Some alt journalists will point to Hunter S. Thompson as inspiration. For me, it's the neurotic Welsh documentarian and author Jon Ronson, whose first major bestseller in the U.S., Them: My Adventures With Extremists, took the reader on a tour of the global conspiracy theorist community and found the kernels of truth in the depths of their paranoia. Ronson was led on his journalistic odysseys by his sense of humor and curiosity, engaging with his subjects with an affected naivety that evenly humanized and (I know this isn't a word) buffoonized them.
With his latest book, So, You've Been Publicly Shamed, Ronson examines how perpetrators of relatively minor errors of judgment become the victims of immense Internet pile-ons. As always, Ronson follows a bizarre path: a BDSM porn shoot, a women's detention facility, a New Agey anti-shame workshop. The cast of characters are even more bizarre, ranging from the son of an ex-Nazi caught in a sex orgy to a Congressman who was previously best known as the judge who sentenced drunk drivers to public shaming.
Ronson usually positions himself as a central character in his books, but this time, he's not just on a quest for information, but setting out to do right by people who have suffered online public shaming. He also seeks to atone for his own role in the shaming culture by convincing people to back off this behavior.
I've long felt that shaming people (usually public figures) was a key part of my job description. In fact, in the December 2013 installment of this column, I put one of Ronson's main subjects, Justine Sacco (a PR professional who tweeted a joke about black people and AIDS to her small group of followers before getting on a flight to Africa, and when she landed found she was both trending and fired) on my list of "Top Internet Fails of 2013."
I don't regret what I wrote, since it was undeniably one of the biggest Internet misfires of the year. That's just news. But Ronson's book was a gut check. I won't be joining Twitter mobs any time soon without a rigorous internal debate.
Something else made me uncomfortable about Ronson's book. Over the last two years, I've come to internalize the idea of privilege and how it underpins many of my everyday assumptions. Ronson's book keeps talking about how public shaming has ruined the lives of Justine Sacco and Lindsey Stone (she's the one who posed for a photo while flipping the bird and talking on a cell phone in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier). They can't date, and they can't find jobs because of their Google results.
The reflex thought that kept popping into my head was: Wow, that sucks, but that's still nothing compared to the thousands of people with drug convictions who also have trouble pursuing careers and romance. Except, it's worse, since they also have trouble obtaining housing and public benefits. I imagine it's a lot easier to regain one's dignity (or simply wait until you're forgotten) than it is to get a felony conviction scrubbed from your record. After her shaming, Sacco traveled to Ethiopia to do volunteer work. I think there are a lot of people who would gladly suffer a public shaming in exchange for that kind of adventure.
I had the same thought with Monica Lewinsky's recent re-emergence. While I sympathize with the trauma of decades of being the butt of late-night TV jokes and rap songs, she's still privileged. Molestation and rape victims in impoverished communities aren't usually offered reality shows or start handbag lines or write for Vanity Fair or get nominated for National Magazine Awards. By no definition is that a ruined life.
But here's the paradox: By discounting their pain by pointing out privilege, I'm indulging my own privilege as a white/cisgender/male columnist for a paper full of similarly privileged writers. Somehow, I get to decide whose pain is the worst? Throughout the book, Ronson repeats that his worst fear is to be caught in a public shaming a la Jonah Lehrer, the pop-science writer caught embellishing his research. That, too, is my worst fear, and it is a privileged fear. What if someone dug up the op-ed I wrote for the college paper about tolerance in which, not really knowing what Scientology really was, I defended the cult against the backlash in Europe? Ugh, that would be awful.
At a Q&A in San Francisco, Ronson defended Sacco saying her tweet wasn't really racist, but a poor attempt at edgy commentary on white privilege. A woman of color in the audience disagreed, saying no, the intent of Sacco's tweet was deeply offensive. The woman implied that there might be value in making an example of people like Sacco.
Ronson didn't have a good response. And neither do I.