Reviews — From the May 2015 issue

The Deep, Dark, Ugly Thing

Can shame shape society?

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Discussed in this essay:

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson. Riverhead. 304 pages. $27.95.
Is Shame Necessary?, by Jennifer Jacquet. Pantheon. 224 pages. $22.95.

Say you tweet something you mean to be funny and edgy to your Twitter followers — all 170 of them — before boarding a plane to South Africa to visit relatives, something about hoping you don’t get AIDS in Africa, which of course you won’t, because you’re white. You can afford to be funny because you’re not racist — your relatives are ANC supporters, after all — you’re merely commenting on racially disproportionate AIDS statistics in Africa. Who would take you literally? Except that you wake up after an eleven-hour flight to find almost a hundred thousand tweets calling you every vicious name imaginable. You’re one of the top worldwide trends on Twitter, the most hated racist on the planet.

Illustration by Eda Akaltun

Illustration by Eda Akaltun

Twitter users doubtless already recognize the incautious tweeter as Justine Sacco, a thirty-year-old P.R. executive with an online persona that Jon Ronson, the author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, describes as “a social media Sally Bowles, decadent and flighty and unaware that serious politics were looming.” Many thought that Sacco — the entirety of whose tweet reads, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” — got what she deserved. The world waited in real time for her plane to land and for Justine to see the response; there was even a photographer at the airport when she disembarked. And the public shaming didn’t last merely a few hours, or a day: over the next ten days her name was googled more than a million times. She was fired (true, public relations didn’t seem to be her calling), lambasted on TV news programs, and followed to the gym by a reporter. Every tweet she’d ever posted was exhumed and microscopically examined for evidence of further character flaws. There were many to be found, because what had seemed breezy when Justine was tweeting to her friends looked very different now that she’d been established as a moral monster. Welcome to modern shaming, where an ill-considered joke can ruin your life.

Ronson’s book, along with Jennifer Jacquet’s Is Shame Necessary?, gave me hope, before I read them, that I’d emerge at the end miraculously cured of my own chronic shame. No such luck. Neither author sets out to alleviate the pain of the afflicted; in fact, neither is especially interested in the psychology of shame per se. Their territory is the ethics of shaming. Ronson is pretty much against the whole business, while Jacquet, in a surprise twist, is rather a fan. Her appreciation for shaming stems from political optimism: she believes in human improvability and thinks that shame could be what it takes to get people to shape up, especially those acting against the public good. Ronson focuses more on who we are than who we should be, and is far less sanguine about humanity’s moral prospects, though he does at least manage to wrest a certain mirth from his pessimism.

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is the author of Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation (Metropolitan). Her most recent review for Harper’s Magazine, “Me, Myself, and Id,” appeared in the August 2014 issue.

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