Jon Ronson, author of The Men Who Stare at Goats, has a new book So You've Been Publicly Shamed that seems very timely in light of the recent Art F City-initiated smear campaign against the artist Ryder Ripps. (The latest salvo in which was an out-of-control rant by a former AFC writer in Frieze, which the editors stand behind 100% -- I emailed to ask.)
Ronson discussed some of the ideas in his book in a Salon interview yesterday.
One is that shamers need to feel that they are "punching up," in other words, that the person they are attacking has more status than they do and needs to be brought low. Thus, Ryder Ripps isn't a somewhat vulnerable artist having his first one-person gallery show, but "internet hipster royalty," as Frieze described him. Since he is royalty everyone attacking him can feel that they are on the side of the angels, fighting the good fight against misogyny (and let's toss in homophobia, what the heck), when what they are actually doing -- treating satirical artworks as if they were completely in earnest, in order to make a public example of an artist -- is more like the Devil's work.
Here is the relevant part of Ronson's interview with Salon writer Laura Miller:
Miller: Well, I’d say that fully 65 percent of media Twitter is a subtweet of “How come you have that gig instead of me?” One of the most ominous moments in your book is the part where you ask your Twitter followers, “Has Twitter become a kangaroo court?” And someone tweets back, “Twitter can’t impose real sentences. Just commentary. And unlike you, Jon, we aren’t paid for it.” To me, that’s your real Russian roulette moment, the one that shows how close you are to taking a bullet. Being paid for it makes you a target. The whole rationale behind assuming impunity in attacking people is that “they” have some unjust advantage and “we” don’t.
Ronson: You’re absolutely right. A misuse of privilege is the most shame-worthy thing these days. Of course, attacking people who are powerful is a better thing than attacking somebody involved in a consensual sex scandal or something like that. But social media, en masse: We are more powerful than Justine Sacco or Jonah Lehrer, or Justine Sacco’s employers. Even if Justine Sacco’s employers thought that what Justine did was silly, and they understood the nuance and that it was a mistake but they really liked her because she was a good employee, they still had to fire her. Because social media said so. So we are trying to attack the powerful, misunderstanding the fact that we’re the powerful ones now.
Miller: Your friend said it best: The snowflake never feels responsible for the avalanche. But even that stuff often seems like a rationale. Sure, the idea that someone has an advantage that we don’t have is really irksome and makes us want to target them, but I also think that people pull the trigger first and come up with reasons later. It’s rooted in the feeling that everybody is more powerful than we are, and therefore we have no ability to hurt them and that makes them fair game. It could be, “This person gets paid to write” or “This person is rich” or “This is a PR person who lives in New York.”
Ronson: “And goes to bars and parties and is blond.”
Miller: Yes, and in the case of Lindsey Stone, “This is some feminist who’s running around making fun of the military.” We turn them into fantasy boogeymen who represent everyone who’s every wronged us.
Ronson: With Hank [a programmer who joked about dongles and got fired --tm] and Adria [the person who got him fired who was also fired --tm], her feeling was, “This guy is representative of the male-dominated tech world and he’s got so many more opportunities than I do.” And then the people outraged over Adria’s ability to get Hank fired think, “This is feminism out of control.” You’re right. Everybody thinks they’re “punching up,” and there’s just carnage.
Miller: Even though structural inequality exists, there’s a lot of what you could call the anxiety of meritocracy. You feel powerless or you feel like an underdog. You feel like everybody has something you don’t. But alongside that, there’s also this persistent notion that people can now get what they deserve. So everybody who has something more than you, even if it’s just a little bit, is insulting you, saying you’re not worthy, just by virtue of having it. It becomes an act of self-defense to point out that whatever they have, they got unjustly, which makes them a terrible person who deserves to be pilloried.
Ronson: Yeah! Why have we created this Staasi-like system for ourselves? And the more entrenched it becomes, of course, the more likely it is that we’ll all eventually fall victim to it, including the people who created it.