Jon Ronson on Monica Lewinsky and Cybershaming

British comedy writer Jon Ronson.
Photo: Colin McPherson/Corbis

Jon Ronson hung out with a lot of recently fired people while writing his new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which is out next Wednesday. Justine Sacco, who infamously tweeted an insensitive AIDS joke that went viral while she was on a flight to South Africa, got fired for it. Lindsey Stone got fired for a Facebook photo of her flipping the bird at Arlington National Cemetery. Jonah Lehrer got fired for plagiarism. “Hank” was fired for making a dick joke about a “dongle” to a friend at a tech conference. The woman who got Hank fired by tweeting her displeasure about the joke — the tweet included a photo of Hank and his friend — was fired as well.

But for these and the other subjects of Ronson’s book, unemployment ended up being the least of their problems. Far worse was the jarring amount of hatred directed their way by the online masses, the sudden appearance of hordes of strangers seemingly obsessed with their destruction — strangers who, in addition to inflicting considerable psychological damage, seared onto their victims the modern equivalent of scarlet letters: highly ranked Google results about the unforgivable wrongs they had committed. (For the female victims of these shamings, of course, violent rape and death threats were also par for the course.)

Ronson dove into these stories in an attempt to highlight the devastating effects of this strange modern ritual and to better understand why some people walk away relatively unscathed from public shamings, while others still feel as though their lives have been ripped from under them long after the online chaos has mostly subsided. He thinks “we,” not some small contingent of online trolls, are the problem — even if the average person wouldn’t send Sacco a death threat, plenty of them eagerly retweeted her slip-up and used flight-tracking apps to gleefully watch her plane approach Cape Town.

In an interview, Ronson spoke with Science of Us about Monica Lewinsky’s recent speech about the power of shame, what he sees as the prevalence of victim-blaming when these incident erupt, and his (perhaps surprising) deep-seated optimism about the human species.

Did you see the Monica Lewinksy Ted Talk on “The Price of Shame” that went up a few days ago?
Yes, and I thought it was great. She’s obviously a kind of kindred spirit. I’m kind of hoping to do some stuff with her. I’d love to do some work with her.

Your book echoed in my head when she said that it’s “Time to take back my narrative,” and that “You can insist on a different ending to your story.”
Oh, I agree with her completely. Totally. And she got a standing ovation and she totally deserves it. The only thing is that some of the people who gave Monica a standing ovation would still happily tear apart Justine Sacco. I think there’s still a way to go, and I think people are more willing to forgive consensual sex scandals than what’s seen as, like, moral failings — even though I consider Justine Sacco to be just as innocent as Monica. But I think Monica was brilliant and I feel a kind of kindred spirit.

It seemed like in your book you were trying to figure out exactly what it was that allowed shame to sort of bounce off of some people, but that you weren’t quite able to come up with a unified theory about that.
I think there’s far fewer shameless people out there than we like to think, and public shaming is an incredibly powerful weapon. And sure, there are a few people out there who don’t feel they’ve done anything wrong when they’ve been shamed, but in general I think the conclusion to the book’s a little bit more nihilistic than that. It’s more that those of us on social media now have the power, and if we decide that somebody is shame-worthy, we can destroy them.

And it’s great that we don’t go after people involved in consensual sex scandals as much as we used to, because that was ridiculous, but we still go after people who don’t deserve it. I think a big public shaming is devastating to all but a very few people, and to me our desire to destroy people for nothing is a kind of bigger and more interesting mystery than why some people are immune to it.

That’s the part that I struggle with, because there were a million people who weren’t cackling to themselves and saying, “I hope Justine Sacco gets destroyed” or “I hope Lindsey Stone gets destroyed,” but they still eagerly retweeted damaging tweets about these people nonetheless. They even flocked to Facebook pages set up just to call for them to be fired.
Yeah! I mean Lindsey and Justine are really similar. People can’t have their cake and eat it — they want to destroy Justine and Lindsey, and they also want to not feel bad about it. They want to tear these people apart for nothing and think, Oh, I’m sure they’re fine. It’s a weird dissonance going on. And yeah, to set up a “Fire Lindsey Stone” page, and all those tens of thousands of tweets that were like “Last tweets of your career, Justine Sacco, sorry not sorry” and “I won’t rest until I get this bitch fired” … The kind of brutality — especially because it’s coming from nice people like us — is horrifying and mysterious to me. So that’s the mystery I wanted to solve in the book. Why have we shifted our position? Why have we become these brutal people?

