Interview with Jon Ronson

Posted by Goodreads on April 6, 2015
Jon Ronson is fascinated by what makes us tick. An explorer of the human condition, he explodes our expectations in books like Them: Adventures with Extremists, The Psychopath Test, and The Men Who Stare at Goats. Instead of summing up, he fleshes out his subjects, turning even the easiest to objectify—like porn stars and psychopaths—into people very much like us. With his new book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, Ronson examines how the nature of public humiliation has changed in our society. He illustrates how one half-baked tweet can almost instantly transform ordinary people into global pariahs, and how it can be unfair even when dishonest people are pilloried on the public stage. Ronson talked to interviewer Sara Scribner about losing and finding himself in other people's stories.

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Goodreads: Shame has been around forever. Why write about it now?

Jon Ronson: I know shame has been around since the dawn of time, but with social media we've sleepwalked into creating this sort of surveillance society for ourselves where we just shame people for the tiniest transgressions. It's a new way of being. I've just gotten off a UK book tour, and at one of the talks a woman came up to me who's a child therapist, and she said that every child who comes to her comes to her damaged now because of social media. We're like toddlers crawling toward a gun, and we're just shaming people for nothing, and we have no idea what the consequences are. In fact, we don't want to know. We want to destroy somebody and not feel bad about it. Those are the reasons why I really felt like I wanted to write the book now, because we've drifted into a new way of being, and it's really recent and it's really damaging. It's really bad.

Monica Lewinsky gave this wonderful TED Talk the other day about shame. I thought it was fantastic, and I'd love to work with her. I would guess that even some of the people who thought what happened to Monica was terrible would still happily tear apart Justine Sacco [who lost her job and reputation for an ill-advised tweet], who in my mind is equally innocent.

GR: Sometimes it seems that only the loudest people with the strongest egos will survive.

JR: At the last talk I did in Britain, somebody said to me, "There are so many shameless people out there who are impervious to being shamed," and my first thought was that there were probably fewer shameless people than that person feels, but I also said we're meting out punishments where the people who least deserve it are getting it the worst. The people who are reading every single comment can't help taking it in and can't help feeling worthless because thousands of people tell them they're worthless. They're the nicest people, and they're suffering the worst from this. When you just said only the strong will survive, I agree, and I think that's terrible because the whole point about the Internet and social media was that it was giving everybody a voice—it was giving voiceless people a voice, and people were finding their voices and people were finding that they were eloquent and funny, and then it all blew up in our faces.

GR: What is so terrifying about these stories? They really seem to tap into a primal fear.

JR: I think it is that terror of being found out. But also it's less abstract. Years and years ago, I did this story about Ruby Ridge. Remember the Ruby Ridge shooting in the 1990s? [In 1992, a gun battle between Randy Weaver and U.S. Marshals and the FBI left three dead, including Weaver's son and wife.] So I met and became good friends with Rachel Weaver, one of the daughters, and I met Randy Weaver...and I left Rachel feeling incredibly sorry for her and really wanting to do the right thing by her in the story. I didn't leave Rachel thinking, "Oh my God, my family might be shot by the FBI." I think it's extremely unlikely...

So the anxiety didn't snake its way into me the way these [shaming] stories did, because these stories, you know, any one of us could be ruined in this way for nothing, and before we even realize it's happening, it's happening. I think it's because we're social creatures, and so as a social creature, there's nothing worse than to be told by tens of thousands of people, you are worthless, you need to get out, you're not as good as us. It's like it is this primal fear that it's true, that we all think that we're not as good as everybody else. I talked to Princess Donna [a porn actress and director who specializes in S&M] the other day, and she said that when she read the comments about her, she felt "worthless," that's the word. And I think she really meant it. It's a word we bandy around, but she really meant it.

I've said, "Look, feel the terror that these people felt. We are meting out punishments on these people; this is what it feels like." That's why my book is so terrifying in parts. It reads like a horror film. And as a result of that I think that some of these people are being brought back in, like Justine. I think loads of people are being nice to Justine as a result of my book. As social creatures, there's nothing nicer than being brought back in.

