Sunday, April 5, 2015

Shelving: So You've Been Publicly Shamed

I want to write a longer review of Jon Ronson's book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, sometime in the near future, but for now this really stood out to me:
[Justine Sacco] was justified, Sam Biddle was saying, because Justine was a racist, and because attacking her was punching up. They were cutting down a member of the media elite, continuing the civil rights tradition that started with Rosa Parks, the hitherto silenced underdogs shaming into submission the powerful racists.
Later,  he adds:
I suppose it's no surprise that we feel we need to dehumanize the people we hurt -- before, during, or after the hurting occurs.
There's a twofold justification for this: one, it's really easy to dehumanize someone you only know from 140 characters, but more importantly, for people on the left who are convinced they're doing good, fighting injustice and boosting the "little guy," it's hard to view people as individuals when you're working within an ideology that slots people along axes of power. I'm not saying those things are unimportant, because they are, but it makes people lose sight of context.

Freddie DeBoer made a good point recently about how women are invariably punished for stepping out of line. Women are easier to dehumanize, and less likely to be forgiven. I found it telling that Biddle, who "outed" Sacco as a racist, in a recent article for Gawker just suddenly acknowledged her humanity after meeting with her in person, but I can understand how, if your primary framework consists of determining who has privilege and who doesn't, Sacco easily becomes an avatar of that: white, middle-class, young, attractive, gainfully employed. But so can many of the people who thought it was their right to bring down this horrible racist.

Spencer Kornhaber from the Atlantic has an extended review of the book. Of the Sacco case, he says:
Sacco tossed into the world a joke about racism that actually came off, to many, as racist; is the takeaway that people are too sensitive, or that it's a good idea to carefully consider matters before sending out a joke about AIDS in Africa, of all topics?
Can't the takeaway be that while yes, she said something inappropriate, her public punishment was completely disproportionate? When did this cease to be an option?

Ronson finishes somewhat apocalyptically with this:
I was becoming one of those other people with other ideas. I was expressing the unpopular belief that Justine Sacco wasn't a monster. I wonder if I will receive a tidal wave of negative feedback for this, and if so, will it frighten me back again to a place where I am congratulated and welcome.
I hope it isn't this bad. I don't want to believe we now live in an Orwellian world  where just thinking an incorrect thought is enough to justify punishment or isolation. But every week, it seems, there's a new article making the rounds bemoaning PC culture and authoritarian social justice techniques. It's hard to ignore that.