Cancel culture: how public shaming has evolved in the 21st century

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Jon Ronson’s “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” is certainly a great book to start a discussion about the state of the internet in the contemporary age when cancel culture began to impact even the people with little to no following. The book, published in 2015, is an analysis on the topic of public shaming as seen from multiple angles: from people whose careers had been damaged because of it to specialists from the American justice system. Jon Ronson makes sure to get all sides of the story and the conclusions he came to are quite fascinating.

“We were the mob”

Firstly, the author explains how his own experience with public shaming led to the idea of this book. He recounts how he was the one that, many times, did the shaming against other people and how that made him feel. As it is recounted later in the book, Jon Ronson didn’t realize until a certain point that he distanced himself from the shamers, when, in reality, he got the same pleasure from the act of shaming.

“I was happy to be victorious. It felt wonderful. The wonderful feeling overwhelmed me like a sedative. Strangers all over the world had united to tell me I was right.”

It is easy to see the appeal of this. After all, the internet can offer us the type of validation that most of us don’t actively realize we need it. As Ronson said: “The silenced were getting a voice.” But what happens when, due to our flawed human nature, this tool of empowerment becomes a weapon?

This is what we are about to see, as the writer tells the story of Jonah Lehrer, a popular science journalist who fell from grace after accusations of plagiarism and misuse of quotes. This pattern may seem repetitive for the ones who enjoy spending their time on Twitter these days, but back in 2012, when this all thing took place, the concept of online shaming as a damaging method wasn’t regarded with as much interest as it is today. Jonah Lehrer got caught for this wrongdoings and the apology that followed was met with distrust and anger by his vicious online critics.

Two sides of the same coin

What piqued my interest was how the journalist who exposed Lehrer, Michael Moynihan, felt about this whole thing. It was surprising to read how much he had struggled to publish the article who brought to light the other party’s misconduct. After all, it was shown that if you keep quiet about these things, you are the one at risk to be crucified by your online peers.

“How could Michael not press Send? What would people think if the story got out?”

The sense of self-preservation won in the end, but while other people revel in someone’s destruction, Michael felt isolated, as his fellow journalists were afraid to be exposed by him as well.

Nevertheless, Michael wasn’t convinced of Jonah’s sincerity after his apology either. He recounts a conversation between the two of them which leads us to believe that the guilty party cared more about getting caught rather than acknowledging why his actions were wrong: “Then Jonah said to Michael, ‘I really, really regret . . .’ ‘Regret what?’ Michael thought. ‘Cheating? Lying?’ ‘I really regret ever responding to your email,’ Jonah said.” It is difficult to judge someone’s character over the internet and many of us seem blissfully ignorant about this fact. Moynihan mentions too that “Having a phone conversation with somebody is like reading a novel”. It is hard to tell with some people whether it’s remorse or indifference that drives their actions.

While the contrast between the two parties is almost novel-like (“The nobody blogger and the crooked VIP. David and Goliath”), neither of them came out of this thing unscathed. The internet has a too black-and-white vision when it comes to scandals like this, but the reality is that neither of these men is a hero, nor a villain. They both experienced trauma, only from different sides. This is proof that both parties involved in online shaming are victims of this system, which functions as a double-edged sword.

Final thoughts on the book

Public shaming isn’t a new practice by any means, the book depicting examples of how it was used throughout history as a way to educate not only the one who is punished but also the onlookers. But why do people keep this practice even today? Many reasons can be attributed to it: to affirm their moral superiority, to feel they are a part of a group with the same values, or just to waste some time. Most of them, on a superficial level, believe that they are doing something good (“It was an impulse to make sure your neighbour was doing the right thing.”)

One criticism that I have is, while Jon Ronson clearly raised a lot of good points in his work, he gave me the impression that he stretched himself too thin between the different angles he wanted to approach. It was rather difficult to follow him when he jumped from one person to another and came back to the same case 50 pages later. This book could have been better structure-wise, at least in my opinion.

Cancel culture

The website dictionary.com defines cancel culture as “the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive”.

The cancel culture phenomenon wasn’t such a hot topic back in 2015 when this book was published (as it became more popular with the spreading of the #MeToo movement back in 2017), but it shows some of Ronson’s worries coming to life. While there are a lot of people who are rightfully canceled on the internet for the most disturbing behavior, things can get out of hand pretty quickly. People can get canceled for the smallest things, being stripped of their self-respect and not being given any chance to redeem themselves. All while the ones who refuse to feel ashamed are thriving in this environment, manipulating others with their carefully chosen words, guilt-tripping the people who try to expose them, and using many other dirty methods to get their biding.

By being so cruel and subjective, cancel culture gives a chance to the real manipulators to slip through the cracks. These people would blame cancel culture and the ones who pertain to it for destroying their careers over nothing (as it happened many times in the past). The die-hard fans would believe that and continue to viciously attack whoever dared to ask for accountability from their idols. Cancel culture basically cancels itself at this point and it defeats its former purpose.

If you like to read articles regarding social issues, be sure to check this one: Be confident in that bikini! F*** Beauty Standards.

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