At the age of 12, I was caught shoplifting. It was just two chocolate bars, admittedly, but the terror of being marched back into the shop by a plainclothes policeman was enough to end my fledgling criminal career there and then. Even thinking about it now is enough to make me burn with shame.
This is a rather insignificant anecdote, but it illustrates on a small scale what Jon Ronson explores on a far bigger canvass in his compelling new book. As long as civilisation has existed, shame has played a role in punishing transgressors, exposing wrongdoing and enforcing morality. But it also has a more inglorious history: that of destroying reputations and lives, and promoting a kind of mob mentality. And whereas the focus of shame was once the public stocks, nowadays it’s social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
The impact of this is difficult to overstate. Barely a day goes by without an inappropriate or badly phrased remark “going viral” and attracting a firestorm of criticism, often way out of proportion to the original sin. Ronson describes many poignant cases—usually in the form of interviews with both the victim and perpetrator—of people losing their jobs and reputations as a result of the fallout. We’re social creatures, Ronson points out, and the impact of being shamed and abused by a vast digital mob can destroy our sense of self.
“It felt like the people on Twitter had been invited to be characters in a courtroom drama, and had been allowed to choose their roles, and had all gone for the part of the hanging judge,” remarks Ronson after one particularly brutal shaming.
Ronson’s scope, however, extends far beyond social media. There are trips to shame-eradication workshops and S&M dens, a discussion of Gustave Le Bon’s seminal book “The Crowd” and an analysis of the famous Stanford experiment. There are also numerous personal anecdotes. We’re told the story of Johan Lehrer, an American journalist caught falsifying quotes in a book about Bob Dylan and his clumsy attempts to apologise in public. At the other end of the scale, there’s the strange case of Max Mosley, the Formula 1 supremo falsely accused of participating in a Nazi-themed orgy by the now-defunct “News of the World”. In Mosley’s case, the potential shame was channelled into righteous anger against tabloid muckraking, significantly boosting his reputation in the process.
All of this is recounted in an addictive page-turning style, deftly balancing comedy, drama and tragedy. Ronson has stated that his books take four years to write and a day to read, and this engrossing work will have you cancelling lunch dates to get to the end—not that there’s any shame in that.
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