I have just finished reading Jon Ronson’s book “So you’ve been publicly shamed”. That’s quite fortunate of me, given the title of this blog post. My first point to make is that I recommend reading it. I found it to be very interesting, amusing, revealing and (as with a lot of his books) delicately poised to evoke introspection. For anyone that does not know of Jon Ronson’s work, imagine you had a book press that could turn television into literature and gobbled up a Louis Theroux box-set along with a collection of Brass Eye Specials (For anyone that doesn’t know of Louis Theroux, how did you find the internet?). He treats his contributors and subjects with an unassuming compassion but still allows irreverence (at the expense of situation, never individuals) to bring a level of comedy to the writing that is essential when tackling such delicate and often traumatic trips into human suffering. It is no easy feat to cast humour without victim, but Jon does it impeccably well. I should point out that I’m sure he tires of the Louis Theroux comparison, because it is reductive and undermines the individuality of his work, but it is the easiest to indicate to a substantial amount of people the context of his subject matter. It’s a bit like calling Philip Larkin the forefather of My Chemical Romance lyrics; there’s an element of functional comparative truth, but both would have likely considered it verging on aspersion more than flattery.
Throughout reading the book I began to rekindle my own experience of shame. What shame had been levelled at me? What was its results? Would I be able to handle public shaming? These are, of course, questions that Jon raises within the book and (having read it so recently) I hope to now go on to reflect my own opinions without seeming too plagiaristic of the issues he raised. It feels like these thoughts are largely my own but, having read the consequences of trigger-happy writing without due care to sources (as happened to one of the “shamed” subjects), I’m now acutely aware of delving too far into paraphrasing somebody else’s work. This is my way of issuing a disclaimer indicating that you should read the book. It’s saying things like I’m about to, but far better.
What is the first memory I have of shame? Childhood memories are always a tricky thing to delve into. Half-hazed in decay and half-engineered by people that were there at the time, you can never quite be sure of the line dividing memory and myth. The first I was able to coax my memory into regurgitating was when I was about 4 or 5 (maybe older, im really not sure). My mother was bathing my sister and myself when she must have at some point left the vicinity. Always the opportunist of an authoritarian vacuum, I decided to piss into a cup and pour it on my sister. I would like to assume it was borne of a passion for comedy rather than malice, and that I cried “Urine trouble now!” as tipping the cup, but I very much doubt that was the case. Whatever the reasoning, my speedy propensity for misdemeanour wasn’t matched by a brisk enough implementation and I was “caught short” of completing the task unnoticed. I don’t remember my reaction of being told off, but I do remember the shame of my mother recounting the act to a friend of hers at a later point. I remember feeling, without any shadow of doubt, that what I had done was wrong and that having somebody else discover this compounded a fear of doing it again. Shame, in certain scenarios, definitely has its uses. These days, being a fervent advocate of homeopathy, I locate the water bottle that my sister takes to work and, once a month, do a little tinkle in it for both our sakes; a hope that it alleviates both my shame and her suffering.
That, I believe, was an example of justified and targeted shame in the correct context. What I had done was wrong, and it was tackled in a manner that imparted learning. I also don’t necessarily believe the impact of shame upon a person that is undeserving of it is always unequivocally bad. My next memories of shame that come to mind are experiences during my time at primary school. I was a rather rotund child and (similarly to Ronson mentioning in his book) this leaves me with all manner of shaming memories connected with school. The most powerful of these are primary school swimming pool trips. They were a tubby schoolchild’s hell. Fat is not only a hindrance to buoyancy but also a visual cue for berating. It was a twofold attack of the flab (I wish mine had only folded twice aesthetically).
For a while I felt crippled with a shame in my appearance. However, the locality of the shaming meant there was a framework that could tackle it. I had a level of support from family that helped me look past the fears that shame had manifested. Just as importantly, the levellers of shame could be challenged directly and had personal accountability. The confrontation I chose was not reciprocal shame or vitriol, but instead humour and a kind of manipulative insubordination of the shamers. I began to craft better shaming of myself than they could level. Self-deprecation became not only a shield to insult, but also a sword to swipe at the joys of insult for its wielders.
There were benefits in abundance of this tactic. Not only did I spoil the entertainment element for the shamers (nobody likes being outdone in competition of things they enjoy) but a lot of them also came to realise I was quite funny and they wanted to be friends with me. Sure, I may have appeased the pain with a drop in self-body image (that still somewhat exists to this day) but I also forced myself to learn wit. I wouldn’t change that for anything, since I now view it as a pivotal part of my character. Of course, this approach would be entirely futile in terms of social media shaming. There is no direct accountability. There is no relevant context of shamed and shamer. There is no real-world pathway for discourse or redemption (of either party). This is the error, I believe, public shaming now falls pray to.
The book also made me wonder if there are other possible impacts of social media shaming. In one passage Ronson interviews Michael Fertik, a man who offers services to abstract negative search results of people on Google, and brings up the NSA. Fertik’s response, when asked upon a comparison of social media shaming and the NSA, is to say “This is more frightening than the NSA”. The mentioning of the NSA led me to reflect upon a TED talk on privacy by Glen Greenwald. In it is mentioned the impact of privacy upon actions. A lack of privacy changes the way we carry ourselves through life. Social media shaming is not an invasion of privacy. By rights, it is devolution of privacy from individual to public domain. However, I would argue, shaming carries the same level of detriment to thought as invasion of privacy by governmental bodies. It creates a debilitating fear of honesty. It can also narrow perceived opportunity. I hold no great hope of influence or fame, nor do I think myself worthy of it, but if it were available to me I would certainly think twice before pursuing it. Everything a person has done, every interaction and mistake, falls victim to contracted scrutiny en masse. Does this element of our culture leave possibly great people imprisoned by pre-shame? I can’t really answer that, but if it did I think the consequences are harmful. A lot of the people I most value are those that have tackled poor choices and learnt from them. To elevate only the spotless is to deny ourselves as a society the acceptance of our own flaws and how we help others overcome theirs. It is the equivalent of me tackling my swimming shamers by going out and drowning them all, then announcing myself the greatest swimmer and claiming my retaliation was the most righteous. I wouldn’t have learnt anything from doing that. I perhaps would have gotten some free psychotherapy though. Swings and roundabouts.
Finally a thought that entered my mind, after reading the book, was a piece of writing by Thoreau on Civil Disobedience. There is one part of his essay that often reminds me of my own dilemmas in modern life:
“There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man.”…(but a bitch ain’t one?)
So often I find myself thinking and willing for fairer and better actions. So often I choose to just cheer them on rather than act upon them myself. I imagine a lot of us do, because it is very difficult to do right (far more difficult than to just think right). But what would happen if this perceived virtue was not directed toward government, but toward each other, and not based upon unjust control but shame? What would happen if this perceived virtue was wrong? What would happen if the step between patron and practitioner was just to click a “send” button? I believe current public shaming goes someway to answering these questions. What’s worse are the indications that the resultant jubilation of shamers could trickle down from the digital realm into real life. A recent case of fat shaming on the tube could suggest this is possible. I really hope that is an incorrect assumption, because I am a little sick of putting nipple tassels on my man boobs and shaking them around to diffuse conflict. Though the tube shaking may do some of the work for me, which is nice, since as a previous fatty I still view exercise with a begrudging sigh.
Of course, this is (as ever) all Sam conjecture. Read the book for a more balanced and supported argument.