There is something truly terrifying about the idea of public shame. You do something—either intentionally or not—and the public at large decides that you deserve to be destroyed as a result.
Jon Ronson’s latest book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is an exploration of this phenomenon. I just finished the book, and it struck me in a powerful way.
We come from a long line of public shaming rituals—stockades, tar and feathers, shaving someone’s head and parading them down the street, etc. Once, when I was driving through my neighborhood, I saw a father forcing his son to stand on the corner holding a giant sign that read “I AM A LIAR!”
So the Internet didn’t invent public shame, but it has certainly perfected the art.
I've been trying to write a summary of the book or any new thoughts on the subject, but my mind is still processing what I've learned and all of the implications for us as human beings. I've only personally known one or two people who have been publicly shamed by any measurable standard, but I can tell you that it changes people. It breaks them in ways that nothing else can. In order to publicly shame someone--to see a person knocked down and then to relentlessly keep kicking them over and over again--we have dismiss their humanity in our eyes. A person has to become a monster to us in order to inflict that level of pain onto them and still be able to live our lives and sleep at night. There's one case study in which a woman was being shamed on Twitter for an insensitive tweet, and one of her shamers said, "I hope this b---- gets raped by someone with AIDS..." I'm not sure how a person can say something so violent and dark and then go about his life feeling morally superior to anybody. The answer is that he convinced himself that the woman he was shaming was not a real person with real feelings. (Also, I think it's fascinating that the person who tweeted that received absolutely no public shaming from anyone)
So I'm really saying all of this so you'll watch this TED Talk or, even better, read Ronson's book. I think this a very important commentary on our current culture of posting and sharing and voicing our opinions at full volume all the time. Ronson holds up an important--albeit unpleasant--mirror, and we would be well served to see what he shows us.
I feel like Jon Ronson is giving us an opportunity to become human again.
May we accept the invitation.
(WARNING: Adult Language)