But have we become brutal people, or is it just that we no longer have the stocks? When you described all this stuff as a funhouse-mirror version of human nature, or something like that, part of me was like, “Well, maybe it is human nature and we’re just sublimating it into something a little less physically brutal.”
I know what you’re saying, but I’d like to think that that isn’t the case. I’d like to think that people are basically good and they just don’t understand what it is that they’re doing because they haven’t thought it through. I recently gave a talk in London — and nobody had read the book yet since it hadn’t come out — and I compared Twitter to the Stasi, the East Germany police force. And when I said that, I heard somebody in the audience loudly tut. And as I stood onstage I thought, The only reason why you’re tutting is because you haven’t thought it through.

Because we’re just like the Stasi! Until we came along, the Stasi were the biggest surveillance network in world history — you know, everybody spying on their neighbors to make sure they were doing the right thing. And now, of course, we look back on that as monstrous. But that is exactly the system that we’ve set up, where somebody like Justine can be destroyed while she sleeps because we’ve decided that some tweet is a clue to her inherent evil, which is such a ridiculous thing to think about Justine.

Because it pretends that that tweet — it was not a good tweet, and it wasn’t a good joke, and if she was a writer on The Colbert Report, that joke wouldn’t make it to the show — but that’s what she was trying to do, but tens of thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of people, decided to pretend that they didn’t know that about Justine.

That’s what gets me about it, the willful ignorance. Everyone knows, at least deep down, that you can’t take one tweet by one person and make broad, sweeping generalizations about their character, but we seem to selectively forget that when we get caught up in the excitement of a shaming episode. A lot of these outrages don’t really pass the smell test, and yet they keep blowing up anyway. How do you prevent that? How do you inject some common sense?
When my book was extracted in the New York Times recently, most people really loved it. But then I got sort of attacked by a couple hundred people all at once, so it made me think that it was some sort of unified thing. And I didn’t reply to any of these people saying like, “What racist is Jon Ronson gonna put his cape on for next?” and stuff like that. And I didn’t reply, because I knew the only thing I’d say would be like evidence for the prosecution. And then somebody said, “Why hasn’t Jon Ronson replied to any of us?” and somebody else said, “Because Jon Ronson only replies to men.” At that point, I thought, Oh God!

You know, there’s something that Hank — the guy that whispered the dongle joke — said to me, which I didn’t put in the book, and I only noticed it when I relistened to the interview not long ago. He said, “I know that I’m just a kind of blank canvas for people to put their ideology onto.” And that’s what I was in that moment. You know, there are too many blank canvases for people to put their ideologies onto at the moment. But nobody is a blank canvas, and anybody who values ideology over human beings is somebody who’s lost their moral compass.

The very way a site like Twitter is constructed probably makes it easier to lose our moral compass, right? Because it’s in Twitter’s best interest for us to be able to retweet something with a click or two, but retweeting something, when a million people do it, can have grave consequences. Is there any way back from this, given the technology we have now?
I think there has to be, because what we’re doing is wrong. So there has to be a way back from it. I mean, you’re right — the technology of Twitter has got such a lot to do with it. Inadvertently, the way we surround ourselves with people who feel the same way we do, so we just kind of mutually approve each other — my friend, a documentary filmmaker, calls it “mutual grooming.” We’re grooming each other.

Like primates.
Yeah, and if anybody gets in the middle of that, we just scream them out, which is the opposite of democracy! In democracy, you hear other people’s points of view — you can have a kind of shout at each other, but you still want to hear each other’s points of view. In this, you just want to scream them out and demonize them and reduce them to some label. But I think there has to be a way back because it’s evidently not the way that humans should behave, and because my view is that we’re all good people just trying to do good, so it has to change.

