It’s better to go to prison than be publicly shamed. Jon Ronson’s gripping book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” chronicles the aftermath of public shaming through twitter, newspapers, and criminal prosecution. Ultimately, the most prominent social scars last not in the permanent records of law, but rather, the records of google. Justine Sacco, who published an offensive twitter joke, endured months of death threats and went into hiding. She told Jon Ronson not to interview for 5 months, to avoid the self-fulfilling narrative of her career’s destruction. The following interview found her, despite volunteering and trying to find her way, still under the immense pressure of the internet shaming.
Curiously however, people who committed actual crimes under the law endured far less umbrage. A list of people who visited a prositute was publicly punished, and after paying a small fine, were left untouched. In this mass public shaming with actual convictions, people faired far better. The book notes that ”..shame hasn’t died. Shame has just moved elsewhere, gathering tremendous strength along the way.”
The underlying principle here seems to point towards prosecution for crimes as preferable than being convicted by a jury of hashtags and internet memes. As one judge in the book notes, people are not nearly as cruel when they interact with someone in person. Instead, online interaction dehumanizes people and people judge themselves by the intentions, and others by their actions. By severing from the bureaucracies of law the internet becomes erratic, and “On Twitter we make our own decisions about who deserves obliteration. We form our own consensus, and we aren’t being influenced by the criminal justice system or by the media. This makes us formidable.” In the Stanford Prison Experiment, the main abuser, Eshelman, saw himself as playing it up for the study, yet in the process, caused very real trauma in the occupants.
Ultimately, the books seems to point towards the need for a rite of passage and integration back into society. With fines and jailtime for crimes, society has established a narrative through which to re-integrate people. They get their plot arc that gives them a second chance. Even with shaming that begins in the media, like the one person in the story who had a German theme orgy, once they entered into the court of law to sue the publishing magazine, their shame eroded. With the advent of internet shaming however, there is no end. Behind every google search by an employer lingers threats, hyperbole, and accusations of alleged atrocities. Internet shame is a perpetually shifting story without an ending, and only by refusing to participate can we begin to find a third act.