An Evening With Jon Ronson

By: Brandon Clark | Contributor |

Photo credit: Barnes & Noble

The University of South Alabama had the privilege of inviting Jon Ronson to speak in the Student Center Ballroom for USA’s Common Read/Common World program on Nov. 17. The Common Read/Common World program is a learning initiative dedicated to letting students, along with staff, “engage critically with the ideas and themes of the book”. This is in order to better promote an increased awareness of global issues and a sense of community among students, faculty, and “the greater Mobile area”.

The book that was chosen for this year’s program is “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” by Jon Ronson. Ronson is a first-person narrative journalist, a regular contributor to the BBC and NPR, and an avid writer having published books such as “Them: Adventures with Extremists”, “The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry”, and “Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries.” Additionally, he co-wrote the Netflix film “Okja”. This was one of his first talks in front of an audience since the pandemic and he had a lot to say about our world and the role public shaming has in it today.

“Facebook is where you lie to your friends; Twitter is where you tell the truth to strangers.”

At the beginning of his speech, Ronson explained how in the beginning, Twitter was a place where one could be confident and open. However, around 2013, Ronson notes that we “fell in love with the power of shaming” and attention was no longer on public figures who were doing wrong, but private individuals who “misspoke.” 

His first example of this was the story of Justine Sacco, which is the subject of what he calls “The First Great Shaming.” Jon Ronson told the audience that he would later interview her, asking to explain the joke, and she said that in a “Southpark context,” she was trying to make fun of her own privilege by doing an exaggerated impression of a privileged white American. 

His next example revolved around Lindsey Stone, another victim of public shaming after a series of unfortunate events. Jon Ronson explained that Stone already had harmless posts similar to the one that drew negative attention towards herself, uploaded as a long-running joke. However, this particular post caused controversy all across social media, ruining her reputation as well as costing her her job. 

Toward the end of the event, Ronson sat down with the audience and addressed them in casual conversation about shaming on social media. He explained to the audience that much has changed within the last five to six years and that some of that social change can be attributed to shaming. 

Although shaming has done some good, Ronson takes issue with some aspects of shaming, that being, “the disproportionate shaming of people who don’t deserve it,” and “some of the methods” of shaming used today. Shaming, he says “gets to the very heart of what it is to be a human.” He stated how humans are social animals and when we shame each other, we “eat our own,” saying that the act of shaming is “especially painful.”

Ronson revealed that the cure he discovered for shaming is empathy and said that Twitter, while it rewards empathetic behavior, only rewards it selectively and for a small group of people. “Empathy, I think, is just the most human characteristic,” Ronson said.