GR: With Justine's story, there was a predatory quality to the responses to her. Is there a connection between modern shaming and tabloid/gotcha journalism?

JR: The irony of that is that those of us on Twitter, the Twitter personality, consider itself anti-tabloid journalism. We don't like the way other people reduce human beings to caricatures and stereotypes. So if some good person is torn apart by a right-wing tabloid, you're on that person's side against the tabloid, yet give us the power and we do exactly the same thing. We brutalize people in exactly the same way; it's just our target's slightly different. So, yeah, we've learned from The Daily Mail, we've learned from right-wing columnists. We think that we are righting the wrongs that they've created, but we're actually using the same tactics.

GR: Shame and sexuality have always gone hand in hand. Most people, when they think about shame, they think about sex, but the worst public humiliations recently haven't been about sex. What's happening?

JR: I think it's great that if it's a consensual sex scandal, you're much more likely to survive than you used to. The fact that they gave Monica Lewinsky a standing ovation at TED the other day just goes to show. I still think that women are much less likely to survive a consensual sex scandal than men, because there's still this sort of weird misogyny out in the world. That's partly because of the Internet, partly because of sterling work by sex-positive people like Princess Donna, who I meet in the book. Sex is sort of destigmatized now. For people like us, sex is just not an issue, and it's weird to make it an issue. It's weird to think that somebody going to an S&M club should be shamed for it. So shame has moved elsewhere. And as a result of there being less sex shaming, some people think that shame has died. But shame has not died—it's more prevalent than ever, as far as I can tell, but it's just moved elsewhere, and where it's moved is to the misuse of privilege. And of course the misuse of privilege is a better thing to be annoyed about than a sex scandal, but as you see in the book, we've become so desperately in love with tearing people apart who've misused their privilege that we tear people apart who've misused their privilege if you half-close your eyes, like Justine Sacco or the other people in my book. But nobody in my book deserved the brutal punishment that they received.

It's moved to a more noble place, but it's being misused in a horrendous way.

GR: Goodreads member Maria Pantazes asks, "Out of all of the alternative-extreme subcultures that you've explored, which one of them had you come close to seeing it as a perfectly reasonable point of view rather than as an extreme?"

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JR: I really love it when I start to totally believe the things that people are telling me, when I lose myself so much in a story that I start to believe these radical things. For instance, in The Psychopath Test I became utterly convinced that I could spot a psychopath at 100 paces just armed with this checklist, and I got absolutely drunk with my powers. And it was real—I really did lose myself to the extent that friends would say, "You've lost your mind. Stop redefining everybody who's ever done a bad thing to you as a psychopath." And then, of course, I realized that I could turn the book into a reflection of how I'd turned a little bit psychopathic and how it's a little bit psychopathic to just label people we don't like as psychopaths. The fact that I'd lost myself in the maze of it made the book a little bit better as long as I could come out the other side.

I don't know if this would count as being extreme or not, but I met this amazing psychiatrist named James Gilligan, who is the opposite of the people in The Psychopath Test, who are interested in identifying people's outermost personality traits as indicative of mental disorder. Gilligan basically says that all the murderers he's ever met, like every single one, was harboring a secret, and that secret was that they felt deeply ashamed, and all violence is an attempt to replace shame with self-esteem. And by deeply ashamed he meant that something terrible had happened to them in their childhoods, normally, like they were abused and it made them ashamed. And committing violence is a way to replace shame with self-esteem. I don't know if that's a radical view or not, but it's certainly one that I feel comfortable adopting because I like to humanize people, you know. I like to treat people as human beings, and that is such a humane way of looking at people.

GR: Goodreads member Leighton asks, "When researching your books, have you ever met anyone you have been unable to find empathy for?"

