His subjects have included criminal psychopaths, prominent conspiracy theorists and intelligence agents who participated in experiments to discover psychic abilities in U.S. soldiers. But Jon Ronson has so many other interesting things to talk about, these encounters are only mentioned in passing during his International Literature Festival Dublin appearance.
Instead, he tells a capacity O’Reilly Theatre about some of the less-documented encounters throughout what he himself would call his career in ‘humorist journalism’. Like when he jokes about being “nearly killed by Tony O’Reilly” as he was chased away from a meeting of the Bilderburg Group in Portugal. Or the time he was asked to go UFO-hunting with Robbie Williams, which included a trip on Snoop Dogg’s private jet.
Ronson is so naturally charismatic that while he spends most of the event talking about his latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, it never comes across as an exercise in self-promotion. Imagine a TED talk combined with a stand-up comedy routine and you’ll probably have an idea of how he presented his research into 21st century shaming rituals.
For him, the proliferation of social media platforms like Twitter has heralded a return to eighteenth century standards of punishment. Groups of quasi-anonymous people are taking to the internet to publicly shame those whom they believe are transgressing the morals of modern society.
He tells us about the New Yorker journalist whose career was ruined after he fabricated some Bob Dylan quotes, and the PR executive who became an internet phenomenon for the wrong reasons after she sent a racially insensitive tweet to her 170 followers.
Shaming these kinds of people online is the kind of thing that most of us participate in at some point, something we believe we are doing for the right reasons. However, to Ronson it’s the modern equivalent of the stocks or public whipping. And unlike those punishments of old, it’s a process in which everyone gets to play the role of hanging judge, without the feeling of responsibility that comes with being the executioner.
“When shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes,” he says, “nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be. The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche.”
It’s made Ronson wary of the power the internet has. He talks about how the rise of social media platforms is just the latest in a series of historical events which has seen power seized by people who previously had none. Much like what occurred in the aftermath of the French Revolution, he worries that we are beginning to prioritise ideology over humans, rather than humans over ideology.
“Throughout history”, he says, “when powerless people become empowered it takes a while to work out how to use that power judiciously. I think and hope that things are going to settle down. Right now, bullies are winning.”
We learn about the ways in which the internet has exacerbated Ronson’s anxiety, a surprising revelation given his quite confident performance. In the Q&A session with Anton Savage during the second half of the event, he admits that he is not entirely comfortable by the hype that surrounded his new book.
“Something happened this book that’s never happened with my previous books,” he says. “There was a lot of noise around it, and it was discussed a lot. It wasn’t pleasant, even when the noise was positive: it was just a lot of noise.”
At one point, he even talks of the panic he felt when he recently awoke to 900 notifications on his phone. As he does several times during the event, he uses his laptop to add colour to his story, showing the audience a video by way of explanation: we see a video of Louis Tomlinson from One Direction pushing through a crowd of waiting fans, holding a copy of Ronson’s book The Psychopath Test. It turns out that fans of the boyband had identified both the book Tomlinson was holding, and subsequently tagged its author in tweets which linked the video.
Ronson also reveals that he has created of a list on Twitter dedicated to New York accident reports, which he will sometimes check in frantic bursts when he is away from his family. Both examples are given with the same humour and self-effacing nature that has made him so successful as a writer, and it’s rewarding to see these aspects of his work carry through to his personality.
What’s more, it means that the entire event doesn’t come across as either a shill for his new book, or a polemic against the dark powers of the internet. Ronson captivates his audience by simply being himself: that is, an absorbing and funny writer who seems to know a lot of things about a lot of things. Or, as Anton Savage puts it during his introduction of Ronson: “Someone who has the most extraordinary breadth of exposure, in terms of what he has written about…who is as captivating verbally as he is in text.”
By Stevie McDermott