The Price of Shame

I’ve been reading an interesting story that’s been unfolding over the past month. I’m not sure whether I would have found it interesting when it started, but I’ve just finished the audiobook of Jon Ronson’s “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed“, and this story could be straight from the pages. (This was one of the audiobooks I was desperate to get – it did not disappoint!)

The book follow’s Ronson’s exploration into the culture of public shaming, and what happens to people after they are publicly shamed. He looks at both pre-internet (such as Max Mosley being outed for his sexual shenanigans in The News of the World) and post internet (such as the infamous tweet by Justine Sacco about getting AIDS in Africa). Although the life destroying public shamings are more prominent now – Ronson discusses a number of occasions where a tweet has blown up someone’s life or a Facebook shaming has caused a suicide – this is nothing new. In the past, public shamings were used as law enforcement – any Game of Thrones fans will recognise this as Cersei Lannister’s punishment for falsehood and fornication.

“Does this mean Twitter the new public whipping?!”

“So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” opens with a story about Jonah Lehrer, a writer who fabricated Bob Dylan quotes for a book and was found out. His shaming came about by another journalist (Michael Moynihan) publishing an article exposing him, then when Lehrer attempted an apology, he had a live Twitter stream behind him, trying to rip him down. Ronson notes that the punishment for publishing false news prior to the 1840s was a public whipping. Does this mean Twitter the new public whipping?!

So back to my story – a comedian I absolutely love (Sofie Hagen) posted the link to a petition to have a comedy promoter removed from his role. He had apparently made some rather unpleasant misogynistic, transphobic, homophobic and racist comments at a comedy night. A group of people at the event had challenged him about it, and he allegedly did not respond well, so they set up a petition. Hagen promoted this petition on her podcast, and received correspondence asking her to stop.

Now, at the time of writing this, just over 600 people have signed the petition to get this man removed from his job. Compared to Ronson’s case studies, he’s a small fish. Justine Sacco, for example, was bombarded with ‘tens of thousands’ of tweets calling for her head – this guy just had a small, angry mob nipping at his heels.

But it has clearly had an effect.

“He was hurting, and seemed to genuinely not understand why these people were speaking out against him.”

You see, one of the signatories on the petition is the guy in question. Make no mistake, he hasn’t decided to lean in to the shaming, he’s used it as a forum to write a rebuttal, aimed at all the people who have signed against him. He was hurting, and seemed to genuinely not understand why these people were speaking out against him. He was keen to put out his side of the story – that he’s not racist, he’s not a bigot, and he’s frightened his life will be ruined.

Unfortunately he also doesn’t acknowledge that there is an issue. He did use a racially unpleasant phrase, but his justification is that there were no black acts on the bill. It’s a bit ‘if a tree falls in the woods’ as an argument – if the N-Word is spoken and there’s black people around to hear it, is it offensive? Well… yeah dude, it kinda is.

“It seems these days the main purpose of ‘free speech’ is to say nasty things about people who are conventionally oppressed.”

Looking at this guy’s CV, it looks like he learned his trade in a time when punching down was the in thing. Where making fun of minorities, women, LGBTQ folks was the norm. But it’s a bit cheap now. People are less inclined to laugh at a ‘funny’ voice, a la Love Thy Neighbour or Are You Being Served? Humour can be cleverer, without being unpleasant. And if you want to be unpleasant, fine, but accept that people will disagree with you. I’m sure he would be the first to remind us that he has ‘free speech’, but that free speech gives people the right to disagree, to protest and to pull his views to pieces. It seems these days the main purpose of ‘free speech’ is to say nasty things about people who are conventionally oppressed. I’m not sure that’s quite in the spirit that it’s meant….

So this guy has now been shamed – it’s not on a grand scale, but he’s clearly impacted (he has, in fact, set up his own petition against petitions). He could take something away from the experience, think of it as feedback. Judging by his Facebook, he probably won’t. I don’t necessarily think he deserves to be destroyed over it, but (as I’ve said previously) the internet is heading that way. We all need to start having some empathy for our fellow humans, both in our free speech and our judgement. There are no heroes and villains – we can all be the mob, the idiot, the martyr or the baddie. It all depends who writes the narrative.

If this subject interested you, I can highly recommend “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” by Jon Ronson. Link to Amazon available at the top of this blog.

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