Something I’m realizing more and more about myself this month is my defensiveness. I’m not great at responding to criticisms or even to people informing me of an issue because I tend to feel singled out and attacked.
Basically, my fight or flight mode sucks and I wish I could turn it off. Because before I know it I’ve said a few words more than “Ok” and it’s turned into a huge fiasco that’s threatening those around me in one way or another.
This defensiveness is part of what informed my beyond lackluster response to the accusations made against me last year. I was surprised, exhausted and more importantly I was incensed at the accusations that had driven so many away.
Of course, it wasn’t the accusations, it was my actions. But good luck to 2017 me seeing that and responding appropriately. I felt targeted in the worst way and responded accordingly. I take responsibility for my poor responses/apologies.
There’s however some solace in reading a book like So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson then. Some of the people in here (especially John Leher) have “beyond lackluster” responses to being called out for their actions as well.
And while I knew prior that not everyone responds to accusations appropriately it still felt reassuring to see it so carefully documented and written about by Ronson, The book in general is very thoughtfully written by Ronson and must be given the intense and sensitive subject matter of the book.
Ronson’s aim in this book is to establish the place that shame has in incentivizing a moral order from other individuals. How successful is it? Does it have too many downsides? Do most people become better people afterwards?
There’s many questions Ronson goes out to try to answer and he does them through the personal stories of some folks who have been shamed online. Many of them simply dropped their internet personas after a brief apology and cried a lot.
When it comes to my own story I’ve decided to loosen my internet presence a little, e.g. I don’t post personally as much on social media anymore, mostly shared links.
But my original apology wasn’t brief and while I have spent many hours in many different corners of my brain crying, wanting to die, thinking that there’s nothing I can do to be a better person than who I’ve been, I’m trying to get out of that space.
Ultimately, that space isn’t helpful for fostering change. Who would have thought it huh? Trying to soak in your misery and thinking it’s hopeless doesn’t actually make the prospect of changing for the better any more likely! Weird!
Jokes aside, the people in the book aren’t all like that. Some aren’t affected at all by the shaming such as one that involved a number of men who are on a prostitute list in a small Maine town. The only one shamed is, of course, the single woman client.
Perhaps one of the more affecting stories to me was the one about John Leher who was publicly shamed online for his blatant plagiarism. Not only did Leher plagiarize his own writings but he also made up quotes and as a result…well it’s hard to say.
In some ways Leher lost a lot of credibility but in others he’s still invited to conferences, still was able to come out with a new book and I doubt he lost all of his money and status. But personally he talks about how much it changed him. Or, supposedly. Some people think he’s a psychopath and doubt his remorse.
So maybe in that way, I also related to it. My statements about the accusations were thought to be the words of a narcissist or psychopath as well. It wasn’t the first time I’d been called some variant of the selfish label though to quote a friend, I’m not narcissistic I’m “fucking autistic” which seems accurate.
More oblivious than intentionally malicious or deviant.
For myself, I found the matter interesting and even more complicated than others were giving it credit for in the book. While Leher was lying and that’s wrong, it seemed like plagiarizing himself and misquoting were minor compared to the shaming that ended up happening. Then again, it was a persistent pattern.
In other cases it’s quite clear to me (such as in DongleGate) where the massive punishment against the offenders doesn’t seem to fit the crime. This book takes note of some interesting incidents that I had all but forgot about or never knew.
Besides discussion about online shaming there’s also discussions about the chances of people becoming rehabilitated. I particularly enjoyed the commentary on when people retrospectively looked at their shaming.
For Leher, Ronson says, “His worst days were when he allowed himself hope … the best …when he accepted his destruction was necessary for the deterrent of others.”
I can relate to that given my own mistakes and relationship for hope. But on the other hand, with a new job that I actually enjoy most of, moving forward with my legal name, a handful of really solid friends, I’ve got hope and want to keep it.
Another interesting thing about Leher was that the note of narcissism and psychopathy often came from outside academics and journalists with little to no experience in the mental health field (at least according to Ronson).
So is it fair to diagnose people from afar like this? Without really knowing or having a professional grip on what makes psychopaths tick or not tick? On the third hand, wouldn’t it be weird to seclude those sorts of judgements to only professionals?
Moving on, one of my other favorite parts of the book concerned how we could move past shame and who is trying to do it. Ronson looks at the pornography world that helps people consensually face their fears in a sexual way.
Interestingly, Ronson also talked about the movement (cult?) of radical honesty, which was interesting enough for me to spend a few hours of research on. My conclusion was that it had some nice ideas but the inner group is best avoided.
As we get to the end of the book Ronson discusses that there are reputation firms that can make Google search results go away. They work very subtly and are hard for Google to notice (at least as of writing the book) but are expensive.
I thought about this for myself and quickly decided that I wouldn’t want to deal with the shame, especially when I already deal with so much self-hatred anyways. But funnily enough, while reading this chapter of the book I found out that my name had nothing associated with it that was negative anymore.
Previously there was a Tweet that had a screenshot of someone posting about a credible accusation of sexual assault (nothing I haven’t talked about beforer) and I was mortified. Could I legally change my name to Doreen Cleyre now?
Suffice it to say I dedicated myself to doing it anyways, whatever the cost. Even if I’m constantly shamed throughout my life for being who I was and who I am, that’s going to happen either way. And besides, I’ve done enough hiding of myself.
The last three chapters of the book pull back bit by bit but there’s some interesting bits about how the internalization of shame leads us to become violent. Even a pimp who had murdered many was able to find solace in helping a mentally disabled kid.
How did he get there? By those around him treating him with respect and allowing him a place to speak is mind and connect with others, albeit in a very limited way. I don’t know if the answer to all crime is to root out the inner shame criminals feel.
But I do know that shame is often a great place to start and that trying to understand the role it has in our world and communities is a great step towards trying to make it a better world for all of us, including those shamed.
Speaking as someone who has been publicly shamed, I recommend Ronson’s book.
It’d be a shame if you didn’t read it.
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