We all know what schadenfreude means: pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune. We all claim that we don’t engage in it. We don’t slow down to take in the detritus of a spectacular accident at the side of the road, all the while feeling the tiniest bit of pleasure and relief knowing that it wasn’t us involved in that mess. We don’t smile inwardly when someone who has been particularly unpleasant in the past is finally hit with an epic dose of karma. We don’t hope that the manager who has been berating the staff for weeks on end for the slightest thing suffers badly when his wife, whom he has apparently also been berating, sues for divorce, custody and half of everything he owns. We don’t, right?
Except that we do.
Jon Ronson, in his book ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’ takes us on an enquiring journey into understanding what happens when someone is publicly vilified online, taken to task and felled by a screaming, foaming-at-the-mouth hoard, all branding virtual pitchforks and a mighty dose of righteous indignation.
He demonstrates quite clearly that shame and violence are inextricably intertwined. Two sides of the same coin, in many ways. He walks us through the stories of people like Justine Sacco, best known in life for having tweeted the following to her 170 followers, just prior to an 11 hour flight to South Africa: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
A horrible tweet? Yes. It was intended as a comment on white privilege, but completely misconstrued in the setting of Twitter’s 140 non-contextual milieu. Justine lost her job in PR, which was probably not surprising to anyone but what did surprise me was the level of vitriol that was piled on to her, worldwide and within hours of her ill-advised pressing of the TWEET button. Many people joined in the calls for her rape, torture, and murder not because they really felt she deserved that but because they were carried away in a wild feeding frenzy. Why were their tweets acceptable and hers was not? How is that she lost her job and those who advocated for her rape did not? This is what I don’t understand about the whole phenomenon. What makes one wrong and one okay? Who decides? These and many more questions are the basis for Mr. Ronson’s investigation into shaming.
The online world is starting to feel like a peep show of epic and worldwide proportions. And it’s terrifying. I particularly liked the last page of the book:
“Soon after Justine Sacco’s shaming, I was talking with a friend, a journalist, who told me he had so many jokes, little observations, potentially risque thoughts, that he wouldn’t dare to post online anymore.
“I suddenly feel with social media like I’m tiptoeing around an unpredictable, angry, unbalanced parent who might strike out at any moment,” he said. “It’s horrible.”
He didn’t want me to name him, he said, in case it sparked something off.
We see ourselves as nonconformist, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age.
“Look! we’re saying. “WE’RE normal! THIS is the average!”
We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside it.”
If you are on social media, for work or for fun, read this book. It will give you an insight as to how quickly you can go from inappropriate comment to losing control of your life.