Jon Ronson keynote: Stop the shame spiral

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It’s a shame that social media doesn’t come with a disclaimer. It’s too easy to judge people out of context based on a single tweet or comment or post. It’s too easy to jump to conclusions. It’s certainly easier (and a lot less fun) than stopping to ask questions.

But that’s exactly what author and journalist Jon Ronson asks us to do. When he took the stage at Relate Live in New York, he shared the stories behind some recent high-profile shamings that many of us witnessed, and more than a few of us perpetuated. In his new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, he shares his primary motivation: encouraging all of us to rediscover our empathy and resist the urge to tear people down on the basis of a single social interaction.

Before you start watching the video of Jon’s talk, be warned: things can get spicy in social media shamings. Some of the verbal and printed tweets in the video contain words that may not be suitable for work. For a more PG version of Jon Ronson, enjoy his pre-Relate Q&A, The shameful trend of public shaming.

Not in the mood for video? Here are transcripts of our favorite moments of Jon Ronson's keynote (with the timestamp in case you want to watch and listen for yourself):

[1:50] “I’m going to talk about what happens when we lose our empathy and what happens when we get it back. And by empathy, I mean also, curiosity, which, I think is the opposite of cold, hard, instant judgment.”

[12:15] “In 2011, 2012 I went around the world talking about my book The Psychopath Test. And I would talk about how labeling can sometimes be tyrannical—sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s bad, but our desire to just define people as psychopathic was bad. And everybody in the audience would agree with me that it was bad. And then I noticed that we would all go home and do the exact same thing on social media. We would define somebody by some bad phraseology in a tweet. Or we would say, ‘That person must be a sociopath because of what they just said in that tweet.’ And everybody was doing it. And after a while, the hypocrisy of this started to rankle me a little bit. Everybody loves it when the people who are abusing their power are over there. But when we’re the ones abusing our power, we really don’t want to be told. And I think that’s what lead me to write my book about public shaming.”

[13:20] “In the earliest days of Twitter, it was this place of great empathy and curiosity. People would admit shameful secrets about themselves, and people would say, ‘I’m exactly the same.’ It’s very healing to be open and have other people empathize. That’s de-stigmatizing. That helps people.”

[14:00] We became so excited about our new power, about leveling the playing field, about the democratization of justice. It began to feel weird and empty when there wasn’t somebody who had misused their privilege who we could ‘get.’ A day without a righteous shaming felt like a day picking fingernails and treading water. And so we stopped getting people who deserved it, like racists or homophobic columnists or corporations who had committed disasters and we started instead getting private individuals who we decided were representative of an ideology which was way out of their sphere of control.”

[24:10] “I think one of the ironies is that a lot of the people who destroyed Justine [Sacco] did it because they wanted to be compassionate because they wanted to show that they cared about people dying of AIDS in Africa. So the irony is that it was a desire to be compassionate that lead so many people to commit the profoundly uncompassionate act of tearing apart a woman as she was asleep on a plane and unable to explain herself.”

[25:30] “I think maybe there’s two types of people in the world: those people who favor humans over ideology and those people who favor ideology over humans. This is not a call against social justice, of course, and it’s not a call against idealism. But I think it probably is a call against taking a private individual who doesn’t deserve it and defiling them by the scantest bit of information and then having that private individual have to carry the weight of an entire ideology on their shoulders.”

[42:35] “A writer’s favorite question is ‘why?’ Whereas open mindedness opens doors into amazing new worlds.”

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