Jon Ronson has written a book about public shaming (confession: I have not read it yet, but I have read Ronson’s other books and enjoyed them greatly), So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. I’m not sure I want to read it now, after this critique by Daniel Engber. Ronson tries to redeem Jonah Lehrer? Really? I think Engber does a very good job of showing that no, Lehrer really is rather shameless, and has been trying to minimize his sins and has gotten Ronson to obligingly assist in his rehabilitation.
And then I got tangled up in the boundary between criticism and shaming. Is Engber shaming Ronson? Is Ronson shaming everyone who shamed Lehrer? Have I been cruelly shaming creationists and Republicans? Is it grossly unfair to publicly and persuasively expose bad acts by bad people?
There’s obviously a continuum here. Dick Cheney is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people (at least) and the wasteful destruction of entire countries — I would hope that pointing that out isn’t a disgraceful faux pas, and that the message is that we ought to discreetly look the other way, and try not to embarrass an old grandpa with his failures. On the other hand, if someone walks out of a restroom with toilet paper on their shoe, it’s probably not right to fire them for their tastelessness and lack of decorum, and then get on the internet and make sure that Google associates their name with coprophilia forevermore. There are situations in which shame is an excessive response.
But where do we draw that line? It seems to me that when there are clear and serious problems, we have an obligation to bring them up and not forget them — Lehrer’s crimes against journalism should not simply vanish, and are especially relevant if he’s trying to insert himself back in that world. That wouldn’t justify crank-calling him at 2am every night to rage against him, or to carry out acts of retribution against his family, or to throw tomatoes at him when he steps out into public, but putting the documentation that describes his errors honestly and accurately, without falling into the trap of obsession, seems like a responsible thing to do.
I also see echoes of some of the bad ideas of internet culture here. The chans and trolls all seem to value anonymity over responsible behavior — you are not allowed to violate the shield that protects them from shame. You are allowed to send gutter threats of murder and rape against people; if you can steal nude photos of them, you can post those and accuse the person of being a slut; you can swat them, call in the police to raid their homes; but the greatest, most unforgivable crime of them all is to expose the people who do those things. How dare you dox someone? Not, how dare you threaten someone’s family, but how dare you expose the identity of harassers and abusers?
I’m afraid I’m all for exposing them. I don’t want to live in a world where the greatest sin is to break the illusion that all is sweetness and light, and we’re brought up to respect decorum rather than right behavior — where we’re all trained to close our eyes to bad actions, or where the little boy who embarrasses the emperor by pointing out that he’s naked is quickly gagged and dragged away, to make sure he doesn’t disrupt the parade.