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!