“Public punishment is too brutal” — The Big Interview: Jon Ronson (Part Two)

Prisoners in the stocks --- Granger

In Part Two of our Big Interview, bestselling author Jon Ronson expands upon our growing desire for public punishment, shares how he tries to connect with his interviewees, and reveals what it’s like to have Scarlett Johansson starring in his new film…

The Double Negative: Since reading your new book — So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed — I’m constantly seeing more and more examples of people fucking up on an epic, very public, scale, or even just making a very small mistake but then the momentum of the machine takes over… I don’t know whether I’m seeing more of this or whether, as you say in the book, we are all heading into a more conformist, conservative age.

Jon Ronson: Honestly, I think people fuck up all the time, because that’s what we do as humans. I think that what’s happening is that we’re moving more and more into an age where our fuck-ups are less forgivable. I’m not advocating for a world where everybody can fuck up and not get into trouble for it: I’d have to be a real polemicist to be advocating for that kind of world and I’m not. Some people deserve punishment for things, I’m not saying lets dismantle the whole punishment system, I’m saying what we should do is be very careful to not disproportionately shame people for lesser and lesser transgressions and consequently create a world that we only think we want. I think that’s what the book’s about.

You researched the history of public shaming in America at the Massachusetts Archives, including the use of stocks. There is a revelation that maybe now our punishment via online platforms, like Twitter, is actually a more brutal version of traditional punishments.

I’m sure there are papers out there that say that there’s no point in the stocks anymore, because they don’t shame people… But I didn’t find anything like that; what I found were countless great thinkers from the past saying this is too brutal: public punishment is too brutal, and we have to stop them. We’re doing something that was considered brutal hundreds of years ago.

“His way of dealing with his shaming was to get off social media and some people think that’s a wise thing to do”

And now on an international, online scale. Not even on a village by village scale.

Yeah exactly – you could just move to the other village [in the past]… You know [British journalist] Johann Hari [who was dismissed from the Independent after being accused of plagiarism], his way of dealing with his shaming was to get off social media, and some people think that’s a wise thing to do. But I think that’s kind of sad, because I think social media can be such a lovely thing, and I think it would be sad to deny yourself that lovely thing.

Of course. Well, talking about being unable to move to a different village, I was wondering if you could tell us what happened to Lindsey Stone [who lost her job as a carer after posting a picture of herself making obscene gestures at a military cemetery]. I Googled her, and all the terrible stuff — reproductions of the images, news stories — are still on page one.

But way less bad than it was before – like way, way, way less bad. You know, to put it into perspective, that picture was probably repeated without any interruption of any other picture maybe 100 times on Google images – the first 100 images.  It was sort of like an Andy Warhol exhibition, and now it’s a million times better than that. So, it’s not a total success, but it’s definitely a significant success.

Lindsey Stone

Just to explain to the readers, you interview Stone just as she is approached by a company called reputation.com for an online makeover of sorts; they offer to re-write her online history by publishing a lot of positive posts. How did she get on in the end?

Yeah, they wrote all these blogs for her. She had total approval: she said she only said no twice; one was a blog post that they wrote on her behalf about how much she was looking forward to Lady Gaga’s jazz album. She said no to that one, because even though she does like Lady Gaga, she’s not excited about that jazz album. And the other one was a blog post that said: “Happy Birthday Disneyland, the greatest place on earth!” and she said: “Look, I like Disneyland…”

But I don’t love it…

… So those were the only two that she said no to and that’s how it worked. Then she basically sent in a whole load of other photographs, which they used, and then interestingly these other Lindsey Stones suddenly started to appear, I mean other people called Lindsey Stone that weren’t her, and so I don’t actually know whether that was deliberately by reputation.com.

“His reputation was really harmed, so it’s going to be harder for him”

So another happy ending.

Yeah, Justine’s [Sacco, who lost her job after making a bad taste tweet about Africa in 2013] got a happy ending, Lindsey’s got a happy ending, Jonah [Lehrer, a bestselling author who lost his New Yorker job after a plagiarism scandal] may have a happy ending: he’s going to have a couple of books coming out in the next couple of years.

Isn’t one of Lehrer’s books coming out at the same time as So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed?

