So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed: Does It Stand Up to Public Scrutiny?

so you've been publicly shamedAs you guys may well know, I’m not a fan of call out culture. So, when I heard about the concept of this book, I was happy to perhaps get a more concrete understanding of how it works, why we do it and maybe even how to stop it. Unfortunately, while an interesting read, this wasn’t everything I hoped it would be.

To start with, the opening was a lot like the Ted Talks I’ve seen by the author- discussing Justine Sacco at length and describing how he got into the subject. Not terrible, but not great either. I was quite enjoying some of the stories Ronson collated, so couldn’t complain too much, even as the book branched off into areas I wouldn’t have expected (from gay porn to Nazis).

Then, about a third of the way through, as it started to explore more psychological angles, I started to get more into it- the mention of the Zimbardo Stanford Prison Experiment in particular had my curiosity peaked. However… this ultimately ended up being the book’s biggest weak spot. Because, there was a sensationalised moment in Ronson’s account, where he seemed to be reaching towards “I’ve debunked the whole thing”, when of course he knew, and any barely-brainy reader would know, he had not. This was based on the fact that he got a quote from the worst of the prison guards, who claimed to have been “only acting” and that he thought he was doing something good. Now, of course, aside from it being a well known fact that people lie, as one psychologist responded it doesn’t actually matter to the people you’re torturing if you were acting- the result is the same (hence, this doesn’t prove that the guards were somehow not doing anything bad after all). Ronson then came to the well-trodden conclusion that people often do the worst things when they think they’re in the right (no shit, sherlock). I began to realise that this was not such a serious work of non-fiction after all (it did not help that Ronson tried to amp up the drama by referring to the fact that Zimbardo wasn’t replying to his emails- as if this somehow lent credence to the idea that he was *onto something*- when it was clear Zimbardo was merely too busy to reply to silly enquiries).

I then noticed other ideas that were not explored so well- particularly as it delved into the criminal side of shame. It dawned on me that it was bizarre to have a book exploring faux pas and tasteless jokes on one hand… and plagiarism, fraud, attempted murder and manslaughter on the other! It seems to me that the author didn’t see the value in shame as a motivator for remorse (I’d even go so far as to say these are two very different concepts: one is internal and the other social).

Still, there were some useful ideas in this. Certainly, some of the people doing the shaming thought they were still in the right- even after the public they baited turned on them. His exploration of crowds, though not ground-breaking, was good to include, especially as he mentioned the concept of feedback loops (people getting a positive response, so they keep doing it). It brings me back to an idea I’ve had for a while: we shouldn’t reward the people who do the shaming. I also did appreciate him going into the idea that people don’t actually want apologies- they want destruction- so it is best not to engage.

The ultimate conclusion wasn’t all that inspiring: all of this was leading up to the big reveal that “mortify” comes from the word “mort”, ergo to shame someone is to kill them (a concept I learnt in primary school). So, okay, we shouldn’t shame people… but I hardly needed to read a three-hundred-page book to learn that. The randomness of the stories did not help this book seem as cohesive as it needed too. Personally, I found this a little too inexpert for my taste, too journalistic and a little naïve.

Rating: 3/5 bananas


So, have you read this? Do you plan to? Let me know in the comments!

22 thoughts on “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed: Does It Stand Up to Public Scrutiny?

  1. Interesting. I did not notice these weaknesses when I first read the book, but they sound like legitimate criticisms.

    For me, the book was an eye-opener because I read it several years ago and was not yet very familiar with cancel culture (hard to imagine, I know). So the detailed accounts of the case studies served as cautionary tales: “This is what can happen … it can happen to anyone.” I guess, for me, it was almost like reading a personal safety book with horror stories of how people got mugged or unjustly arrested, and their life was never the same, so don’t go out at night.

    Perhaps some of the weaknesses in the author’s thinking spring from the fact that he himself realized only belatedly that cancel culture was a bad thing. I did enjoy seeing him start to realize that public shaming can be bad. It was almost like reading a conversion memoir.

    One thing I had hoped to get from the book was tips or an approach for how to rebuild your life after being publicly shamed. It certainly didn’t have that. But I was still glad that some of the people who were shamed got to get their story out there through this book.

    Perhaps this book was more useful back when it was first published. Now, history has moved on and nearly everyone is aware of mobs that can wreck your reputation with no provocation, and of how devastating that can be. Still, I think this might be an important read for people who are still convinced they are in the right and that anyone who makes an insensitive joke deserves to have their life ruined.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Ah I think that’s fair- if I’d read it back when it first came out, it might’ve felt a bit fresher. Maybe it’s because there’s more cases now then there were back then? I definitely think I’d have got more out of it if I wasn’t as aware of cancel culture as I am now. That makes sense!

      That’s a good point- it kind of always amazed me (from the Ted Talks) how he got into the subject and yeah it was good to see him convert away from it (and after the backlash he got for the book, I think he’s realised it even more now).

      Yeah I don’t think it was as productive as it could be (though I was glad it had someone saying that the mob doesn’t want an apology, they want your destruction- but he didn’t go as far as to say, as many people have since then, not to apologise to the mob at all- and generally seemed to see the apologies as the right move). And yeah that’s true- though it would be interesting to hear if it ever changed things for them.

      Yeah I think that’s the downside of exploring a moving target as a journalist. Oh yeah that’s a good point. I should’ve said in my review that he was preaching to the converted for me, but that there are loads of people who should read this book!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review. I really appreciate your critique of it. I have it on my TBR but still debate whether I want to read it or not. I do like your takeaways from it – the useful ideas you got from it – which has pumped up my interest in the book again.

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  3. I thought it was on the right track, but it seems to me like it needs an update. Call-out culture has evolved quite a bit since this book was first published and I think this is worthy of a sequel, or at least a second edition. I felt disappointed by this book as well, mainly because it seemed like it deviated from the topics I felt were the most relevant to today’s society. I didn’t end up finishing it because it veered off in directions I wasn’t interested in exploring.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah I agree with you- I think it probably worked more for when it was published, but so much has happened since then, so I think an update or sequel would be great. And yeah I agree with you- there were a lot of unnecessary tangents, when there was so much of the main topic left unexplored!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great review! I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by the author, and that made it very entertaining. I’m not sure I’d consider it a serious study, but as a story about ways in which people have been shamed and how they’ve reacted, it definitely kept my inerest.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I really loved this book but I think what Ronson does best is a broad overlook at things with a couple of smaller dives into examples. I do like that he presents a different side to call out culture even if he doesn’t really come to a conclusion. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

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