The new book by journalist Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, is an interesting, thought provoking account of his meetings with people who have tweeted a stupid joke, taken a dumb photo, or got caught out being dishonest. Their mistakes and misfires discovered online, the seeming approbation of the world landed on them like an unstoppable force, and their lives and careers have been shattered – this is the village green or town square stocks writ large. Jonson explores the urge to join the baying commentariat, tell these people just what you think of their bad behaviour, their unaccceptable manners, their stupidity, first in doing the thing, then in putting it out there where it has crossed into the public arena.
It is the latter which causes the problem – we have, after all, all done really dumb things, made nasty throwaway remarks and jokes that absolutely misfired, so reading Ronson’s account of what happens when everyone knows about these things makes a shiver go down your spine, a sudden awareness that this could happen to anyone.
The disapproving comments quickly become self-righteous, then as the excitement grows and the drama heightens, hateful and threatening, as the anonymous watchers feed on their own responses – like a million Madame Defarges knitting while the guillotine falls, amused by the spectacle and excited by the raucous mob and the blooded animal. Because each person is just adding their own two cents worth, they don’t see themselves as a mob at all, so don’t appear to notice their own bullying behaviour.
Something interesting Ronson discovers is that nothing the offenders do to apologise or explain or show remorse is enough, they are allowed no redemption. There are great howls for apologies but then no-one believes them when they happen.
Check your privacy settings, people, and don’t pass on stupid things your usually sane friends and family have done or said.