Except it’s not — I just heard from him today and he said it’s going to be in a year’s time… His reputation was really harmed, so it’s going to be harder for him. Saying that, Johann Hari’s got this new book that is getting well received… it seems as though a year, maybe two and a half years, in the wilderness for the people that I’ve been writing about, and then there’s some kind of redemption after that. I mean, I delivered my book pretty much when everybody [featured in it] was still in hell, so I’m going to do something in a future edition to update it.

Jon Ronson

I’m sure we’ll have some aspiring writers reading this so – I know it’s a bit of a cliché – but have you got any tips for people who are thinking about going into self-publishing or putting a story out there?

I’ve got so many! The thing I always say is be good and be passionate. Tell stories that you really want to tell, because you can’t hide that passion, you can’t fake that passion. So, tell stories that you really want to tell and tell them well: care about pacing. That always matters to me, you know, about making it a page-turner, because people do like that. And make it human.

Do you read a lot and take influence from different people?

No, not that much really. I listen to a lot of audio books. I do a lot of moving around, so I don’t like reading because it’s too sedentary, so I listen to a lot of audiobooks when I’m hiking. I’m a big hiker.


Yeah, I do 10 mile hikes, maybe three times a week.

I can imagine when you’re writing a lot — sat at the computer — that exercise is probably a necessity, so that you can just get out and shake it all off.

Yeah, you usually get to a moment, usually around half 11 in the morning, when you feel like a coiled spring just waiting to get out.

“I’ve got a feeling – just to be narcissistic for a moment – she might have read The Psychopath Test”

What are you listening to at the moment on your hikes?

Podcasts. I just finished The Girl on the Train: that thriller.

Is it any good?

Yeah, it’s really good. And I’ve got a feeling – just to be narcissistic for a moment – she [Paula Hawkins] might have read The Psychopath Test [Ronson's 2012 book about the insanity industry] because I recognise some little moments. It’s really good. At the moment I’m listening to lots of BBC podcasts. Now I’m living in New York for a while, thank God that things like Front Row and World Tonight and, you know, Desert Island Discs are all on podcasts so I can be listening to Radio 4 all the time.

You seem to really embrace being embarrassed as a journalist — there are cringe-worthy moments in this book just as there are in all the others. Do you think you’ve ever been publicly shamed? Or that being embarrassed is just part of being an investigative writer?

They tried it this weekend actually. I was ‘flamed‘ this weekend – I’m not totally sure that’s the right phrase. Have you heard that expression? It’s when a bunch of people suddenly bombard you on social media all accusing you of the same thing: because the New York Times ran an excerpt from my Justine Sacco section. I got bombarded over the weekend with people calling me a racist apologist – ‘white man’s tears’ and so on. But the fact that Justine is complicated makes it a better story; it makes it a more important story.

There are certain people in my book that we can all agree that what happened to them is bad — like Lindsey Stone — but actually, the fact that Justine is more complicated makes it a much richer story for me and I really think I’m right about Justine. I really think that she wasn’t racist. So actually, I was flamed but I didn’t feel shamed, because I didn’t feel like I’d done anything wrong.

And there is a difference isn’t there?

Huge difference. You know if you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong it makes it a lot easier.

Max Moseley in the News of the World

Like Max Moseley [who was publicly shamed for having ‘a sick Nazi orgy’ by the News of the World, but later won damages] in the book. He just refused to be ashamed.

Yeah, like lovely Max. Do you think he comes over well?

Yeah, he comes across as some kind of rosy-cheeked granddad, which is rather deceiving.

I liked Max a lot, but I’m definitely at the stage in my life where the way I try and connect with interviewees is just by liking them. Many years ago, when I was just starting out, I took the Jeremy Paxman approach. ‘Why is this bastard lying to me?’ — that’s what Jeremy Paxman thinks when he interviews politicians. But I’ve changed now. I just want to  connect with people on a sort of empathetic level. That’s the sort of journalism I do now, so I kind of like everybody in my book.

Who’s been your most difficult interview ever?

