I recently spoke with Jon Ronson about his latest book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed. It's about people who've had their lives ruined from online shaming.
In the book, Jon spent time with recipients of online shaming, including Jonah Lehrer, The Silence and Respect photo person, the people fired in the dongle joke incident, and Justine Sacco, who tweeted "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!".
I was sickly fascinated by the book. I think it's Ronson's best book, and I have loved every book he's written (Men Who Stare at Goats, Lost at Sea, The Psychopath Test, etc.). I kept telling my wife how great this book was while I was reading it, and she became intrigued, so I had to rip it down the spine and give the first half to her while I finished the second half. We both had the same feeling from reading it — a fear of tweeting, and reluctance to join in on an online shame pile-on.
I spoke to Jon by phone.
Mark Frauenfelder: Both my wife and I were enthralled by the book. We had to rip the book down the middle of the spine so we could split it as we were going through it.
Jon Ronson: That is very cool. Well, here's hoping. I'll tell you what, if it does do well … I worked fucking hard on it. It was like three years of pulling my skin off.
Mark: Oh, yeah. I can tell. You had to travel a lot.
Jon: And just think, think about what I thought about this subject. It took an awful lot of thought, you know? It was a lot of thinking, and structuring, and the pain of … Anyway, I don't want to complain.
Mark: Yeah, because it's going to be worth it.
Jon: Thank you.
Mark: One of the things I think that it did was that it actually kind of changed my behavior and my wife's behavior. We are now consciously trying not to be critical about things. You know when William Shatner said he wasn't going to go to Leonard Nimoy's funeral? I said, "That's kind of a dick move," and Carla said, "You know what? We don't know what's going on in his life and I learned from Jon's book, I'm not going to pass any judgement on him. He might have his reasons."
Jon: That's really nice. That is really nice. Because I don't have to lose critical faculties of humans, but at the same time our capacity for judging other people has gone through the roof. I mean, this very point is one of things I just agonized over because public shaming's bad, but is satire bad? I had to really decide … I had to draw my own line to say what do I think is okay, what do I think is not okay? These were the issues that came into the writing of it.
There's nothing wrong with satire, there's nothing wrong with investigative journalism, there's nothing wrong with criticism, but there is something wrong with the kind of disproportionate tearing apart of somebody who hasn't really done anything wrong. Disproportionate punishment, that's what the book's attacking. Knee-jerk attack, knee-jerk judgment, knee-jerk punishment. I think believing that doesn't take away from any of the little wonderful things our critical faculties give us, like the capacity to be investigative, satirical, critical. None of those things change, it's just disproportionate judgment and punishment. That's what I think my book is hoping to change.
Mark: I think that the people that you profiled, really, none of them did anything where they actually hurt someone, or tried to defraud anyone. Did you purposely pick people who were disproportionately punished for their transgression?
Jon: Yeah, I thought really carefully about who to include in the book. What I learned, quite early on actually, was that if you choose the wrong case you lose the argument. For instance … This is bad, I'm about to tell you a story that doesn't slant well on me … I did a TV show recently in England and it was kids, teenagers, with mental health issues. It was a discussion. There were four of us in the middle and then there was about two or three hundred kids with mental health issues. For the first forty-five minutes it was wonderful, it was absolutely brilliant. These kids were … It was wonderfully de-stigmatizing. These kids were telling their stories and talking about the problems that they were having with the NHS [United Kingdon's National Health Service]. It was truly remarkable television, it felt like we changing something.
Then for the last ten minutes they decided to change the format and make it more of a kind of question time type thing. Which in Britain is where you shout to each other about current events. They changed it and it was no longer questions about mental health issues, it was what did we think about this football player called Ched Evans who was convicted of rape and served [5 years in prison]. And when he got out of prison he wanted to restart his football career. There was a massive outcry that he shouldn't be allowed back in to be a professional football player. That was the question.
The guy sitting next to me was Alastair Campbell, who was Tony Blair's right-hand man for like ten years, a significant person in British politics. He said "I think Ched Evans should be allowed to play football again because reentry is a really important concept in the justice system," and he was ripped apart. All the kids were like, "You're saying forgive the rapist!?" You can imagine what everybody was saying. "No forgivenes! No way back in!" Alistair Campbell was looking at me as if to say, "Help. You feel this way, too, right, Jon? This is what you're talking about in your book, that everyone's becoming a hanging judge." In that instance I just thought, there's certain cases where you just can't win. And the wider point that I'm trying to make in my book will be lost if I choose the wrong people to defend. So I didn't join in with Alastair Campbell and I said to him afterwards that was the reason why. That he'd hitched the argument to the wrong case.
