The Real, Obscured Message of ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’: Humiliation Doesn’t Work

In Jon Ronson’s interview with “Mercedes,” a 4chan activist, for his controversial nonfiction book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, she offhandedly explains why controversial site operates the way it does: “On the Internet, we have power in situations where we would otherwise be powerless.”

Ronson’s book and many similar inquiries into the social media hive mind are interested in the collective power exercised by the masses on the Internet. Unfortunately, they are less interested in the greater social dynamics that have created this vortex of self-righteous shaming, a vortex that’s often correct in ideology, if overzealous in application.

Since Ronson’s book was published, the author himself has experienced a moment of public shaming, ironically due to an ill-advised sentence in a galley that he scrapped from the final copy because it could too easily be misinterpreted. His book has also been critiqued for the way it revived an old scandal about sexist jokes at a tech conference that led to shaming and firings for both parties involved: “Hank,” one of the men who made the tasteless jokes, and Adria Richards, who posted a photo of him and has been subjected to intense, violent threats for years since doing so. As many other readers have pointed out, Ronson too easily identifies with Hank over Richards, possibly because she was wary of his interview — with reason, given what’s happened to her in the ensuing years: she’s been outed, while Hank remains anonymous). He mostly leaves out the context of sexism in the tech industry which may have explained Richards’ breaking-point reaction to the jokes she heard.

Choire Sicha’s New York Times review of Ronson’s book took on one particular piece of that missing context, serving as a concise, eloquent plea that male writers take the violent threats that women on the Internet face more seriously. It echoes a question I often ask, too: How could Ronson spend so much time on Justine Sacco, who was raked over the coals for a foolish, racist tweet — but not mention Anita Sarkeesian and other women who have been literally run out of their homes and repeatedly threatened with death? Why does he keep comparing being harassed for a few days on Twitter with traumatic events like car crashes or imprisonment?

“The people who mattered were the people on Twitter,” he says. “On Twitter we make our decisions about who deserves obliteration… This makes us formidable.” There’s a glaring lack of perspective here. Like Ronson, I know plenty of people who have been the target of Twitter outrage cycles, either personally or as part of an organization. They have to hide from Twitter for a few days, or maybe even a few weeks, and this is unpleasant. But many of them are, during this time, receiving friendly sympathy outside that online sphere — and keeping their jobs. In other words, structural power is still operating as it once did, hashtags be damned.

Yet the backlash against Ronson’s book presents a problem for another group: “women of color and trans folks, lefties, feminists, and radicals who had very deep reservations about call-out culture, purity politics, and the veneration of rage in activist circles,” says Katherine Cross at Feministing. Her post explaining how the uninformed mainstream crusade against callout culture by writers like Ronson, Jonathan Chait , and Michelle Goldberg has “allowed many activists of all backgrounds to escape public accountability for the ways in which they bully, harass, or lead mobs against ideological targets.” As she notes, voices of people within social justice communities who want to see better dialogue and less shaming are actually being silenced by this debate, caught between the folks who refuse to hear any criticism of “toxic” online interplays and the mainstream critics who ignore the larger power dynamics at play.

In the interest of furthering the discussion, then, I’ll note that Ronson’s mishandling of the Richards-Hank debacle also casts a shadow over two genuinely important takeaways from his book  — which actually help us to understand both the mechanics of shaming and the reason why people like Ronson see social media outcry as a traumatic disruptions rather than a imperfect expressions of important ideals.

First is the reason why pile-ons become as giant as they do. To begin with, we’ve all seen Internet pile-ons that begin with a kernel of absolute rightness. Someone writes or shares something inconsiderate and someone else points it out, saying, “Hey, that post sucked.” What happens next is the shaming: a thousand other people jump in and say, “I agree, that posts sucks and so does its writer!” — even when and if the subject has already apologized. Ronson explains this phenomenon by talking about feedback loops, the reason why people slow down when a speedometer reading “your speed” is posted on the road. “We express our opinion that Jutsine Sacco is a monster. We are instantly congratulated for this — for basically being Rosa Parks. We make the on-the-spot decision to carry on believing it,” he writes. Glib, sigh-worthy Rosa Parks reference aside, the concept of a feedback loop does explain the “that person sucks” cascades.

But there’s also another reason: the cascade offers an affirmation of a worldview that has been hitherto pushed out of the discourse. This gels with my experience participating in the outrage machine when I was younger. I would arrive at my keyboard frustrated that the world was talking about inane things when there were protests in the streets, life-or-death issues. I was angry at indifference, and felt isolated. And when I tweeted something motivated by righteous outrage, I got so much positive reaffirmation that I was encouraged to do so more and more. In this sense, the feedback loop created the behavior. But it was also about something deeper and more profound: it was about being less alone, feeling like I wasn’t the only person sitting at my keyboard worrying about abortion bans instead of The Bachelor.

The phenomenon was also evident at the General Assemblies that sprung up as totally free and open platforms during Occupy, and often ended up being dominated by a few voices. In a larger universe that gives so many people exactly zero voice in or say over anything that matters for them, an open forum will inevitably become a magnet for people who are desperate to be heard, even to the point of shouting over others.

So why is it so hard for journalists, even those who remain unscathed by the shame machine, to understand the more complex power dynamics at play in these interactions? Ronson actually explains this, too, in a section that delves into the psychological effects of humiliation and our fear of it. Yes, this particular discussion is set in a therapeutic prison, but it’s relevant in that it explains how antisocial or violent impulses tend to spring from humiliation and shame.

What Ronson is trying to say is that humiliation doesn’t work — even the threat of humiliation doesn’t really work. It might make people think twice about speaking candidly, but it also makes them angry, even vengeful, and perpetuates a bad cycle. Mild call-outs may create a teachable moment, but major humiliation just creates an embarrassing moment. This is useful in explaining the terror that many of us, irrationally or not, have about Twitter humiliation compared to, say, slipping on ice.

But what this analysis misses is that humiliation breeds the impulse to humiliate. And many of the people who routinely humiliate others on Twitter have probably been humiliated by the world. That’s where we need to begin, not end, the discussion.