Caelen Dwane on Jon Ronson

Jon Ronson

“I’m a humourist journalist out of my depth” – Jon Ronson – O’Reilly Theatre – 19th May 2015

Firstly, sincere apologies to those sitting around me yesterday evening in the O’Reilly Hall for the wild scribbling of notes that took place, as almost everything said throughout the event seemed comment worthy on this post today; and yet, I haven’t even touched on half of it in what follows. Anton Savage introduced Jon Ronson as “one of those rare finds – a very funny and captivating author, who is as captivating verbally as he is in text.” I can now wholeheartedly agree with this.

Jon Ronson walked out on stage to say how pleased he was to be standing on the stage of the theatre bequeathed by Tony O’Reilly. He had previously been chased from a Bilderberg meeting where Tony O’Reilly was in attendance, but now he was standing on his stage. Remembering his call to the British Embassy in the city as he ran to escape at the time, he explained to the woman on the end of the phone that he was a ‘humourist journalist out of his depth’. When she called him back to confirm that she had checked and that there were no reports of anyone following him, she supposed that it was good news if you knew you were being followed as they are probably just trying to intimidate you. If you were actually being followed, you wouldn’t know – Ronson’s thought on this was what if he was exactly the right kind of anxious and paranoid person to know exactly when he was being followed by the ‘henchmen of the shadowy police of the world.’

To me, this was the biggest surprise in seeing Jon Ronson for the first time, I found him to be of a somewhat nervous disposition. That is not to say that he is not a confident person by any stretch, surely confidence is a given in a person who infiltrates secret meetings of shady organisations, ventures UFO hunting with pop stars, addresses the wealthy and powerful in society as psychopaths, and beyond. However, he himself said that he is a hugely anxious person, particularly in regards to his wife and child. Yet, this anxiety in his persona, was not something I expected from what I did know of him. In saying that, I found that it added to his charm and is perhaps why he does manage to spy on secret meetings, go on bizarre adventures with pop stars, and address psychopaths without inciting their ire.

I imagine a lot of people are most familiar with Jon Ronson, as I was, from his books The Psychopath Test and The Men Who Stare at Goats, and as a journalist published in The Guardian. Ronson said that writing The Psychopath Test made him a certified ‘psychopath spotter’. In becoming so, it also made him a bit of a psychopath about shoving people into a psychopath box based on the outer most parts of them. He stated that journalism is the quest to define people by their outer most aspects, essentially labelling people. In America, children as young as 1 or 2 are being labelled as bi-polar for their unruly behaviour and being put on medication from that young age. While we all agreed that this seems absurd and a bad thing, Ronson claims that this is what we are all now doing on social media – labelling people, and attacking or shaming them accordingly. On Twitter, we are convinced that ‘some bad phraseology in a tweet is a clue to this person’s true and inherent evil’. This is the idea behind Ronson’s new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. In the book, he explores the shaming culture on social media. We now find ourselves in a world where the ordinary people have a voice, and a powerful voice at that, and where it now appears that in the social media realm, a day without shaming has become a wasted day.

One the stories in his new book and a large part of the discussion last night, centred on a tweet by Justine Sacco. If you haven’t heard of Justine Sacco and the frenzy that ensued a tweet sent before she boarded a flight to South Africa, then I’d advise having a Google on that. I hadn’t heard of any of it, but now that I have, I will be forever aware of the potential of Twitter to ruin lives. In his own words, Jon Ronson said he saw that tweet that night and thought with delight ‘Great. Someone is f***ed!’ We all agreed with him that on a visceral level, what she tweeted is abhorrent; however, even then, he thought it was clearly someone mocking privilege by highlighting privilege – which turned out to be the case. Yet, with only 170 Twitter followers, Justine Sacco became the worldwide number one trending item on twitter and a victim of attack on all kinds of fronts. Justine had, in the eyes of the Twittersphere, misused her privilege – but, in truth, she was just a small PR person tweeting in the hope of amusing people that she couldn’t see. It snowballed from there, and everyone jumped on her misfortune. Not just the trolls, and there were lots of trolls, but nice normal people – people like us. The Gawker writer who picked up her tweet and started the attack against her said the way it all unfolded was “delicious”; asked how he thought she was after, he said he thought she was fine. The reality for her was that she lost a job she loved, suffered anxiety, depression, and was left afraid and ashamed. Plenty of other examples of similar and worse situations were covered last night and are detailed in the book. Ronson said of his new book, ‘it is not a polemic, it’s more like a horror story of getting to feel what these people felt.’

Savage posed a great question in comparing it to a modern day witch hunt in a new medium. Ronson agreed that it wasn’t unlike a witch hunt, in that it is impossible to defend yourself. Anything you could say in your defence is just more evidence to their case against you. It has been highlighted as ‘performance piety’, where people surround themselves on social media with people who are in line with their views or the views they want to be seen as theirs, and if something steps outside of that remit then we scream them down. Ronson quite sharply pointed out that this is the opposite of democracy. Savage highlighted that the book ends on an inadvertently capitalist note. That money is being made by this public shaming. Ronson laughed saying that Google has the corporate motto ‘Don’t be evil’, yet, every time something is searched, Google makes 38 cent. Justine Sacco was Googled a handful of times in one day prior to the infamous tweet – afterwards, during the period that followed, she was Googled over 1,220,000 times. It was “us” that did the shaming, Ronson determined that we were just like unpaid Google interns.

On the flip side, for all the bad Twitter stories, he did have a very touching story to share about his former bandmate Frank Sidebottom. Ronson co-wrote the screenplay of the film ‘Frank’ starring Michael Fassbender; and it was loosely based on his time in Frank’s band from 1987-1990. Frank was known for wearing a big fake head. About 15 years later Frank called to say he was staging a comeback and would Ronson write it up. However, Chris “Frank” Sievey died penniless and was going to be buried in a pauper’s grave. Ronson sent out a single tweet and following that one tweet over £20,000 was raised, which Ronson noted was more than enough to ‘bury him, exhume him and bury him again.’ So, surely the world of social media is not inherently evil.

The questions from the audience were some interesting takes on this. On being asked if he thought there was an era of anarchy in the internet – cybercrime, social media shaming and the like; and whether he thought government regulation would be a good thing? Ronson replied that the only people that could be regulated against really were the trolls, and not us “normal people”. Human beings are dimensional and complicated, and this isn’t always demonstrated, or may not even be demonstrable, through social media. Ronson explained that throughout history whenever powerless people become empowered it takes a while to figure out how to use the power judiciously. He favours humans over ideology every time, and while the latter may currently be winning out, he believes in human beings.

By Caelen Dwane

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