The 12+12 Books of Christmas #16

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Because I’m a grumpy middle-aged man, few books change my opinions about anything anymore. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015) by Jon Ronson actually did. The gist of the book is in Ronson’s TED Talk, in case you’re interested. The central narrative of the book is that of Justine Sacco, although there are many more. She was the woman who wrote that silly AIDS joke before boarding a plane to South Africa. During her flight, the joke went viral and she became very famous.

Everyone was furious, morally outraged, livid, pitchfork-wielding mad. For a stupid joke made by a silly PR woman who was making a silly comment on her white privilege and, to be fair, that of most of the people who were angry at her tweet. They delighted in her demise, they felt great satisfaction seeing this woman’s life ruined by social media, many of them probably wanted her dead. Some wanted her raped, and then dead. Ronson’s point is that we wanted her to suffer. We watched her go down, mouths salivating like a bunch of hyenas. This was not the doing of some abstract they, some other people somewhere else. This was you, me and us. We loved her pain.

Ronson’s book is a reminder that decent human beings can quickly turn into vicious beasts. We can be better, but it’s mostly bad news, I’m afraid. More people should read his book, have a look at their own behavior online, and they will probably feel nauseous at whatever they are doing on social media. The Internet is a wonderful thing, I think. It has produced far more good in the world than most modern inventions. But there is a dark side to it. I don’t mean the Dark Web or Deep Web or whatever people call it. The dark side of the Internet is what it has revealed about human nature.

The English author and thinker Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), had a dream about a society where free speech was the norm. It was to be a transparent liberal haven for free expression of all sorts. He was optimistic enough to think that this would produce a better society than had ever been before, better government, better people. Well, here we are. The Internet is all and more than Shaftesbury could ever dream of, but it’s a cesspool. The technology is wonderful, the science is wonderful. Email, journals, instant communication, file transfers: all these things are most excellent. But I think we have lost Shaftesbury’s optimism about the people. Sometimes it rears its fuzzy head as it does in Ronson’s book and some of us think that maybe we still have a chance.

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