Internet shaming is not the enemy: Why our conversation about online pile-ons is so warped

Let's talk about Internet pile-ons, but the Jon Ronson firestorm misses the real point

Published April 16, 2015 5:29PM (EDT)

Man using laptop at night (Getty Images/tommaso79)
Man using laptop at night (Getty Images/tommaso79)

In his new book "So You've Been Publicly Shamed," a look at the ascendant culture of Internet shaming, author Jon Ronson wrote a thoughtless thing comparing women’s fear of being raped to men’s fear of being fired. Perhaps because it was thoughtless, the line was ultimately cut from the final edit. But a writer named Meredith Haggerty tweeted it after reading it in a galley, and the passage became public knowledge.

What transpired next offered a case study in what is so knotty about the push for a kinder, gentler Internet. Any move to make the world a more empathetic place is a welcome one, but use too broad a stroke to paint people’s anger as unproductive “shaming,” and you wind up abnegating your responsibilities as a person in the world in service of not feeling uncomfortable about potentially fucking up.

That kind of dodge generally produces the opposite of empathy. Or empathy that only moves in one direction, the direction it has generally always moved -- toward power. Which is, you know, not good.

In the book, a 4chan user named Mercedes told Ronson that the message board uses rape threats against women because they are considered the "highest" form of degradation a woman could experience. For men, she said, it's the threat of being fired. This could have been an opportunity to take a few sentences to reflect on gender roles, power and structural violence versus individual anxiety. Instead, Ronson followed up, in the deleted excerpt, with this:

I’d never thought of it that way before -- that men feel the same way about getting fired that women feel about getting raped. I don’t know if Mercedes was right, but I do know this: I can’t think of many worse things than getting fired.

Outrage ensued, and Ronson depicted it as the kind of harmful Internet shaming that prompted him to write the book in the first place. Explaining why he thought he'd been misunderstood, he pointed people to an interview he’d done with Rebecca Vipond Brink, a writer for the Frisky. In the interview, Ronson outlined what he called the “context and nuance” around his comment.

“I wonder, is this waking-up-in-the-middle of the night fear of getting fired -- is that a similar thing to women waking up thinking that they’re going to get raped?” he told her. But he cut it, he said, because “people I really respect said I was wrong to have that line in there, so I have to assume that they’re right.” He also admitted that it was “badly worded.”

This is where the air kind of comes out of the can’t-we-all-just-get-along balloon with a loud farting noise. I'll grant that Ronson lacked malice, but he also doesn't present himself as very curious about what the problem may have been. To frame this as just about shaming is a cop-out. Let's not make this about Ronson, though: this reflects the kind of ethical cop-outs that a lot of people (myself included!) use when we have hurt someone -- even unintentionally -- but would rather not think about it for too long.

It’s a way to distance ourselves without really engaging with what might have been harmful about what we did or said. And often enough, these are the exact kinds of things that men say after they have said something terrible about rape.

Here’s Don Lemon apologizing for asking Joan Tarshis why she didn’t just bite Bill Cosby’s dick off when the comedian allegedly assaulted her: “If my question to her struck anyone as offensive, I am sorry, as that certainly was not my intention.”

Here’s Todd Akin apologizing for claiming that the female reproductive system has magical, rapist-sperm-killing powers: "I don’t know that I'm the only person in public office who suffered from foot in mouth disease here. This was a very, very serious error."

Here’s former Lincoln University president Robert Jennings apologizing for claiming that women lie about rape when things don’t “turn out the way they wanted”: "It is obvious that I did not clearly communicate during a portion of September's All Women's Convocation. My message was intended to emphasize personal responsibility and mutual respect. I apologize for my choice of words. I certainly did not intend to hurt or offend anyone.”

I could keep going, but it’s still morning as I’m writing this and I’d prefer to not ruin my own day. But you’ll notice that none of these apologies include any acknowledgement that being upset by what they said might be a valid response. You know, some version of: I hurt people, and I understand why they were hurt. For that, I am sorry.

And that kind of taking stock can engender empathy. Here’s how June Tangney, a professor of psychology at George Mason University who has studied shame throughout her career, explained it to me in an interview last month:

When people feel guilt, they feel bad about what they did -- I did a bad thing. When people feel shame, they feel bad about themselves -- I’m a bad person for having done that. Shame is about me and the kind of person I am, and guilt is about my behavior and what I did. When people focus on a behavior, they tend to be more inclined to think about how that behavior hurt the other person and they’re less likely to get all defensive about being a bad person.

Tangney does not find shaming to be effective at changing people's behavior, but she is very interested in the process of making amends and reducing harm. This does not require self-flagellation or permanently relocating to a garbage can, but it can still be painful. An action that harms another person can also sometimes reflect a warped worldview. In those cases, she explained, "maybe you really do need to do some hard looking at the self."

Like Ronson, I want less viciousness and more empathy on the Internet -- and, you known, in the world. But our current conversation about Internet shaming can border on a kind of fatalism that protects the status quo. It's important to acknowledge that everyone fucks up and that humans are more than an awful thing they said or did, but it's also OK to expect that we can account those things. Even if we experience some pain when it happens.

This is especially true when those fuck-ups reinforce a culture that has taught us, repeatedly and at every step, that some people are less human, less deserving of empathy and less forgivable than others. Or that some things -- like swallowing daily experiences of racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and body-shaming -- are just the price of doing business on the Internet.

As I’ve written before, those who tend to rail hardest against “outrage culture” are often people who felt very comfortable for a long time not listening to anyone who didn’t look or sound like them. The Internet may be a clumsy equalizer in need of some humanity, but it is also breaking down the silos of privilege. We can talk about how to navigate this new kind of visibility in a way that fosters more kindness, but accountability to others is not the enemy here.

To that point, Kate Harding, a reliably brilliant and nuanced writer, offered this over at Dame last month:

Life is learning. Increasingly, life is learning to filter out voices that cause you pain without contributing anything of value, and tune in to voices that cause you pain because you need a little suffering to grow.

What a useful string of sentences to guide how we move through the world! And how refreshingly focused on the self! Internet pile-ons are a gross kind of performativity. But should we spend an inordinate amount of time hand-wringing over them? And is this hand-wringing sometimes a way to give cover to something harmful, and maybe a person at a moment when they need to do “some hard looking at the self” and their assumptions?

Let's keep talking about the harms of Internet shaming and the importance of fostering empathy. Let’s also talk about structural injustice as a powerful, coercive, historical form of shaming. One that shapes you and lives in your bones and dictates how you move through the world.

Returning to Ronson as an example, men’s fear of being fired is certainly a reflection of harmful gender norms that equate a man’s worth with his capacity to produce under capitalism. But bring a little curiosity and context to a line comparing this fear to women's fear of rape, and it becomes clear that these are two very different things.

Rape is a weapon of war, a tool of domestic terror, a gag played for laughs, a threat to bodily autonomy, a referendum on women’s place in the world. And when women say these things, they are shamed -- by police, by their schools, by their families, by Internet mobs and, often, themselves.

This could be the conversation we're having in response to the tweeted excerpt. But it's not. Instead, the fiercest argument concerns whether it was appropriate to have tweeted from a galley and if the response was overblown. What a missed opportunity.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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Criticism Internet Culture Internet Shaming Jon Ronson Rape