JR: Right. When you've been through life, I'm 47 now, and the older you get, you understand the fragility of it. The more bad things that happen, the more you empathize with people who have had bad things happen. I couldn't write about people who I don't find any empathy for. For me, it's all about the empathy. And I think I am kinder than I was when I started out. It's because I've seen bad days, and how can you be unkind when you've seen bad days yourself?

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There's a story in my book, Lost at Sea, which is a collection of my journalism, and it's about a religious leader who suggested that his members all donate their kidneys to strangers—it's called "Blood Sacrifice," the story. He and I fell out terribly. He thought I was manipulating him; I thought he was manipulating me. And I just found him a really complicated, difficult person to be around. Having spent a lot of time with him, I find it very hard to think of any nice things about him. So he's somebody. He's called Dave McKay. Yeah, to the extent actually that I'd wished I'd never done that story because all it became was a conflict between us, and it was really unpleasant for me, and I'm sure it wasn't pleasant for him, either. I couldn't find anything to hold onto with him.

GR: Many people wonder about the people you write about—what happens to them after the book's over. Is there some turnaround that surprised you?

JR: Well, in The Psychopath Test there was a negative turnaround: That poor Tony, he's ended up back in prison about three times, and he even went on the run at one point. So I guess he's got some psychopathic traits that mean he's really impulsive and lashes out. The Psychopath Test ends with Tony in quite a good place. You think things are going to go quite well for him, and they didn't turn out to be OK.

In the new book, the opposite, actually. A lot of the people I leave in a bad place in the six months or so since I've delivered the book have gotten a lot better. Justine is in a much better place now. She emailed me the other day: She suddenly had about 40 German men wanting to date her, so she thinks that a book extract must have been published in Germany. And she's much happier. She's got a new job, she's dating again. Lindsey—things are good for Lindsey as well. So there are some happy and sad endings.

GR: Which writers have influenced you?

JR: From Raymond Carver I really learned how to keep things short and simple and how to make everything read between the lines. How to not be verbose. There's a wonderful quote: Carver quoting Isaac Babel, saying, ''No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place." So from Carver I learned how to just keep things beautifully simple and that the power lies in the space between the words.

I also learned from Kurt Vonnegut.

GR: What is your writing process?

JR: I really see myself as a kind of sculptor. A sculptor starts with just a giant block of marble and chips and chips and chips away until it's this kind of perfect thing. So I'll go away and research and meet people and transcribe the interviews and transcribe my thoughts on the journey and funny things that may have happened on the journey, and any research that I've done. I'll have this huge block of stuff, and then I'll just start to chip away at it until it becomes this lovely, small thing, this—hopefully—kind of perfect reflection, distillation of the dialogue, and the description, the history, research. That's when I'm really at my happiest. If it's a 5,000-word piece of writing, it could have easily started out 25,000 words and then I'll just slowly chip away at it. I love that. To be able to find the essence of something at its shortest number of words.

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GR: What are you reading now?

JR: I'm reading Mick Foley's memoir. He's covered in blood in mid-wrestler move. It's not the sort of book I normally read, but it's great! He's a beautiful writer. So I'm reading that, and I just downloaded Kazuo Ishiguro's [The Buried Giant]. When I say downloaded, I mean the audiobook—I love audiobooks. I do love Ishiguro. I think he's our best living novelist.

Interview by Sara Scribner for Goodreads. Sara writes about books and culture from Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Salon, MOJO, the Los Angeles Times, and The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock: Trouble Girls.

Learn more about Sara and follow what she's reading.

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Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Jesse (new)

Jesse Sublett Jon Ronson is one of my favorite authors. I don't just read his books, I study them and try to figure out how he does what he does, as well as what exactly he is doing. He's a writer who unravels puzzles but creates his own spidery web in the process. Thanks for posting this interview.

message 2: by Alison (new)

Alison I love his clarity. The way he takes complicated information, and distills it into an immensely readable format. It's what I try to do in my own writing but he seems to do it effortlessly. He's all about accessibility.And I enjoy the way he presents his point of view and describes his book's evolution in such a self-deprecating,humorous style.

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