Reviews — From the May 2015 issue

The Deep, Dark, Ugly Thing

Can shame shape society?

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Ronson is a Welsh journalist, filmmaker, and radio host who’s written books about conspiracy theorists and military psychics (the film The Men Who Stare at Goats was based on his book of the same name). His entrée into the story of modern shame came after he found his own reputation besmirched by a trio of digital pranksters who created a Twitter spambot with his name and photo, which sent out twenty embarrassing tweets a day. (“I’m dreaming something about #time and #cock.”) Soon the spambot accrued followers, many of them Ronson’s actual friends. Eventually he tracked down the identity thieves, who turned out to be a band of pompous academic postmodernists. (They argued that the spambot was “repurposing social media data into an infomorphic esthetic.”) He got his revenge by posting an interview on YouTube in which his antagonists mock him for believing in tired conventions like authenticity. In the process they come off as recondite twits. YouTube commenters, sniffing pretension, quickly rose up to humiliate Ronson’s tormentors and to threaten physical violence, leaving him feeling warmly vindicated. Through the pleasant fog of victory it occurred to him that a renaissance of public shaming is under way: it’s the democratization of justice. He decided to dive into the story.

Though his reporting methods can be haphazard, Ronson is a fantastic interviewer. He knows exactly when to play the naïf and when to move in for the kill, which he typically does so deftly that his subjects are unaware they’ve been knifed. He’s also frequently hilarious, folding his neurotic internal monologues and memo-to-self asides into his reportage. He interviews those on the receiving end of shame and those who’ve doled it out, opening with the case of Jonah Lehrer, the best-selling wunderkind science writer who torpedoed his career at the tender age of thirty-one by inventing a Bob Dylan quote. (Many other fabrications were subsequently found.) Ronson courts revelations from a reluctant Lehrer and from Michael Moynihan, the ethically agonized journalist who brought Lehrer down, re-creating the affair as a tense morality play. Lehrer is a big name, but most of the victims we meet in subsequent chapters are former nobodies who made dumb missteps or crossed ill-defined lines about what is or isn’t funny before getting ripped to shreds on social media. Now, Ronson writes, they’re “spectral figures wandering the earth like the living dead in the business wear of their former lives.”

Trying to grasp the mind-set of a shamer leads Ronson to Adria Richards, who got a tech nerd Ronson calls Hank fired after she overheard him and a friend whispering dumb insider jokes about “big dongles” and “forking repo” to each other at a conference. The jokes so offended Richards, who was sitting in the next row, that she tweeted a photo of the two men to her 12,000 followers. Ten minutes later Hank was pulled out of the audience by conference organizers; the next day he was out of a job. A socially awkward father of three, Hank was mortified about having offended anyone. He posted an online apology. Then the blowback started: men’s-rights groups and online trolls mounted a campaign against Richards and her employer, including taking down the company’s website; the next day Richards, too, was fired.

By way of explaining to Ronson why she’d felt endangered by the jokes, Richards said, “Have you ever heard that thing, ‘Men are afraid that women will laugh at them and women are afraid that men will kill them?’ ” She insisted on meeting Ronson in public out of fear for her safety. During his interview Ronson elicited Richards’s reasons for seeing the world as such a threatening place: she came from a background of family violence and horrible neglect. After the backlash over Hank’s firing, she was barraged with rape and death threats and had to go underground for six months, which no doubt confirmed, in her mind, just how accurate her fears had been all along.

Richards perfectly personifies the current situation: the Internet empowers the powerless, but it also allows people with personal demons to enact frontier justice that has real-world consequences. Another of Ronson’s great interviews introduces us to an activist-troll named Mercedes who defends online shaming as a form of social leveling. “There’s a fair understanding on the Internet of what it means to be the little guy,” she maintains. In her eyes, Justine Sacco was a stand-in for every “rich white person who’s ever gotten away with making a racist joke because they could.” Why is there so much misogyny in these attacks, Ronson asks? Mercedes proceeds to defend gendered forms of shame: Internet trolls aim to degrade their targets, she argues, and when a woman is in the crosshairs this naturally means impugning her femininity. “One of the highest degradations of women in our culture is rape,” she says.

Every shamer Ronson encounters comes from a place of shame; they’re passing their own shame around. There’s also the economics of shame to consider, and Ronson makes some interesting calculations. He estimates that Google took in as much as $456,000 from the Justine Sacco shaming alone, based on the number of people searching her name. Ronson resolves to give up public condemnations, even though he admits that he used to get antsy on days when there was no Twitter scandal raging. And he asks himself, uneasily, why is he — a former fat teenager, who was daily shamed and bullied by other teens — so attracted to shame?

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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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