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Book Review: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

Jon Ronson has spent the past several years traveling around to interview people who have been shamed in public and embarrassing ways.  These people have been called out on their jokes and behavior all over the internet and have suffered real and lasting consequences: firings, death threats, and general public scorn.  Ronson examines these public shamings, the history of such a practice, and why we as humans are so drawn to this public form of democratic justice.

It’s a complicated thing that Ronson is trying to do here, and he mostly succeeds on some levels.  His exploration of the individual shaming cases, which seem to be front-loaded at the start of the book, is fascinating.  Whether or not the reader thinks these people did anything wrong (virtually all of them did, just in varying degrees and perhaps none deserving of the social media outcry that resulted), their case studies still present a great deal of food for thought.  Readers will enjoy trying to figure out whether these people really regret their actions or just the result of their actions–there’s a lot of hand-wringing about whether or not they’re actually at fault for anything.

Where the book stumbles somewhat is where it feels like Ronson was scrambling to pad the book’s content somewhat.  Forays into other topics, some of which are only tangentially related, work far less well, serving only to drag down the book’s momentum.  Also, Ronson himself is kind of insufferable at times, and if the reader has done any reading about the controversy surrounding the ARCs of the book and an excised (insensitive) line about rape, they’re likely to go into the book with some preconceived notions.  None of this is bad, per say–it just makes for a different reading experience.

One thing that Ronson falls woefully short on is examining how much harder a time women have in these public shamings than men do.  Although he makes mention of the fact that the women receive far more rape and death threats, Ronson doesn’t take any time to extrapolate what that means.  He also makes mention of the fact that nearly all of the men who are shamed and fired were offered other (better) jobs within a short period of time, while the women were not.  There’s a lot of interesting stuff here to unpack, and Ronson skips right past it.

On the whole, it’s an interesting read that will work well for discussions of the dark side of social media and public shaming.  Individual chapters are stronger than the whole, which will lend itself well to classroom assigned reading.  These would have worked better as a few essays and not as a whole book.  Borrow, don’t buy.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. Riverhead Books: 2015.  Library copy.



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