Yeah, so that's the answer to your question. I very deliberately chose who I chose because I knew, for instance, if I wanted to make a point about how Twitter sort of launched against Woody Allen, I read all of these things that said, "He always looked like a rapist to me. He always look like a pedophile to me." Which I felt was veering slightly into the realm of antisemitism. I know that if I'd written about that all my nuanced points would have been lost. So, yes, that's why I deliberately chose the people that I did. I wanted to choose people who had been disproportionately torn apart. Where the disproportion was incredibly evident. People who'd had their lives destroyed for a year and a half for making the joke that landed badly.
What do you think about that answer? What's your view on what I just said?
Mark: I think you're right. You need to kind of draw the line somewhere and obviously it has to be your own personal line, what your comfortable with and what you're not comfortable with. You're absolutely right, that book would not have been nearly as strong if you were going to defend who you personally considered indefensible. I think you did the right thing.
Jon: Exactly. Yesterday somebody said to me, "Oh, here's another ridiculous one. Some transgender person was called a fruit-loop and the person who called them a fruit-loop on Twitter was like torn apart." I thought, I'm not going to defend that person. That's not the point of my book. It's not to say anybody can say anything, because it's not true. I am a politically correct person who is completely against jokes about misogyny and homophobia and so on. Again, this isn't a book defending that kind of thing. This is a book very specifically about how our earnest desire to do good is taking a hell of a lot of scalps of people who don't deserve it and it's spiraled out of control. Nobody quite realizes that just yet, but I think people are beginning to realize it.
Mark: I wanted to talk a little bit about Jonah Lehrer, the first person and kind of the recurring star of your book.
Jon: Of course, Jonah's slightly different to the other people of the book because his transgression was somewhat more serious.
Mark: It was more serious and I was one of those kind of people who thought, "I never want to read another thing by him again," but then after reading your book I completely changed my opinion and thought, "This guy does deserve another chance." I think he probably learned from this. The punishment he received was so crushing and humiliating, it was way out of proportion to what he did. I think part of it is he kind of look likes a smug person in his photos and people jumped on the chance to punish someone.
Jon: That happens a lot. I'm sure Justine Sacco was in part destroyed because of the way that she looked. The way people look seems to form part of it sometimes. You're right I think the fact that Jonah looked like this smug person. I read the nicest thing the other day online about my book, somebody wrote that I've managed to humanize Jonah Lehrer without letting him off the hook. And that's exactly what I was intending, too. It's not my desire, nor my place, to exonerate Jonah Lehrer for what he did, but I think you can still write something sympathetic, and humanizing, and human, about the horrific situation that he found himself and the horrific situation weirdly that Michael Moynihan found himself in as well, without passing judgment on the severity of his transgression. I was so pleased, actually. That sounds now like the most obvious thing in the world to me, the most obvious conclusion in the world to come to, but it took me months to come to that. I was thinking if I think what happened to Jonah was brutal, does that mean I have to say that I think what he did was no big deal? That made me feel incredibly uncomfortable because I don't think what he did was no big deal. I think he did some really stupid things and then the way he tried to cover it up was really stupid. It was a really good feeling to realize that I could humanize Jonah, could make people be in Jonah's shoes, without having to try and exonerate his transgression.
Mark: Do you stay in touch with him? Have you become friends with Jonah?
Jon: No, he emailed me the other day and said basically … Because after the interview he asked me, I saw this at the end of the book in the acknowledgements, that he kind of expressed some regrets after talking to me. I said, "No, you've gone on the record, you have to be in the book. Once you're on the record, you're on the record." We lost contact after that, but he emailed me the other day and seemed actually in rather good spirits, like finally after two and half years he's found some peace and some happiness. I know that he's going to bring out a book at some point in the next eight months or something. We'll see what happens. We'll see whether three years, or however long it is, is enough time to be silent. For people to give him another chance.
Mark: Yeah, I can not wait to see how book does and how it's received.
Jon: Yeah, I would like him to have another chance not so much because of who he is and what it is that he does and what he's done. I'd like him to have a second chance, or another chance, because I want to live in a world where people have another chance. Basically, that's the world I want to live in. You too, right?
Mark: Yeah, absolutely. I think you're right. One person I don't think you mentioned in the book, but kind of an interesting case is Shia LaBeouf. Do you remember how he got caught plagiarizing Daniel Clowes' Eightball comic book? He plagiarized the story and made a short film out of it. People started shaming him and he …
Jon: That's absolutely right. Didn't he fly a plane apologizing?
Mark: Yeah, what he did was his apologizes were just plagiarized apologies that he found online of famous peoples' apologies and he …
Jon: As a joke?
Mark: Yeah, he turned the whole thing into this art performance joke and in this weird way deflected the shaming. It was an interesting strategy that I think kind of worked for him. Even though I think what he did was far worse than what Jonah Lehrer did, I mean he just completely lifted a comic book story word for word and put his name on it.
