Thursday, June 11, 2015

‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’

Book cover, 'So You've Been Publicly Shamed' by Jon Ronson. Image depicts an old-fashioned image of a man's face, the letters of the title superimposed over pink graffiti smears across the eyes and mouth of the man's face.
An attempt at shaming directed against a stranger that showed up in my Facebook newsfeed led me to read Jon Ronson’s book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Riverhead Books, 2015).

I felt bad for the person depicted in the photo in my Facebook newsfeed. She made a poor decision in the past and attempted to put it behind her.

The photo campaign was an attempt to force this incident to the top of search results again, and I was profoundly disappointed that anyone I knew would choose to participate. Even worse, the campaign against this person is not an isolated case.

Public shaming across social media is increasingly prevalent and many of the highest-profile cases are documented in Ronson’s book. (In fact, an effort to learn more about the person in the photo led me to Ronson’s book, which I obtained through my local library.)

Public punishments were once a part of U.S. society and Ronson challenges a “common misconception” that the practice stopped because it lost its effectiveness (54). Instead, he cites documents revealing that this practice was abolished because it was “far too brutal.”

But now people, through social media, dispense condemnation and punishment that is every bit as brutal as a flogging or confinement in the stocks.

We call this practice “cyber-bullying” when children direct it at each-other, and I believe the term equally applicable to campaigns of public shaming.

In his book, Ronson addresses many thought-provoking questions. Why do people take part in these shamings? What motivates them or what reward, if any, do they get for taking part? Why are some targets thoroughly destroyed and how do others emerge unscathed? What happens to them afterward?

How does someone move beyond the incident that has come to define them?

Perhaps most importantly, can society move beyond the toxic impulse of public shaming? In his book, Ronson suggests that our own feelings of shame motivate our shaming of others, and “feedback loops” through immediate condemnation or approval strengthen the urge to conform.

But with childhood bullying, great attention is paid to the critical role of the bystander. He or she can prevent the isolation that a target of bullying can experience. He or she can also withhold the approval that may encourage further acts. For this reason, it is all the more important to call cyber-bullying what it is.

Disclosure of material connection: My taxes support my public library’s acquisition of this and other resources. I consider the access I enjoy to be a “priceless” return on my investment.

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