.” Somehow, Ronson takes away from Mosley’s example that there is a way to weather a public shaming, no matter how bad. I’ll give Ronson some slack for possibly being restricted by the United Kingdom’s more restrictive libel laws, and I don’t want to explicitly kinkshame Mosley, but I can’t believe that Ronson didn’t look at Mosley’s scandal and think “Hey, maybe the guy with lowkey Nazi parents who engaged in ‘German’ prison play probably needs to unpack some things.” His lack of a critical eye just continues to bury the more interesting and complicated parts of his story because he instantly believes almost anything his subjects tell him.
3. Ronson’s Arguments Don’t Really Hold Up
With all this in mind, you would expect that Ronson clearly had some idea of what argument he wanted to make about public shamings. Unfortunately, the argument doesn’t get much deeper than “They Are Bad.” The jacket of the book promises much more in-depth findings, such as, “We are mercilessly finding people’s faults. We are defining the boundaries of normality by ruining the lives of those outside it. We are using shame as a form of social control.” These arguments aren’t necessarily that off base when examined on their own, but the book doesn’t do a good job of defending them.
The chief problem that pops up in the book is the sheer lack of sympathy he manages to generate for his subjects. Make no qualms about it, Sacco, Lehrer, Mosley, and the other subjects are hard to like because of their actions and reactions. Ronson likes to evoke the “escalating war on flaws” to denounce shamings and defend the shamed, but should we really consider telling racist jokes, pathological lying or unexamined Nazi sympathies to be flaws that should be ignored and accepted? These arguments give license to the intolerant wings of society to be absolved of any responsibility for their actions. I would argue that their despicableness doesn’t emerge so much from the acts themselves, but more so in how the shamed emerge without seeming to learn anything from the experiences. Ronson concedes that “People’s flaws need to be written about,” but counters that with “there are more human flaws that, when you shine a light onto them, de-demonize people who might otherwise be seen as ogres.” Unfortunately, the tales of Sacco, Lehrer, and Mosley do not support this narrative. In this world, a racist tweet becomes a poorly worded joke meant to spread awareness; a habitual fabricator becomes a writer who made minor mistakes that snowballed. I certainly agree with Ronson that we should show a little empathy for those who have been publicly shamed, rather than instantly jumping down their throats, but that shouldn’t be an excuse for them to walk away from making harmful mistakes without confronting why they were wrong. Nobody learns anything that way.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson, Riverhead Books, MSRP: $16.00