walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Jon Ronson, _So You've Been Publicly Shamed_ (the actual review)

I suffer from huge bias. I absolutely love reading Ronson's books. He is nothing like me, as near as I can tell, but he can describe what he is feeling, and he can describe what other people are feeling, in ways that I can understand. And I am _terrible_ at understanding how other people are feeling. Ronson is Magickal. And this book is a fantastic example of him at his very best.

When I think about online shaming (or offline shaming, for that matter), I think about it as a spectrum of techniques for enforcement of group norms. That is something a group _has to do_ but obvs the details matter (in terms of what is enforced and how). But it's not at all clear that Ronson understands the world in this way.

What Ronson does is point out a continuum of shaming and responses to shaming across time (altho his historical perspective is, honestly, weak at best, and he makes generalizations at times that just make me cringe -- fortunately, that's not where his focus is) and context (online, courtrooms, tabloids, etc.). He shows that shaming does more damage than many people realize when they are Dishing It Out, and he explores whether there is any possibility for redemption from social media shaming (Euro style Right to be forgotten isn't working out so well, but reputation scrubbing operations are also covered).

Ronson looks at whether specific targets of shaming campaigns actually did what they were accused of doing (appropriateness of targeting). He spends a _ton_ of time on proportionality, mostly hammering away on the idea that there isn't any proportionality anywhere in evidence. To the extent that he covers deterrence, he seems to present the deterrent effect of shaming campaigns as Not Good, which I think is unfortunate. He also looks at whether or not the people who were nominally harmed by the person ultimately shamed are satisfied with the results. He also gets into the sheer wastefulness of shaming, particularly in tabloid sex scandals of the past which led to suicides. I should point out that this is _my_ organizational scheme, not his. These are the categories I think about, when I am thinking about schemes for enforcing group norms. His presentation, which moves from one shamed person to another, with excellent attention to his own emotional responses to discussions and hilarious self-shaming (constantly looking at his phone in the Radical Honesty session -- that made me laugh), makes an excellent and compelling emotional case that shaming is not a great way to get people to behave better online. To some extent, his argument is basically, they aren't behaving that badly in the first place. And that's probably true, because when people behave really badly (like the people who perpetrated all those rape gifs in Jez comments and other Denton blogs) shaming doesn't even dent those people. Like at all. He also does not at all get into the ways in which insult culture In Real Life and online prepares people to behave badly even in the presence of significant efforts to shame them.

I spent a few years reading books about corporal approaches to discipline. My parents (who are evil -- if you pray for Jehovah God to genocide all the non JWs at least once a day for decades at a time and raise your children to do the same and ostracize them when they decide to stop, I'm prepared to call you evil) were big believers in beatings. I definitely understand the connections between anger, violence, physical punishment, shame, substance abuse, various other forms of mental illness, etc. Whenever I run into someone who had an upbringing that involved beatings and who _hasn't_ gone through some sort of cognitive process to understand what that did to them, I'm basically sitting around waiting for them to say, "But I deserved it." Ronson isn't writing that book, but he does talk about the role of shame in the criminal justice system, how it feeds into the cycle of abuse, and how treating people with respect reduces violence in general, and can help even murderers (and help the corrections system be a lot safer for everyone). Thinking about social media shaming in the context of generational abuse and more serious criminality is important, because it helps us recognize that while it _seems_ trivial, it isn't, and if we are dismissive of feelings in one context where it appears safe to do so, that is representative of how we will treat those same feelings in other contexts where it absolutely is not safe to do so. This book is another opportunity for people who have bought into a theory of human interaction that is all about You Deserve It and I'm Gonna Give It To You (and not in a good way) to start to think about human interaction in a very different way (Nobody Deserves That And It Will Hurt Me If I Dish It Out).

Because Ronson was focusing on shaming as something that the group does to an individual, and an individual experiences, I think Ronson missed out on two important components to this. One is the idea that there are alternative enforcement mechanisms. And social media _do this_ to a limited extent and will do more of it over time. You can take the shame/counter shame experience way down (and take the nuclear option away from the swamp dwellers who have inured themselves to all shame-based attacks) if you institute better Terms of Service policies and supply technology options that suppress attackers. You can do this by letting people hide themselves, hide other people from them, by creating a report-abuse mechanism with adjudication and an appeals process and other flexible moderation tools that combine technology and human judgment to help people get along together even when they don't agree, and provide conflict resolution mechanisms that don't instantly resort to character attacks and personal degradation. Ronson also downplayed or failed to observe clearly how self- or kin-network defined identity interacted with the larger social-media defined identity. Max Mosely, for example, thrived in part because he was inappropriately targeted (it wasn't Nazi themed, it was German military, and anyone who makes this mistake and then justified it as an unimportant distinction has essentially destroyed their own credibility and ability to effectively shame) and he was able to make that clear to judging observers, in part because he was extremely clear on who he was and why he did what he did, and the people who were close to him understood this as well. Mosely didn't _enjoy_ being targeted, but he definitely understood that he was engaged in conflict. It is not clear to me that Lehrer or several of the others understood that when you are being shamed, you are in conflict with others. If you aren't just going to utterly cave to rejoin the other side, you're going to have to figure out your strategy and tactics and goal and then go out there and win, whether that means smearing the other side or working towards a negotiated settlement.

It's a wonderful book, even more wonderful if when you were a child you were the victim of abuse by other children, other adults, your parents, etc. Triggery, obvs, but wonderful. It's great to read an emotionally brilliant writer articulate all that horrible stuff that is mostly felt in absence and silence, if it is felt at all.
Tags: book review, non-fiction
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