Ever? I’ve had some really difficult ones. There was a guy called Dave McKay in Lost at Sea who ran this religious group called the Jesus Christians and they were… he was very difficult. He kind of accused me of accusing him of being a kind of cult leader, and he just got incredibly controlling and manipulative of me: I remember him being a particularly difficult one. There’s been one or two others, but I don’t really want to go into them because it’s still slightly sore, and I think it would be bad politics to talk about them. I don’t want to pour oil on the fire.

“For some reason it’s the not knowing and the not understanding that motivates me to write about the world”

When are you going to make another Crazy Rulers of the World, Jon?

Never! Because I can’t go back to a subject that I’ve done before. So many people have said, ‘Are you going to write a Them Two, or a Men Who Stare at Goats Two?’, and for some reason it’s the not knowing and the not understanding that motivates me to write about the world. So that’s why I can never write sequels. And I feel like I understand the public shaming world now. The one exception actually is The Psychopath Test. I think there’s more book in the mental health world I’d really love to write about. My anxiety is getting worse, because everything I write about seems to have a spark, that is something that happens to be in my life. My anxiety getting worse makes me feel like I’m not finished with the mental health world yet.

Good luck with the Public Shaming tour: are you writing anything new?

Thank you Laura, it been super talking with you. I’m looking forward to it actually, I’m not going to do any writing when I’m on my book tour, I’m just going to pace myself, and when I’m not talking, just being at the hotel chilling. It’ll be like a nice little holiday. I’m going to write another movie so I might make a little start on that while I’m away, but not in any kind of big way.

Scarlett Johansson, who will star in a thriller adaptation of The Psychopath Test

We saw in the news that Scarlett Johansson is going to be in film (thriller) version of The Psychopath Test — is that true? 

Uhh you know, I don’t know much more than what’s on there.

Oh come on Jon!

Uhh yeah, I think so. I don’t think they would have announced it if they weren’t pretty certain that she was on board. I mean, there’s many a slip betwixt the cup and the lip in the movie world. I’ve had movies in the past that have seemed absolutely destined to happen and don’t. Like Them — Edgar Wright was going to direct Them and then that never happened, so you really never know until it actually happens. But what I will say is that the pedigree of people that are involved in this project — not just Scarlett Johansson, but Jay Roach [executive producer of Game Change (2012)] and Kristin Gore [associate producer of Foxcatcher (2014)] — are both incredibly smart people.

“Michael Fassbender is incredibly talented and getting him in Frank [2014] was amazing”

So, for me, it’s especially exciting to be working with people who are good… Michael Fassbender is incredibly talented and getting him in Frank [2014] was amazing. I loved writing with Peter Straw, who I co-wrote Frank with, and who is writing Wolf Hall at the moment. The great joy is working with good people and that’s why I think I’ve been mostly lucky.

It must be a bizarre experience to take your book to screen. 

Well, you’re either involved or you’re not; so with Frank I was really involved because I was co-writing the screenplay with Peter. But The Psychopath Test is totally Kristin Gore’s project, so she’s writing it, and that’s totally as it should be. I’ve always said that movies are like relay races, and that I’ve totally handed the baton to her… For instance, I love Kristin but when I was writing the screenplay for Frank I wouldn’t have wanted Kris involved, because you’ve got to feel like it’s your project, and you’ve got to feel relaxed to write it… I’m not nervous about it, I just think it’s lovely. It’s a lovely new thing in my life.

What a beautiful note to end on.

Thank you, Laura, lovely talking to you.

Laura Robertson (TDN Editor)

Read Part One here

See Jon Ronson on tour in 2015: after an extensive set of US dates he returns to the UK to Crescent Arts Center, Belfast (18 May); Jacksons Lane, London (20 May); Greenwich Book Festival, London and The Met, Bury (22 May); The Citadel, St Helens (23 May); Liverpool Central Library, William Brown Street (as part of Writing on the Wall Festand The Trades Club, Hebden Bridge (24 May); and Hay Festival (25 May)

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is available from Picador now 

See Jon Ronson’s blog for more of his stories, exclusive and extended articles and news

Images: from top: Prisoners in the stocks — Granger; the offensive Lindsey Stone photograph on Google; Jon Ronson books; Max Moseley’s contested News of the World cover; Scarlett Johansson, who will star in a thriller adaptation of The Psychopath Test

Posted on 21/04/2015 by thedoublenegative