Is Shame Necessary? How About Public Shaming?

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Posted in: Book Reviews

Jon Ronson is a bestselling author and journalist who is very active on Twitter. In 2012 three academics created another Twitter account for a Jon Ronson, using a picture that seemed to be similar to him. This second Jon Ronson Twitter account began posting odd tweets generated by algorithms the academics had written. The real Jon Ronson tracked down the creators of the account and requested that they stop, but they refused. Eventually, he persuaded them to meet him at a hotel, where he made a video (with their consent) of the meeting. At this meeting, they continued to act like jerks, employing double-talk with him, and in essence insisting they could do what they want with his name and likeness.

After the session, still refusing to remove the account, Ronson posted the video on YouTube. It produces an outpouring of online support for Ronson that resulted in publicly shaming the academics, who soon closed down the bogus Twitter account. (Nothing disappears from the Internet so it is still there.) This incident prompted Ronson to write his new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Riverhead Books), where he claims, “I won. Within days, the academics took down @Jon_Ronson. They had been shamed into acquiescence.” He then reflects on “other recent social media shamings I’d enjoyed and felt proud of,” and lists shaming a columnist from London’s Daily Mail for her effort to shame the gay community, another shaming of the Daily Mail over their mishandling of a food-bank charity, and shaming the LA Fitness chain to refund membership fees to a couple who had lost their jobs and could not afford them. But, as he later reports, he has been part of so many online shamings he cannot begin to recall them all.

Ronson writes:

And then one day it hit me. Something of real consequence was happening. We were at the start of a great renaissance of public shaming. After a lull of almost 180 years (public punishments were phased out in 1837 in the United Kingdom and in 1839 in the United States), it was back in a big way. When we deployed shame, we were utilizing an immensely powerful tool. It was coercive, borderless, and increasing in speed and influence. Hierarchies were being leveled out. The silenced were getting a voice. It was like the democratization of justice. And so I made a decision. The next time a great modern shaming unfolded against some significant wrongdoer—the next time citizen justice prevailed and a dramatic and righteous way—I would leap into the middle of it. I’d investigated close-up and chronicle how efficient it was in righting wrongs.

It is at this time, this “start of a great renaissance of public shaming,” that Jennifer Jacquet, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at New York University, also decided to look at the issue in her new book Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool (Pantheon Books). Professor Jacquet, who is interested in large-scale social dilemmas like overfishing and climate change, examines the social nature of shame to suggest how it might be employed to deal with problems like abuses of our environment. She focuses on the big picture, while Jon Ronson is interested actual cases of shaming. Professor Jacquet is not viewing shaming from an ivory tower, but from a wider horizon than Ronson’s street level view. Needless to say, they are strikingly dissimilar.

Both books are nicely written but approach the subject of contemporary thinking about real world uses of shame differently. In brief, it is a scholarly dissertation versus true-crime confessions. Actually, the books complement each other well, serving as something of a check on each other. To read Jennifer Jacquet’s work, which is learned without being pedantic, provokes encouraging thoughts of all the potentials of shaming to address the planet’s social ills. To read Jon Ronson’s first-person case studies that reveal what, in fact, is occurring on the Internet, is chilling. Ms. Jacquet, occasionally joined by colleagues, undertook laboratory experiments to test ideas—and she obviously spent a lot of time reviewing the academic literature on shaming. Mr. Ronson undertook good old shoe leather investigative journalism, talking personally with people who had been shamed, and making himself part of experiences and experiments of others who were trying to deal with the aftermath of shame. For example, rather than examine studies on shame, Ronson traveled to the first home of public shaming in America, the records in Massachusetts Archives and the Massachusetts Historical society, to learn why shame had been phased out in the nineteenth century. (Not, as he thought because it became ineffective when Americans became mobile and could move on, rather because it was too inhumane.)

I read Jennifer Jacquet’s book first and felt I had a good grounding in how shame works; the differences between shame, embarrassment, and guilt based on her analysis; how shame and guilty operates in different cultures (guilt works better in individualistic cultures like ours, and shame works well in collectivist cultures); how “bad apples” create cooperative dilemmas; the relationship between norms—social, legal, cultural, religious, moral, etc.—and shame, which is a tool for enforcing norms. I found most helpful Chapter 6 offering “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Shaming,” which she captured nicely with the metaphor: “Shaming is a potent tool, but its power, as with antibiotics, depends a lot on whether the proper dose is used at the right time.”

Professor Jacquet fully understands the dark side of the Internet, and she points out: “Today, there is a whole reputation-related Internet vocabulary, such as digital footprint (what’s on the Web about you), digital dirt (the bad stuff about you online), sock puppet (an online identity used for purposes of deception), dooced (to lose your job for something you said on your website), and doxing (the active revealing of personal information about someone online).” Nonetheless, she notes that vigilantism on the Internet is not new; rather online vigilantism is merely use of a new communication tool. She does acknowledge that online shaming is faster, and “it’s no longer necessarily clear who is doing the shaming.” She has an excellent explanation of how anonymity results in people becoming disinhibited and then engaging in conduct against others they would never do if their identity was not hidden.

