Friday, April 10, 2015

I wish that Ronson had also considered why demanding that someone is fired from his or her job has become so central to the public shaming ritual. This demand, I think, reveals several things. First, it reflects how we are all public figures now and all have brands or reputations to protect, and so do our erstwhile employers. We have ported the logic of the celebrity shame cycle—in which corporate sponsors are expected to drop the offender posthaste—to the workaday world. It’s a strange conflation of the public and private, of believing that individuals are always-on representatives of their employers and that an incensed public is in a position to decide when this association should end.
The second thing that these calls for firing reveal is how precious a job has become and how truly punitive public shaming can be. We know that it’s increasingly difficult to get a full-time job and losing one means having to fall back on a threadbare social safety net. Add to that the threat of a permanent Google trail (a feature that Ronson does a good job exploring), and being fired as a result of bringing disrepute on yourself or your employer can be a quick trip to precarity. Do shamers realize the jobless purgatory they might send their targets to? Has that become the singular marker of a “successful” shaming campaign?
Finally, the effort to get people fired reveals one important driver of public shaming—namely, a declining faith in the efficacy of American institutions. The public’s mindset seems to be: No one will punish these people, so we have to do it ourselves. The parallels with the justice system and traditional notions of mob justice are obvious, and it’s one of Ronson’s smarter moves to visit a prison psychiatrist and a former judge who specialized in handing down embarrassing punishments. Yet when he tells the judge, Ted Poe, who’s now a member of the House of Representatives, that “we [public shamers] are more frightening than you” (emphasis in original), Ronson suffers from the public shamer’s lack of proportion. Shaming can be novel, scary, and pernicious, but America’s overflowing prisons are distinct in their cruelty.