The New and Growing Phenomenon of Public Shaming

May 28, 2015

With the advent and expansion of social media, we are seeing an increase in the phenomenon of mass humiliation. In this Q&A, we learn what surprised the author of a book on public shaming.

A Q&A With Jon Ronson, Author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

Interview by Christopher Aloezos, MD and Howard L. Forman, MD

Jon Ronson, journalist and author of The Psychopath Test, has recently written a book titled, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, in which he explores the seemingly new and growing phenomenon of public shaming. With the advent and expansion of social media, we are seeing more and more of mass shaming. Until this book, shame on this unprecedented scale has never been so thoughtfully studied and explored. The topic of shame in general is of great importance and interest to the field of psychiatry because shame exists at the core of many patients and their psychopathologies. As social media continues to grow and play a larger role in communication, in social connectedness, and in relationships, public shaming will increasingly find its way into our offices and at the bedside. As such, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is an insightful resource for many clinicians.

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Christopher Aloezos: Many of your books cross paths with the field of psychiatry. I’m curious about how you became interested in this field.

Jon Ronson: Yeah, it’s funny-I agree with you about that. I think it’s coincidence; I guess maybe it’s the type of journalism that I do, and psychology, psychiatry, and maybe anthropology, they’re all kind of connected, right? They’re all about trying to work out why we, humans, behave the way that we do.

I’ve always been a writer, a nonfiction writer, who is interested in humans and human behavior rather than someone who’s interested in facts and figures. I guess there’s always been that connection. If I hadn’t become a writer, I might have ended up in psychology or psychiatry. Hopefully not anthropology, because that sounds a bit more boring.

Christopher Aloezos: You probably didn’t delve too greatly into the childhoods of the people featured in your book, but I was wondering whether experiences during childhood perhaps partly explain why some responded really well and with resilience to being publicly shamed while others didn’t fare so well.

Jon Ronson: That’s a really interesting question. You’re right, I didn’t really go into detail about these people because my assumption, actually, was that most people respond fairly badly to a shaming. And so, there’s this sort of myth about our age-some people think, oh you know, all the youth of today, they’re all shameless. Look at the way they’re walking around, shamelessly.

That’s nonsense. Shame, as you guys know, is very much alive and well but it’s just moved elsewhere, for instance, to people who are accused of misusing their privilege, and so on. They’re the people who’ve been shamed. A public figure may not feel ashamed if photos of him naked appear on the Internet, because he doesn’t feel like he’s done anything wrong, and rightly so, as far as I’m concerned.

I suppose the answer to your question, just from my research over the past few years, is that almost everybody handles shame badly. It’s a very rare person indeed who handles it well.

Christopher Aloezos: In your research, did you encounter any examples of what would be considered the opposite of public shaming: public empathy?

Jon Ronson: I’m meeting Monica Lewinsky tomorrow and I’m going to ask her, but my fairly strong guess is that her TED talk had a hugely powerful, positive impact on people’s perception of her. You know, getting a standing ovation from the entire TED crowd was probably legitimizing, in the same way that many of the people in my book are so much happier since my book came out, I’m sure it’s the same, in a sense, for Monica.

Concerning Monica’s standing ovation, I’m going to tell her tomorrow that I still think we’ve got a long way to go. People may have given Monica a standing ovation because we now no longer see sex scandals as being particularly terrible things, but I bet you half the people who gave Monica a standing ovation would still happily tear apart Justine Sacco.

Christopher Aloezos: What do you think psychiatrists can get from this book to help their patients who have been shamed, either publicly or privately?

Jon Ronson: The first thing I want to say is that I’m really, really glad you’re taking my book seriously; I think it is a valuable book in that respect.

Shamers, underestimate how profoundly traumatizing it is to be shamed. Some people would tell me that they would wake up in the middle of the night forgetting who they are. You can probably tell me, but that sounds to me like a symptom of PTSD.

You sort of lose your sense of self and you lose your sense of place. It’s profoundly traumatizing. So I think: first, people underestimate just how traumatizing being shamed is. And second, the opposite of being shamed is to be brought back in: it’s compassion and kindness.

Also, it just seems so obvious, but people seem to have forgotten . . . we’re all a mixture of talents and wisdom and stupidity and idiocy, that’s what human beings are. Yet, on social media in particular, everybody’s going around looking for clues as to other people’s inner evil, you know, by some badly worded Tweet.

It’s nonsense because we know that’s not how human beings are. I think it’s sort of understanding that we’re all a mix of wisdom and stupidity and that stupidity shouldn’t be shameful because it’s human. Minor transgressions are human. This stuff is human. Yet we’ve created a kind of surveillance society where we’re pretending that we don’t know that about our fellow human beings. I think all that stuff’s really, really important.

Howard Forman: Let me close by saying just a few things. First of all, we need to take your book seriously. I think that one of the great messages of your book is how many people actually do get welcomed back. For example, Mr Lehrer (see book review), who not only did something wrong but also apologized for it the wrong way, and is now contracted to write 2 books.

Jon Ronson: Yes, absolutely. I’m so glad about that because I always thought of America as the land of second chances and so on. But one of the things that really surprised me when I moved to America was its legal system. I’m speaking from a position of some ignorance here-but it seemed to me that the legal system in America is actually less likely to forgive and allow people re-entry than the legal system in some European countries.
I want to live in a world where people get second chances. So I’m glad that Jonah Lehrer is getting another chance. It took a long time-he had to be in the wilderness for 3 years, and it was agony for him, but I’m glad he’s been allowed re-entry.

Disclosures:

Dr Aloezos is a PGY-2 Resident in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Montefiore Medical Center, and Dr Forman is an Attending Psychiatrist in the division of psychosomatic medicine at Montefiore Medical Center and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, NY.