Jon: Yes, well because until you … It's something that I've kind of realized quite early on with this, is that unless I've properly sat down and thought about a particular case I'm wrong to kind of openly talk about it. I think what you said is really interesting and of course he's had subsequent issues.
Mark: Somehow he just absorbs it and make it part of who he is.
Mark: I was curious, have you been following what happened to that guy who made the Jon Ronson Twitterbot that you had in your introduction to your book?
Jon: I have a vague notion that somebody set up a Twitterbot with his name and then he tried to get it banned and people would say nothing at all. Ironic. At the same time, obviously anybody reading my book will know that I don't want them punished anymore and I don't feel in any way aggrieved by them at all. I don't want anybody to, you know, I don't want their lives to be any worse. I want their lives to be good, actually. I want them to have happy lives.
Mark: I noticed after your article … I think that when the excerpt ran, on maybe it was the New York Times Magazine or The Guardian, people started Tweeting with his name saying that he's a sociopath, and a psychopath, and watch out for him and stuff. There was a new shaming. It was pretty ironic.
Jon: Yeah, which obviously is the last thing I would want to happen. The whole point of that story is that people went too far straight away. I was definitely surprisingly hurt — no, not hurt. I was definitely … It was very frustrating and it was weirdly affecting to discover that all these people who thought they were following me were following this other thing and I had no control over what this other thing was saying. That was a kind of profoundly odd and uncomfortable situation to be in. You spend your life trying to work out who you are and then that's out of your control. Somebody else decides who you are. That was kind of odd, but on the other hand, it did only have like fifty Twitter followers. It wasn't a huge deal. I certainly wouldn't want those people to be punished or shamed. I think if anybody tried to punish or shame them then they're missing the nuance of the story.
Mark: Yeah, exactly. And they did end up removing Twitterbot. They ultimately did the right thing.
Jon: They didn't remove it. They froze it. It's still there archived on Twitter if anybody want to see it. It doesn't do any more Tweets.
Jon: The most interesting moment, I didn't really realize this at the time, I only realized it the other day because I read it in a comment underneath the Guardian piece, somebody said the most disturbing line of that entire video was when the guy in the middle said the Internet is not the real world. Because it is! The point of my book is to show that the Internet really is the real world and if somebody's destroyed on the internet it has profound and deeply traumatizing real world consequences. It's interesting that I missed the key moment of that interview. It didn't strike me as the key moment, but it is the key moment, I think.
Mark: I agree. Of all the people that you featured in your book, Justine Sacco, Lindsey Stone, Jonah Lehrer, and the Donglegate trio, do you feel any of them have gotten their life back to some degree?
Jon: Yeah, I think a lot of them have. Jonah is going to come out with a new book and I really hope people give it a chance, I really do. Justine has got a new job now. She's happy and she's dating. It took her a year, her punishment was a year, for a joke that landed badly. That's kind of a long sentence.
Mark: Yeah, that's scary.
Jon: Lindsey, even longer. She was really distressed. Distressed doesn't do it justice. Distressed, traumatized deeply. She said she felt completely worthless. That lasted at least a year and a half. I saw her on Sunday and she also is fine now. Actually, a lot of people in my book are fine now. Adria [Richards] still hasn't got another job, but Hank has. Seeing through the anecdote a little, it seems the kind of minimum punishment is like a year after the fact being told that you're worthless, you're subhuman. It's a year minimum, but then after a couple of years most people seem to get better, for their lives to get better.
Mark: Also, it's just that the people who were shaming and attacking have moved on to other things.
Jon: Yeah. Of course it's all there: the disdain, the scarlet letters there at the top of Google. You still always got the problem, but with Justine, when you type Justine Sacco's name into Google now, either the first or the second thing you get is my piece saying that her punishment was evidently disproportionate. Even with Justine things are beginning to change.
Mark: So what is the solution when you're shamed? To wait it out and accept the punishment you've been given and wait to get back your life back?
Jon: Yeah, it's really kind of a counter-intuitive thing to do. If I was publicly shamed my instinct would be to talk back and try to explain and justify myself, but that is absolutely the worst thing to do. As soon as you do that … It happened to me the other week. The New York Times excerpt came out with Justine's story and most people loved it, but a few people didn't. A few people thought I was putting my cape on to defend a racist. They let me know that, vociferously. I didn't respond to them at all. I just sent out one Tweet that said, "By the way people who read the excerpt in the New York Times, it wasn't a standalone article, it was actually an excerpt from the book." That's the only thing I said, and then somebody immediately went, "Oh, Jon Ronson's now saying that it's an excerpt from a book." So even that was used against me. Then all these people replied and they were like, "Why are you writing back to us? Why are you writing back to us?" Then somebody wrote, "Oh, he only responds to men." If they knew me, all my friends … I have no male friends, I'm entirely sexless. I'm like a eunuch from Game of Thrones. Obviously, I was fitting into this preconceived notion of what I was. That's what people say. That's what Hank said to me. I listened back to the Hank interview quite recently and at one point he said, "These people don't know me. I was fitting into a kind of preconceived notion." I was fitting into their preconceived notion.