Since my book came out, a few people said to me, “I’m gonna send this book to my children, so they’ll think twice next time they make some sort of joke that could be misconstrued.” And I’m like, That’s not the behavior change that I’m advocating, because that’s like saying, “Don’t wear short skirts, girls.” It’s like victim blaming. But I do want a behavior change. Now that we have the power — now that we are the judges in certain transgressions, we decide how severe people’s sentences should be, how brutal we should be towards them — we have to rediscover kindness and nuance and empathy, because we’ve lost it.

But I think that humans are kind, empathetic people who understand nuance, so I think this is a sort of false reality we’ve created for ourselves. I mean, you might say — I realize as I’m saying this I’m sounding like John Lennon’s “Imagine: and it sounds a bit fucking naïve — but having spent years now with the victims of public shaming campaigns, you really feel for them and you know that things have gone all wrong.

Naïve isn’t the word I’d use, but it’s definitely true that in the wake of something like the Sacco incident, 95 percent of the response isn’t, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t shame Justine Sacco.” It’s predominantly, “Watch what you say.” So it seems like there’s a lot of that victim blaming going on.
Yeah, it’s victim blaming. It’s victim blaming. We don’t like it when police officers say, “It’s Saturday night, girls, don’t wear short skirts.” We know that’s victim blaming. And saying, “watch what you tweet” is victim blaming. Justine — it was a badly worded tweet, it was not a good joke — but the fact is, while Justine slept and was completely unable to respond — and in fact, that was part of the joy, that was part of the gaiety of the night, was that she was oblivious to her destruction — we destroyed her. I don’t think I’m being too much of a polemicist when I say that she was the victim in this.

When you talk about folks like Jonah Lehrer, Mike Daisey — people who committed actual transgressions, and for whom it might be hard to ever trust them to do nonfiction again maybe — how do they fit into your whole theory of public shaming in 2015?
I totally get what you’re saying and I think maybe if I hadn’t gone down the road that I’ve gone down the last few years, and met Jonah and met Michael Moynihan and met other recipients of other shamings where the transgressions were less serious, like Lindsey, I would probably feel the same way. But honestly I think it’s okay to humanize Jonah without exonerating him, and I actually want to live in a world where Jonah should get another chance, even though I really understand that he made some really stupid mistakes, both in the transgressions and also in trying to cover them up. To say he was his own worst enemy would be putting it mildly. But I still want to live in a world where people are allowed reentry into society, whatever they did. That’s just the world I want to live in. 

Reentry is a really a good word for it because in some of the scenes in your book when you’re talking to people at their kitchen table and they’re just broken, it’s like society has collectively decided to shoot them into space and let them orbit alone for a while. There’s this sense of fundamental disconnection from the rest of humanity.
Yeah, and how traumatizing is that? I mean, Lindsey used words to me like worthless. Like she felt worthless. And I think she really meant it. And then when you’re cast out in this kind of major way, the way that Lindsey was and Jonah too — as I said, his transgressions were more serious — but still, to be cast out like that 

This is why I sometimes think that, in a funny sort of way, people who are attacked by ridiculous trolls — like feminists who are attacked by misogynistic trolls — they’ve always got a support network. They’ve always got people around them to help them through. People like Justine Sacco didn’t have anyone. That kind of megashaming by good people like us as well as violent trolls, that’s worse, I think. In terms of drama, I think it’s worse.

I say this because the other week when I was in London, I was talking to a woman called Caroline-Criado Perez who was petitioning for more women to be on the British bank notes, which is hardly the most controversial thing to want, and yet she was attacked. She got millions of rape threats and death threats and she said that it was really frightening because she didn’t know whether it was hyperbole or whether the people meant it. But she had a big support group around her: Newspapers were on her side, and friends and fellow feminists, and all these people were supporting her. So she was never cast out into that orbit the way that Lindsey was or Justine was. That’s what I mean when I say in a sort of weird way, it’s not as profoundly traumatizing. I think what I’m saying is we are more terrifying: Nice, good people like us can be more terrifying than trolls.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Jon Ronson on Monica Lewinsky and Cybershaming