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Jon Ronson gets serious about Ashley Madison and Twitter-shaming

(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

In his most recent book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson, the author of The Psychopath Test, Them: Adventures With Extremists, and The Men Who Stare At Goats, investigates another timely phenomenon: The virtual lynch mobs that police online behavior, and the people whose lives have been affected by them. Since the book’s release back in March, events from the Ashley Madison hack to Rachel Dolezal to the debate about political correctness in comedy have proven Ronson’s investigation into online shaming more prescient than ever. In advance of his talk at the Northwestern University School of Law as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival on October 31, The A.V. Club talked to Ronson about the state of public shame in 2015 and the future of social media, as well as his own future as a screenwriter.

The A.V. Club: As someone who’s sarcastic on the internet for a living, your book was kind of terrifying. I’m always worried that something is going to be taken the wrong way, and I’m going to be publicly shamed, or doxxed, or similar.

Jon Ronson: Well there you go, you see? We’re living in post-nuance online times.

AVC: In your TED talk you did back in June, you called the culture of online shame the “democratization of justice.” Do you think this culture is going to peak, or is it a permanent part of our society now?

JR: Well, I originally saw what I called the “democratization of justice” as a good thing, because if everyone took their responsibilities seriously and thought things through, then great. But now the phrase sounds ominous, because of the way things have evolved.

I was talking to someone the other day who said he thought the kind of language that’s used during social-media shaming reminds him of his 6-year-old kid, who’s going through the developmental stage of language [where] he says the most outrageous things he can think if to see how it will go… So I hope this is a phase we’re going through, but right now it doesn’t seem to be that way because there’s still this wildly swinging pendulum. Everybody’s made out to be some hero or some sickening villain, and we swing between the two, and that’s really unhealthy. You’d think things would settle down and people would remember the nuanced truth about human beings, but that doesn’t seem to be happening just yet.

AVC: It does seem like it’s going to be a while, if only because it’s so pleasurable to feel like you’re right.

JR: It shouldn’t feel pleasurable, it really shouldn’t. What should feel pleasurable is curiosity and open-mindedness. We want to see ourselves as curious and open-minded and smart and understanding things in terms of context and nuance, but when someone tries to do that in the midst of a shaming they’re turned on. It’s really surprising. In the midst of a burning-hot shaming, calling for patience and context and understanding and empathy can really land you in trouble.

AVC: I’m very curious to hear your reaction to the Ashley Madison hack and all the shaming that came with that.

JR: I felt very strongly about the Ashley Madison thing. Of the 39 million people who signed up for Ashley Madison, only a tiny percentage of them actually had an affair. And I’d go a step further and say even if they did, it’s none of our business, frankly. We actually have no justifiable reason to try to ruin that person’s life. It’s funny, I’m not usually this animated about stories, usually I just find things funny. But this particular subject, it just feels so… I don’t know.

I posted a section from my book on my blog after the whole Ashley Madison thing, about a guy who killed himself after being exposed by [now-defunct British tabloid] News Of The World in the ’70s. He was a Welsh church minister, and he was having these wild sex parties in a caravan in north Wales and he was found out by News Of The World, and he begged them not to publish [the story] and they did and so he killed himself. And someone commented on the piece, “Well, he wasn’t married so it was a completely different thing.” And the fact was, he was married. Then within a couple of weeks at least three Ashley Madison people had also committed suicide. So was that person saying that those people deserved to die?

Everyone’s constantly scrambling around trying to justify their own cruel behavior, trying to come up with psychological tricks to make themselves not feel bad.

AVC: How does the hack relate to what you talked about in the book, where you say women have to take the brunt of shaming?

JR: My thoughts keep evolving on that, because I think there’s still lots of evidence that the range of insults faced by women is way worse. You only have to look at the language leveled at people like Justine Sacco [the PR rep who was fired for a racist tweet] versus someone like Jonah Lehrer [the New Yorker writer who was caught self-plagiarizing]. Justine gets, “I’m going to cut out your uterus,” and Jonah gets, “this man needs to be fired.” But to extrapolate to say that men [in general] survive shaming just fine, that’s not true. Justine pulled herself back together after a year and she’s got a new job and she’s fine, where three or four men killed themselves because of the Ashley Madison hack. So yeah, I don’t think it’s right to make those sort of gender distinctions. Of course there’s systemic misogyny in certain parts of our culture and systemic racism and a wider range of insults women have to face. But I think if you go on about that too much, it does a disservice both to women like Justine who are able to pull themselves together against the odds, and the men who killed themselves. So I have changed my view about that a bit.

AVC: Ashley Madison was an interesting case because it was mostly men who were being shamed for sexual indiscretions. In the book you give a few examples of that shame going away relatively quickly, but here we didn’t have that. We had people committing suicide.

JR: And when you read the message the hackers left when they dumped all the names, it was basically, “It’s embarrassing, sure, but you’ll get over it.” And I just think, “You grinning teenagers, you have no idea.” And that blithe disregard for other peoples’ lives is all over social media at the moment. The laughing way we make damaged people our playthings, it’s so dehumanizing. And none of it works, none of it makes the world a better place.

My ideal world was the early days of Twitter, where everyone was curious about each other and everyone saw it as kind of a window into people’s lives where we could be compassionate and curious and empathetic and we could tell each other secrets. And then it just turned on its head and turned into the opposite of everything I’ve learned in 30 years of journalism, which is that people are human and people fuck up and sometimes people do really good things and other times people do stupid things, and that’s a much more healthy way of seeing our fellow human beings.