She examines how shame operates in the world where our attention is sought by so many—the “attention economy”—and how different people react to shaming. In the end, she clearly is convinced that strategic shaming can be useful to society, and the sooner we figure out how to use it effectively, the better: “We live on one planet. As far as we know, we are the only species that really understands that.” So if we do not develop norms to protect and sustain this planet no other species can help us. She reminds us:

This is the plight in the modern world: we now understand the exact dimensions, mass, and materials of the earth, where it is suspended in the universe, uniqueness of the life that inhabits it, the problems we have created on it, the solutions we have not implemented, and the solemn reality that this earth is, to date, our only home, and our only chance. The new norms required in this context are big ones, and the formation and reinforcement can be assisted by the wise use of shame.

For me, Professor Jacquet makes the case for the use of strategic shame to enforce widely agreed-upon norms. One of the more powerful examples she gives of shaming working that I was not aware of despite the fact I live in California: “Since 2007, the state of California has annually published an online list of the top 500 individuals and business tax delinquents whose outstanding taxes for the previous fiscal year exceed $100,000.” To date, this list has shamed up $336 million, and more than 20 other states have followed California to implement similar programs.

Jon Ronson makes an equally powerful case that shaming individuals is a dangerous game, particularly in the hands of the anonymous mobs of the Internet. Ronson, who opens his book as an enthusiastic shamer changes his mind as he visits with the human wreckage in his case studies, reports that are unsettling when not alarming.

Ronson visits with an array of people who have been hammered and destroyed by public shaming. For example, he tracks down and visits with the former New Yorker writer and author Jonah Lehrer, who was fired for plagiarism, not to mention having had two of his books withdrawn from circulation by publishers. Lehrer gave Ronson access to his efforts at public apology and his pursuit of another chance, which to date has been unsuccessful. On the other end of shame, Ronson visits with former Texas Judge Ted Poe, now a member of Congress, who is infamous for his shaming punishment of criminal defendants. Ronson discovers, however, that some of these defendants actually appreciate the shaming they received for it has given them new lives.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed places in context, and adds further detail about, the remarkable over-the-top online shaming case of Justine Sacco, whose story was excerpted from the book in the New York Times: “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life.” (I will give no spoilers, but the story is better understood in the context of the book.) Ronson also tells the tale of Adrian Richards, whose tweet at a tech conference got one man fired, and boomeranged to get her fired and subject to an online attack that would destroy her life by men on the Internet who did not think she should take offense at sexist humor.

Clearly, Jon Ronson has changed his mind about the wisdom of private shamings on the Internet. In fact, as he has said in interviews promoting his book, he hopes his book will inform those who pile on others just as he used to do will realize the devastating impact it can have—as his reports reveal. In the end of his book, Ronson is searching for help for those who have suffered from shamings by meeting with people who are immune to the impact of shame, as well as those who have successfully dealt with Internet shaming.

Both of these books provide insights into the potentials and the dangers of shaming in our global electronic village. If we are in the renaissance of this new shaming, the sooner we find enlightenment the better.

  • ingeborg oppenheimer

    for many of us wiser folk [i.e., folk educated by aging] the reality of internet as potentially lethal weapon has resulted in exercising great care in the language we use in our facebook and twitter postings, and even in our emails and comments to internet articles. i just wish the younger folk would catch on; so many lives have been ruined – some actually ended – as a result of unwise postings.

  • My belief is that the potential for abuse is overwhelming. Not just the amateurs trying to settle a grudge, but the professionals hired to terminate the careers of political adversaries. In theory shaming depends on actual misconduct, but as soon as shaming is a well established mechanism, the reality of the conduct will become almost irrelevant to the declaration and pursuit of organized shaming.

    There is an actual solution, but I don’t see any chance of implementing a “Possession is 9 points of the law” policy that covers everyone’s private information. In short, each of us ought to have control over our personal data, but the clear direction of legal evolution is that regular people will soon have NO privacy at all, whereas super-rich and powerful people will have total secrecy and privacy.

    The threat is much more serious than most people seem to understand. It isn’t merely that your actual mistakes can be used to threaten or shame or even blackmail you. The next step is that the implicit threat of exposure will limit the kinds of things you will dare to do or even think. However, in the end even the good bits of your personal information, the knowledge of your strengths, tastes, and even interests, can be used against you to manipulate you, tempt you, and ultimately take away your freedom.

  • Joe Paulson

    John Dean was on C-SPAN this weekend talking about his role in the Watergate mess and so forth. He is a good interview.