So you’ve been publicly shamed, by Jon Ronson

My first intention was to start this post by mentioning the Danny Baker affair, and linking it to the book I wanted to talk about: So you’ve been publicly shamed, by Jon Ronson. While the situation is not exactly the same as some of the cases commented in the book, the public outrage element is there. Therefore, I wanted to say something along the lines of: it is a good moment to talk about this book, since just two days ago we had an episode of public shaming… Yet the reason why I think this book is great and reveals some issues brought up by social media especially is the fact that I could start the post this way almost any day of the year. There is nothing special this week—there is always another case of online shaming.

Jon Ronson follows the cases of some people that have been publicly shamed, usually through social media, and wonders what happened to them. Jon Ronson is well known for some of his previous books, such as The men who stared at goats and The psychopath test. He has a very particular style—which I would not know how to describe, but I like it. And this book has improved my understanding of something I have become more and more interested in the past months: human nature.

I will just mention a couple of episodes that the book explores. One of them is the case of Justine Sacco, who, while in Heathrow airport on her way to South Africa, she tweeted the following: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!“. When she landed, she was trending topic in Twitter, someone took a picture of her in the airport, was denied the stay in some of the hotels she had booked, and lost her job. Thousands of people tweeted against her.

I have had arguments about this tweet, although the counterparty will remain anonymous. There seems to be honest outrage at it. One could take it as she making fun of the fact that AIDS affects African people relatively more. But one can also take it as making fun of how some white people live in a bubble and think this type of things cannot happen to them. I tend to believe the latter.

But the question is: should that matter? I think so, but I am not sure it does for many people. Some seemed to mildly defend her, such as Andrew Wallenstein: “repugnant as her joke was, there is a difference between outright hate speech and even the most ill-advised attempt at humour…” The charge of hate speech seem to come logically from the charge that the joke was racist.

Sam Biddle, a journalist and one of the first to retweet the joke (to shame her), explains it: “Her destruction was justified, because Justine was a racist, and because attacking her was punching up.” This element is key: I am doing good by destroying this person, because this person is evil. The assumption that Justine was racist did not need to be challenged. The tweet was racist, and hence she must be.

Another of the cases that I found most interesting, especially because I remember it, is the case of Alex and Hank (not their real names). They were in a tech developers conference. It seems they made a joke that could be seen as sexual while a female developer was presenting. The crowd was big so the joke stayed among the two of them… almost. A third one, Adria Richards, heard it. She was so taken back by it—she explains that she felt “in danger“—that she turned around, took a picture of the guys, and tweeted about it. The next day Hank was fired.

How she views her actions is crucial. “There is something about crushing a little kid’s dream that gets me really angry… Yesterday the future of programming was on the line and I made myself heard.” There is a sense of epic, a sense of good versus evil, that is difficult to overstate. When asked how she felt about the fact that he was fired, she says “Not too bad… he’s a white male“.

Hank lost his job. When this happened, he issued a public statement, apologising for the joke and for how he made Adria felt. He also said that “as a result of the picture she took I was let go from my job today. Which sucks because I have 3 kids...” What happened then is that the mob took it with Adria. Not the same people, of course. It came from places like 4chan. And the website of Adria’s employer was attacked by hackers. And Adria was fired.

A parenthesis here. There is something to be studied about the type of shaming, comments and threads that people get depending on their gender. Rape threads were immediate to Justine and Adria. Mercedes Haefer, a 4chan denizen, explains it as follows: “4chan aim to degrade the target, right? And one of the highest degradations for women in our culture is rape… In our society men are supposed to be employed. If they are fired they lose masculinity points… (Adria) robbed that man of his employment, She degraded his masculinity. And so the community responded by degrading her femininity.”

When Adria saw the statement that Hank had posted, she asked to remove any reference to her. As she puts it: “no one would have known he got fired until he complained… maybe he secretly seeded the hate groups. Right?” This does not seem to be the case. But the need to link what happened to her to the evil person that she denounced is understandable.

At the time of writing the book, she did not have a job, while he did. This fact would validate many “Adria supporters” beliefs: at the end, he—a white man—is fine, while she—a jewish woman—is not. Yet if one overcomes the group classifications and think about them as individuals—a father of three who lost the job for a stupid private joke, and a woman who seems to acquire part of her identity by policing private comments—it is not difficult to see why that is the case.

I used to be quite neutral on public shaming. I would not participate in them, but I did not think much of it. Since reading this book, which I highly recommend, I am convinced they are almost always morally wrong, and they come straight from tribal feelings that we should all try to mitigate. They are there, there is no question about it—I barely could sleep last Tuesday—but we should try to keep them in check.

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