AVC: So you don’t think we can go back?

JR: Honestly I think people will just have to grow up. The Stasi crumbled because people realized that living in a surveillance society was not a good way to live your life. It seems like there people now who are taking this really seriously, who are standing up in the hurricane. Glenn Greenwald is doing it, and Brené Brown, and Monica Lewinsky, and I’m doing it and I think the more people do it, the next time one of these shamings happens, it’ll be more nuanced. Nothing has been as bad as Justine Sacco, actually, because in her case no one defended her, there were no editorials saying, “What the fuck did we just do?” Whereas even with people whose transgressions are worse, like a Walter Palmer [the dentist who killed Cecil the lion], at least [now] there are some editorials saying, let’s look at the upside of this.

AVC: There’s this idea of “calling people out” that’s really prevalent right now. You’ve said it’s a good thing.

JR: Well, theoretically it’s a good thing, but I think now that it’s become such a huge part of the culture and you see all the bad stuff that’s happening because of it, you have to think about a responsible way of doing it. It’s not enough to just do it.

AVC: What do you think about comedians who say this call-out culture restricts what they can do creatively?

JR: Well, I agree. Did you read that Huffington Post letter, it was a college kid writing an open letter to Jerry Seinfeld, saying we only want you to come to our college if you do a particular sort of comedy?

AVC: I haven’t, but Seinfeld talks about that in interviews quite a bit.

JR: That’s not right. That’s not democratic. Also, it’s kind of stupid. This kid cited Any Schumer, like “Amy Schumer is the kind of comedian who’s welcome because she does comedy responsibly.” But then Amy Schumer feels the wrath of the crowds too. The boundaries are getting narrower and narrower of what is acceptable comedy.

Like I said in the book, it’s not a good idea to define the boundaries of normality by tearing apart people who are outside of it. On social media there’s this thing where on many occasions, there’s a single proscribed way of acting. Like if somebody dies, everyone has to say “R.I.P.! R.I.P.!” Basically they’re saying, “Don’t hurt me, I’m a good person.” Because I’m on the left, most of the time I’m in favor of what people say on Twitter, but every time [this groupthink happens] a chill goes through me. People aren’t just doing this because they feel passionate about this cause, they’re doing it for a lot of complicated reasons, many of which are quite destructive. [It’s] a ferocious conformity.

AVC: It is interesting how we want celebrities to weigh in on everything, like, “What does Chris Hemsworth think about the Republican debates?” But then the range of things they can say is so narrow.

JR: That happened to me rather ferociously with Rachel Dolezal. It was a weird couple of days for me to experience this. I tweeted something like, “I hope she’s okay,” because someone in Israel had just killed himself because of tweets about what a garbage person he was. And I thought, nobody knows anything about this person, my guess is that she’s probably kind of troubled, and minutes after we heard her name for the first time everyone is tearing her apart. So I tweeted that I hoped she was okay, and then suddenly it’s like this proclamation becomes a piece of meat for everybody to pull apart. It wasn’t important, it was just my opinion on Twitter about it. And yet there’s newspaper articles about it. The whole thing was just really unseemly.

These unimportant things take on great prominence—the mainstream media does it too. On social media we have a chance to do things better. Somebody told me, “Twitter hates tabloids, but Twitter is constantly acting like a tabloid, repeating the mistakes of the things we’re hoping to better.” Twitter wanted to become a more egalitarian justice system, but instead it became a draconian one. We could have been Atticus Finch—the pre-Go Set A Watchman Atticus Finch, the nice one—but we ended up being some kind of hanging judge from a Western.

AVC: On a different topic, there’s going to be a movie adaptation of The Psychopath Test, which seems like a difficult book to adapt into a movie. What approach are they taking?

JR: Honestly, I have no idea. Last Christmas I had dinner with Kristin Gore and Jay Roach, and that’s literally my only involvement. When I was writing Frank—which was inspired by this guy Chris Sievey, or Frank Sidebottom—I love this guy and I massively wanted him to like the film. But if he emailed me while I was writing the film (which he didn’t do often), my heart would kind of sink, because you want the creative process to be unfettered. So I figured, if I felt that way while I was writing Frank, I don’t want Kristin Gore to feel that way about me.

AVC: What about the project you announced on Twitter, where you’re doing a draft of a screenplay by Bong Joon-ho? How did that happen?

JR: He was a fan of Frank, and he contacted me. And I can’t tell you very much about that because I shouldn’t be the person to talk about it at this stage, but I can say it’s happened, and working with him was just a delight. He’s—and it’s rare, in the film industry—an incredibly nice and honorable person. But I can’t tell you anything else about it.

AVC: It’s a very interesting pairing.

JR: Yeah, and I love it. I think the work we’ve done is great. But because my instinct is to tell everyone everything, I shouldn’t say anything else.

AVC: Is there anything that’s caught your eye recently that you want to turn into a book?

JR: Not a book. I’ve actually been working on another drama with Peter Straughan, who I wrote Frank with. But then Peter sort of shot off into the stratosphere and is doing all these things, and I’ve been doing [the screenplay] alone. So that’s what I’m working on at the moment. And I think I’m going to to a podcast series, because I’ve always wanted to. At the moment I’m just looking around for ideas, and I’ve got a few, and it might not be a million miles away from So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.