This is one of those books that probably everybody should read. It wasn’t the most brilliantly written book I’ve ever read, but that’s okay, that’s not Ronson’s style. He’s very workmanlike in his writing, sort of tongue-in-cheek, and he’s got this great way of using his simple style to deliver these darkly funny deadpan one-liners. But what I really liked about this was the message.
The book is short, and sort of rambly, and structured more like a Russian doll than anything. He opens stories at the beginning that sometimes he doesn’t come back to for a hundred pages. I didn’t mind this at all. If you don’t know the premise, Ronson spent two years interviewing and writing about the social process of shaming, especially focusing on Twitter pile-ons like those that happened to Justine Sacco (she tweeted a bad joke before getting on an airplane, and when she got off the airplane her life was ruined). He is very interested as a writer in the human flaws and reactions that actually exist behind public shamings, and that’s the part of this book that seems important to me. We as humans are always needing reminding that other people exist, and that our actions (no matter the motivation) have real effects on others.
I thought Ronson did a really nice job exploring all aspects of public shaming, on both sides of the equation. He interviews shamers and shamees alike, showing compassion for both (although he expends more on those whose lives were ruined, I think deservedly). He also does shallow dives into historical shaming like the pillory, and into the justice system (which I agree runs on shame, in a terrible, infuriating way). He also briefly touches on how shame works as a positive force in some people’s lives. It all felt really balanced.
I did also enjoy the parts where he debunks the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment (Zimbardo has been discussed ad nauseam in psychology courses since the 1970s, and his experiment has also infiltrated pop culture, and all of it is based on misinformation). Also, he goes after the guy who started the field of crowd psychology.
I really enjoyed reading the book, and for what it is, I think it’s great. I’ll definitely be checking out Ronson’s other books. My only complaint is that I wish someone else would take on this topic, and take it on in much more detail than this book was able to. The chapter about shame being such a vital part of criminal psychology really hits home why this is so important, and I think as the online environment evolves, we need to be constantly reminding ourselves that, as is said in the book, “The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche,” and that’s not a good thing.
[3.5 stars, rounded up]