Social media has brought about a “renaissance of public shaming”, which by and large is a healthy development: it means “the democratisation of justice”. So Jon Ronson used to think until he started coming across stories like Justine Sacco’s. Sacco was the New York PR executive who in 2013 tweeted a clumsy joke: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” The tweet—actually meant to satirise Western complacency—went viral, with thousands denouncing her supposed “racist ignorance” and delighting in the sacking they were helping to make inevitable. “We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired,” one tweeter rejoiced. “In REAL time.”
Sacco did indeed lose her job, along with her reputation and her sense of self: “I can’t fully grasp the misconception that’s happening around the world,” she tells Ronson in this timely study of public humiliation. The subject suits Ronson: he has a gift for sitting down with people, clearing away prejudices and assumptions, and letting them emerge in their humanity and complexity. And his patience gets a reward. You might expect that anyone speaking to Jon Ronson would keep their guard up, but you would be wrong. The human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith eagerly gives away the secret of demolishing an expert witness: bring up an obscure subject, however irrelevant, on which the expert feels “incapable of saying they don’t know. So they’ll gradually walk down the garden to the place where they look really stupid.” A man whose visits to a prostitute were exposed describes the shattering moment when they shared a laugh together: “she became human to me then. She was no longer an object. And that was the puncturing of the fantasy. It was anything I could do to get out of there.”
In many ways, this is a book about dehumanisation, a necessary part of hurting a complete stranger. Like the rest of Ronson’s work, it is full of implausible true stories told with real narrative skill and a kind of shambling charm, as though the author is unsure he is entitled to ramp up so much dramatic tension. The drawback is that he leaps from anecdote to anecdote without much of a theoretical map. The book might have benefited from a glance or two at anthropology—at, say, René Girard’s influential theory of the scapegoat. Girard argues that envy steals into human relations and builds up over time, until a group arbitrarily chooses some sacrificial object on which to pour out its anger. Ronson’s book prompts the possible conclusion that while our ancestors responded to the pressure by slaughtering animals, a more rational and enlightened age deals with it by eviscerating PR executives. As Sacco says: “I’m really suffering . . . Everybody else was very happy about that.”
Ronson does observe that shame comes in cycles. A psychiatrist tells him that, in years of studying prison inmates, “I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed or humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed.” Ronson wonders whether his own experience of being bullied at school might lie behind his participation in public shamings. This is where the book’s argument gets really interesting, as Ronson realises that he is part of the furious online moral majority: “They weren’t the mob. We were the mob. I’d been blithely doing the same thing for a year or more.” He felt “weird and empty”, he recalls, when there was nobody to hate.
So just when you think the book is going to fall between two stools, being too disturbing for Ronson’s comic brilliance and too anecdotal to say anything very profound about shame, it turns out to be a kind of insider’s exposé . Ronson’s observations are not hugely original, but they become gripping when delivered by someone with more than 100,000 Twitter followers and experience of encouraging public shamings. Ronson admits that his moral righteousness, though it often began from good motives, concealed superficiality: “I had only the vaguest recollection of who I’d piled onto and what were the terrible things they’d done to deserve it.” He sees how the appetite for feeling outraged can overwhelm truth, as with Twitter’s destruction of “the privileged racist Justine Sacco, who was neither especially privileged nor a racist. But it didn’t matter. It was enough that it sort of seemed like she was.” He notes, too, that Twitter storms involve “defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside of it”. It doesn’t look much like democratic justice.
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Colonel Sherburn confronts a lynch mob. “You’re afraid to back down”, he tells them: “afraid you’ll be found out for what you are—cowards—and so you raise a hell, and . . . come raging up here, swearing what big things you’re going to do.” The crowd loses heart, and everybody goes home. It would be nice to think Ronson’s courageous honesty might have a similarly pacifying effect, though that might depend on whether Mark Twain’s notions of crowd psychology still apply on the internet.