It occurred to me recently that I have the same editor and the same speaking agent as Jonah Lehrer. I certainly can’t afford a $2.25 million historic home in Laurel Canyon, but from my books and career as a similarly young though less accomplished author, I might be able to buy a condo nearby.
These thoughts came with a mix of frustration, contempt, jealousy, and disappointment that I mostly ignored. I’ve written about Jonah from a media standpoint for this column but in terms of my personal feelings, I tried to push them away. It was only in reading Jon Ronson’s absolutely spectacular new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, perhaps the best book on modern culture of the last decade, that I got the proper perspective on the infamous plagiarist and fabulist.
But for the grace of God go I. But for the grace of God goes any of the rest of us.
In one of the book’s more remarkable passages, Mr. Ronson writes:
“We all have ticking away within us something we fear will badly harm our reputation if it got out—some ‘I’m glad I’m not’ at the end of ‘I’m glad I’m not me’…Maybe our secret is actually nothing horrendous. Maybe nobody would even consider it a big deal if it was exposed. But we can’t take that risk. So we keep it buried.”
What is your shame? Can you even bring yourself to mouth it silently to yourself? Or does even that seem like tempting fate?
I’ll give you one of mine as a writer. There is a part of me that deeply fears being exposed. About what exactly I can’t say. Maybe I was too eager with a point I wanted to make and I let the confirmation bias lead me astray. Maybe I wasn’t smart enough and got something totally wrong. Maybe I was too in love with a particular writer’s voice and absorbed it in my own writing and never caught it. Maybe I put a note to come back and check something, and when the time came, was too lazy to do the work. Maybe I lost track of a source and didn’t attribute properly.
So deep is this fear that I explicitly addressed it in the acknowledgements of my last book—thanking sources I may have forgotten but was indebted to. I remember thinking as I wrote it, “God I hope this covers me if I messed up somewhere.”
There are other fears too: that my emails would be hacked and private conversations would become public. That my browser history might leak. That story from a few months ago where a Harvard professor got angry with a restaurant who overcharged him—everyone has a bad customer service moment they would be mortified if the world saw.
Now, I think my work will stand up and is above board. I believe my passwords and accounts to be secure. But I wouldn’t bet my life on it. Would you?
Yet increasingly, those are the stakes required for the gamble of daily life. Our online culture is both fueled by and ruled by this bitterness and anger that pretends that other people aren’t human beings.
Justine Sacco makes a dumb joke. Celebrities take private nude photos that get hacked. Brian Williams embellishes a story or has a generous memory. Amy Pascal says something offensive in an email. Jonah Lehrer self-plagiarizes.
The fact that many of us have done the same and gotten away with it, or in fact, sit on far darker secrets, is pushed aside. After all, there are pageviews to get. Social share bonuses to collect. Pain to sublimate. Right, bloggers?
None of this is to say that these people—or the people who raise our ire—did nothing wrong. They usually did. In fact, almost all the people featured in Ronson’s book have ‘something abhorrent’ in common. But like everything except an Upworthy story or a Gawker takedown, there is a grey area.
Take the Lehrer ‘self-plagiarizing’ claim—that is borrowing or pasting whole passages from his previous works. In my opinion, this is a preposterous thing to be upset about. I’ll admit I do it myself on a regular basis—it’s my writing, my ideas, and I’m free to move them around in various contexts as I see fit. In fact, many of my most popular columns feature lines from my books that I’ve re-used or rejiggered. It’s not a habit I brag about it, but it’s a choice I make as a writer that I don’t see much of a problem with.
Yet I said nothing when Jonah Lehrer and other writers have been criticized for it. In the moment of a public shaming, who wants to defend someone everyone else is going after? The fear is: if I say something, I’ll be associated with them. That in pointing out the grey area, you’re calling for the spotlight yourself—and what if it illuminates that great fear you’ve been trying desperately to keep hidden?
It’s not just limited to secrets or controversial writing choices. When someone has an affair, says something offensive, endorses an obnoxious idea, releases something subpar, it seems we have two allowable impulses these days: Go after them unmercifully. Silently go about your business while others go after them unmercifully. Who has time to defend someone else? Who needs the heat?
Look at the events in Ferguson, Missouri. So much that’s wrong and right with current culture is embodied in these last months of coverage. In one sense, it’s good that a police shooting of an unarmed black man can draw so much attention. It’s good that for many people the burden of justification lay on the government—that such an event deserved more than a perfunctory explanation. Yet at the same time, most of the attention was focused on the individual officer, Darren Wilson, who was widely presumed guilty (and racist and worse).
It was only after the investigation by the Justice Department that it was revealed he was about the only person in the entire mess who acted “properly.” The city of Ferguson on the other hand was revealed to be shameless, exploitative and unjust. The media was revealed to be the naive, manipulative fearmongers that we know that they are. The costs were unfairly borne by the people (and that includes Officer Wilson) who could afford this dysfunctional system least. Everyone else will carry on as they always have.
Most of what I’m saying here was said much more eloquently and persuasively in Monica Lewinsky’s most recent TED talk on the “Price of Shame.” But initially I didn’t even watch it. Why would I? She’s a joke, I thought. Even when I saw it shared widely on Facebook by my friends, my first mental justification for watching it was thinking I might be able to make fun of it and TED in an article. In fact, it’s very good, and wise, and important. And I feel like a heel for having dismissed it out of hand.
As she says in the talk, her scandal was the first to be amplified and distributed through the internet. It was the initial glimpse of what human nature + digital tools does to the crowd. It is not a pretty sight—and surely was a horrific experience. The person who felt the consequences most painfully was the one who had done the least amount wrong, was the least culpable and could least afford the cost. And today, from the seeds of that scandal we now live in a world where, as she aptly summarizes, “public humiliation is a commodity and shame is an industry.”
It’s a wringer we’ve gone on to put so people through, from Lehrer to Sacco to Pascal to people whose names should have never been made public in the first place. Whatever their actual wrongdoings, we treated them like they weren’t human beings. We deliberately pretended that we weren’t human beings with our flaws too.
This is not how we solve things. It’s not how the world is improved.
It just feels good for a fleeting moment. And it makes a select handful of media and technology entrepreneurs wealthy while their goons feel important.
This is the shame of our public shamings.
Ryan Holiday is the best-selling author of The Obstacle Is The Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumphs and two other books. He is an editor-at-large at the New York Observer and his monthly reading recommendations are found here. He currently lives in Austin, Tex.