Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Going Out With a Tweet and a Bang: the 21st Century Witch Hunt

By Raphael Solarsh

It’s a strange world in which a single, poorly-timed or thought-out comment can almost instantly destroy your life. In recent times we’ve seen it happen over and over again. From Cecil the Lion to the Ashley Madison leak, people have lost their jobs, their friends and, in the worst cases, their lives, as a result of being publicly shamed.

It was with this in mind that I sent off a very carefully thought-out tweet while waiting to hear Jon Ronson discuss his book on this very topic at MWF 2015.

He began with a story that anyone who has read So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed or pays close attention to their Twitter feed will know well: the story of Justine Sacco. Before boarding a flight at London Heathrow, she sent an admittedly offensive tweet to her 170 followers. By the time she turned her phone on again after touching down in Cape Town she was the number one trending topic globally, had lost her job, received some of the most vitriolic abuse imaginable, and been threatened and sadistically mocked. It took her a year to even begin to recover from the incident.

Ronson is no stranger to the darker sides of human nature. His first major book, Them: Adventures with Extremists, saw him trying to understand some of the world’s most vilified people and organisations, including the Ku Klux Klan, and the man labelled Osama bin Laden’s “Man in Britain”. His 2011 release, The Psychopath Test, had him actively seeking out people that had been given the highest danger ratings possible. Yet in both these books Ronson was able to peel back the layers of ideology and taboos to get at the real heart of the issues and what they tell us about ourselves, the supposed “good people” of society.

The lessons we can take away from shame culture are both fascinating and deeply uncomfortable; first is the battle for primacy between ideology and humanity. Ronson is clear about which side he comes down on as evinced by his mode of storytelling which focuses on the personal stories of individuals. He speaks, as he writes, with humour, empathy and authenticity. And he made no effort to spare himself in discussing some of his own experiences of public shaming. His candour created an endearing awkwardness, which was shared by host John Safran, and the two had a natural chemistry. Safran is after all, no stranger to controversy or public shameings of his own and bore them with equally good humour.

Fortunately for both men, their public shameings were at the lower end of the destructive spectrum. For those at the pointy end, there is another reality entirely. Once someone has transgressed a line of public outrage they seem to enter an arena where nothing is off-limits. Ronson showed numerous responses that were far worse than the posts that sparked the outrages, and this abuse was worse for women. For men, the mob’s most common demand for justice was that an individual lose their job. For women it extends past that, to threats of violence and almost always rape.

The idea that struck hardest came from a psychologist friend of Ronson’s who believed that “all violence is an attempt to replace shame with self-esteem”. The problem with social media is that anyone who wants to project their own shame onto a defenceless stranger has the opportunity to kick them as hard and as often as they like while they’re down.

The truth is that we all say stupid and offensive things, but no one deserves to have their life torn apart because of a single mistake that, in most cases, does not cause any real harm. Ronson argues for perspective and empathy, and he is as convincing as he is entertaining. Unfortunately, 144 characters isn’t quite enough to get the message across.

Edited by Sophie Gill

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