The Butterfly Effect: An Interview With Jon Ronson

January 26, 2018

While ostensibly The Butterfly Effect tells the story behind the wide availability of free internet pornography, the psychiatrist listener will quickly appreciate that this is only the beginning of the story.

Q&A

Fantasy, suicidal ideation, ecstasy, pride, shame, opportunities gained, opportunities lost, fortunes made and fortunes squandered-these are some of the topics that a psychiatrist will encounter. Often, they are the factors that drive people into states of mental illness or ones that perpetuate suffering. Each of these topics is given thorough consideration in a new podcast series, The Butterfly Effect by Jon Ronson and produced by Lina Misitzis (available at iTunes or Audible.)

While ostensibly The Butterfly Effect tells the story behind the wide availability of free internet pornography, the psychiatrist listener will quickly appreciate that this is only the beginning of the story.

In March 2015, Jon Ronson (The Psychopath Test, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Them: Adventures With Extremists) authored bestseller So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, a book that told the story of nearly instant and almost universal shaming made possible by social media. In this book, he encourages all to consider others not as either “intelligent” “stupid” “moral” or “immoral” but rather everyone is a mixture of these and infinite other elements.

The Butterfly Effect studies free internet porn as a continuation of his study into shame and its harmful effects. The stories he tells will resonate with practicing psychiatrists who now toil in the tidal wave that this pornographic expansion has set in motion; the unprecedented numbers of young people who now have video of sexual behavior living for eternity, the exposure to performance sex that is perfectly matched to and the emergence of younger generation of men unable to achieve arousal with their real-life sexual partners.

Mr. Ronson was interviewed in New York about The Butterfly Effect in general and about its relevance to the practicing psychiatrist.

Howard Forman: How would you describe your job?

Jon Ronson: I consider myself, I guess a storyteller. I try and find stories, mainly nonfiction, but sometimes fiction these days, that sort of shed light on the way the world works. And I suppose I'm always ... I'm pretty much always looking for stories that are kind of humanist, for want of a better word. And sort of stories ... The older I get, I think it's more stories that kind of bring people together as opposed to push people apart. So I guess stories about empathy and curiosity as opposed to what a lot of other journalists do, which is judgment.

Howard Forman: You have said in other interviews that you like stories about outsiders. And I was wondering, do you have any insight or ideas as to why this is the case?

Jon Ronson: Yeah, I'm pretty sure. This famous British writer called Caitlin Moran said that it definitely goes back to the fact that I was bullied at school. And so I'm trying to make sense of the horrors of the world by going to the places where you might find horror and de-horrorizing it.

But I think I would say I'm definitely drawn to outsiders because both as a Jew and also as somebody who grew up in wrong town, I was an outsider.

Howard Forman: In what ways do you see The Butterfly Effect as a continuation of your appraisal of internet shaming in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed?

Jon Ronson: Yes, It's all about re-humanizing . . . It's all about people not thinking about the consequences of their actions on the internet. So that's a very big parallel between the two stories. It's about me trying to re-humanize demonized people-and also about making people think about ripples and consequences.

Howard Forman: Can you comment on what you perceived as the presence of mental illness in the pornography industry that you studied so intensely for this project?

Jon Ronson: Suggest a sentence rephrase: When I started writing The Men Who Stare at Goats I asked psychologist Ray Hymen, "Why are so many people who believe crazy things inside the intelligence services?" He said, "Because people are nuts. People are nuts inside the intelligence services; they're nuts outside the intelligence . . . They're just nuts."

And I thought, the other day I was talking, I was being interviewed by this really great British podcast they've got out and the interviewer asked "Yeah, but surely the porn world is full of people who've had really terrible childhoods, and are very sort of emotionally damaged." And I was like, "Yeah, but where else do you find people who've had really bad childhoods and they're really emotionally damaged? Everywhere."

Howard Forman: What do you hope most practicing psychiatrists take away from The Butterfly Effect?

Jon Ronson: I think it's about empathy and curiosity and compassion and being more important than judgment and suspicion. In many ways it's about trying to get people to rethink what they consider reputable and what they consider disreputable. And then speaking out about that.