So, the wisest thing to do is actually the most frustrating thing to do, which is to go absolutely silent and say absolutely nothing. That's the smartest way.
Mark: Do you think if Justine Sacco just would have not said a single thing … should she have deleted her Tweet, or should she just have left it there and not ever say anything about it?
Jon: No, I think she had to. I think she did the right thing. She deleted the Tweet, and then apologized, and then went silent. I saw a whole bunch of people go, "here's Justine Sacco's redemption campaign." It's really it not. It was me emailing her repeatedly and convincing her to talk. This wasn't her initiative at all, it was mine. She didn't want to do and she'd never done it before or since. The only other time she ever talked to a journalist was she talked Sam Biddle out on a kind of off the record dinner, because Sam Biddle was repeatedly writing incredibly mean things about her and she just felt this can't go on. She took him out for dinner and they had an off the record dinner. That's the only other time she's ever talked to a journalist about this stuff.
Mark: Did that calm Biddle down?
Jon: Yeah, in fact it made him realize that she was human. She said to me afterwards that she felt he had some real guilt over it. Yeah, it did calm him down. In the end he sort of apologized to her. He wrote a column in Gawker apologizing to her.
Mark: Well, that's good.
Jon: Yeah. It's impossible. Once you really think about the Justine Sacco thing, it's really difficult, even if you're inclined to think of her as a villain, it's really, really difficult to continue thinking that way. It's just not true. She was trying to make an ironic, self-reflective joke.
Mark: About white privilege.
Jon: Yeah, she was making fun of white privilege. She wasn't expressing white privilege, she was making fun of white privilege in exactly the same way as Randy Newman would in a song, or South Park would. It wasn't a good joke like Randy Newman or Trey Parker would have done. It wasn't a good joke, but that's what it was.
Mark: Yeah, a year's punishment for a bad joke.
Jon: Yeah, a year's punishment for a bad version of a Randy Newman song.
Mark: Exactly. Personally, are you more careful about being sarcastic when you Tweet now? Do you avoid being sarcastic?
Jon: I am more careful and I really don't like that. I feel that's the equivalent of "girls don't wear short skirts," you know what I mean? You know that expression right? It happened quite recently that a police woman, an English police woman Tweeted, "It's Saturday night. Girl's be careful, don't dress provocatively." Obviously, she was torn apart for saying that, but it's the same thing. It's victim blaming to say don't be like Justine Sacco, or don't be like Lindsey Stone. It's victim blaming. What you should be thinking is don't be the person who rips Justine Sacco to shreds.
Mark: Yeah, you're absolutely right. That's true, but I'm still not going to … I'm going to be really careful about …
Jon: Being sarcastic.
Mark: … Yeah. I just am.
Jon: Well, we're living in surveillance state now. It's not the NSA. I love this, this is what Michael Fertig said to me in the book — I said to him, "This is like the NSA." He said, "No it's worse than the NSA. Because the NSA look at the terrorists where as we are destroying each other."
Mark: Yeah, it's scary.
Jon: It's really true, everyone's very upset about the NSA, but we're doing it to each other. I am far more likely to be torn apart by my neighbor than I am to be torn apart by the NSA.
Mark: That's true.
Jon: It's funny, these ironies. We sleepwalked into these ironies.
Mark: Yeah, we have. It's interesting how we all have cellphones now to record everything we see in the street. People yelling at each other, or being rude, or parking. They have a website devoted to people who park poorly, who park in bike lanes. Somebody's selling like stickers that say, "I parked in a bike lane," and you like slap it on the car, take a picture of the car parked in the bike lane and their license plate, and then post it on Instagram with that hashtag.
Jon: Yeah, exactly. We sleepwalked into this, and, yes, individually a lot of these things have merit, but the problem is it's a tidal wave of these things now. As a tidal wave it's a surveillance society. I'm sure a lot of the people who were victimized by the Stasi had committed some sort of transgression, but the point is we do not want a Stasi-like like society. It really doesn't work out.
Mark: Do you see any hope other than educating people that it's bad to shame disproportionately?
Jon: I'm hoping, because it's clearly wrong. What's happening is clearly wrong. I'm hoping my book and things like it will correct it and that people will start to change their behavior.
Mark: I think the book, besides being super fascinating, is an important service. I really hope it changes people behavior in the way that it did to me and Carla.
Jon: Mark, that's incredibly nice of you to say.