Of course I googled Lindsey Stone while reading So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Last week one of our school administrators referenced the cautionary tales featured in Jon Ronson’s 2015 book, a jokey but serious reminder to be careful what we say and share. I remember the Jonah Lehrer and Justine Sacco messes unfolding, and when Lindsey Stone was under fire I was one of the people who just could not understand how stupid a person had to be to pose next to the tomb of a soilder while flipping the bird. Ronson’s book provides context to all three stories. Lehrer was busy and lazy. And a bestselling author, brought low by a no name blogger (named Michael Moynihan). Sacco had a small Twitter following and a string of odd tweets before she boarded her flight to South Africa. AIDS isn’t funny and racism isn’t funny and the two side by side are really, really not funny, and by Sacco’s admission hers is not the voice to deliver any sarcastic public commentary. Knowing your audience isn’t an adage when your audience is a potentially unknowable everyone and their opinions are all over and you cannot be certain what might blow up because you don’t really expect anything to blow up. Stone knew her audience – Facebook friends who got her irreverent humor – and never intended her photo at Arlington to be judged publicly.
A year ago one of my new colleagues was tagged in a photo on Facebook. In the picture she is sitting next to the bronze statue of a woman, laughing. I recognized the memorial to Korea’s comfort women and that morning approached my colleague and let her know she should ask the poster to remove the photo. She told me they were out in the city and she was being goofy, sitting next to this statue woman. Like, hello friend! The moment after the picture was taken she read the plaque explaining who the comfort women of Korea are, and she quit laughing. But it wasn’t her photo and when her friend posted it she had qualms. When I spoke with her, she decided to talk with her friend, ask for the photo to be removed. And it was.
At the same school meeting last week another administrator said if it isn’t an amen, it’s an ouch. When I think about Sacco and Stone: was the pile on good? People cried ouch but what was accomplished? The comments were brutal. The judgement went beyond the behavior. Unnatural consequences. If the critique had been quieter both women still might have lost their jobs. (I did wonder where the adults Stone was chaperoning in DC were when she was fake shouting and giving the middle finger). And a quieter critique would likely have yielded introspection. Sacco and Stone might have retreated, cleaned up their online presence, thought how to rebuild. But what happened to both women was such a thorough tear down.
I put myself in this.
I say I am so glad I went to university before smartphones. A few regrettable, lost messages on ICQ. A few terrible photos. Emails gone from all but gray memory. My siblings are on Instagram and I look at an occasional post and think about the work of making life look just so.
Yet I am not spared the desire to document and share. I keep a line between my notebooks and what I publish but even so, I am comfortable sharing the muddle of working out my faith. I am comfortable writing about anger, suffering. Parenting. I am comfortable writing about the uncomfortable. I am practicing how to write, how to say what I want to say. I compost, writing around the same ideas and events for months or years.
Which is why one part of Lehrer’s experience made me nervous. The initial schadenfreude was too delicious (and the judgement deserved) but once journalists started fact-checking his work, Lehrer was called out for self-plagiarizing, recycling sentences or paragraphs from one article to the next. And then I wondered about bloggers who find book deals, upcycling old posts. Ally Brosh, Ree Drummond. I also compost. I rewrite. I lift a phrase I like from an old draft. I want what I do to be distinguished from what Lehrer did because my notebooks and Piecemeal are together one big practice for the collections or novels I will publish. My transparent process is my justification. Piecemeal contains drafts of what I will or have finished, some pieces I would consider including in a book. Brosh and Drummond’s books evolved from their blogging existence too. I think of this as an extension of creative work, finding new form. Maybe this kind of self-plagiarism is okay. Art has echoes. But Lehrer work wasn’t about a new form or platform. He robbed one previously published article to pad another.
And how the mighty fall. And get up again. Ronson asked what comes after a public shaming. For Lehrer, a public apology that doubled as a second round of tar and feathering. And then sleepless nights writing and writing until he put together a book about love, the necessity and security of primary relationships. Years ago I picked up and put down Lehrer’s How We Decide, probably because I’d read The Tipping Point. Also years ago I glanced at Imagine in a book store. I don’t know if I’ll read A Book About Love but I am interested in how Lehrer recenters his writing purpose and work. Ronson caught a raw moment of Lehrer’s experience. Publicly Shamed is four years old now. Schadenfreude goes a little stale. Lehrer’s writing will now be more scrutinized and criticized and that’s fair, but.
There is a frightening, unreasonable permanence to our online presence. We have to be allowed to live beyond single horrifying moments or choices. Keep the consequences, sure, but when I googled Lindsey Stone I hoped the results would be varied as promised by a reputation.com. Publicly Shamed left Stone in a new job working with autistic children, desperate to keep her Arlington photo a secret, desperate to reclaim some normalcy after a year hiding in her parents’ home. I don’t know what Stone is doing today. The top result for her name is the Arlington photo. She is a lifelong object lesson. Sacco too, perhaps. Her tweet is one of her top results. But also her new employment, returning to IAC as a publicist for Match Group. CEO Joey Levin said to Recode, “With one noteable exception, Justine’s track record speaks for itself. Very few people in the business world have Justine’s indomitable spirit, tenacity and drive to persevere.” I love that.
Last thing. I like to think I wouldn’t go to an eighteenth century public shaming but there are two literary shamings I stood on tiptoe to watch. One was Mike Daisy. I loved his This American Life story about visiting Apple factories in China. And then I really loved his conversation with Ira. Daisy shared with Ronson that he considered suicide. I do not love that at all. The public shaming I first savored though was when Oprah called James Frey to her couch after the factuality of his memoir A Million Little Pieces was challenged. I drove home from school, parked on the couch with a bag of chips, and hooted at the stern undoing. Frey and Daisy both cited artistic license to reason their lies. But their fault was not hyperbole or poor metaphors. Their fault was purposely misleading their audience to believe a story was real. (Quick digression: I do wonder if the great appeal of Daisy’s work was how fantastic the story was, the image of the old man with a damaged hand marveling that the iPad screen was like magic. And Frey’s recovery was so much more for the depth of the pit. And all those broken teeth. So I wonder if the stories would have had the reach or impact – Daisy’s story prompted scrutiny of Apple’s employment practices, and Frey humanized addiction – if the stories were presented as fiction. Fiction is powerful too). But you know, Frey kept writing. He made up with Oprah. His memoir-ish is a movie. And Daisy keeps telling stories too.
I have to ask what I would do.
Probably I will not be publicly shamed any time soon. What I take from Ronson’s book and my subsequent googling is that people can suffer great falls for big and small transgressions and still recover. There are moments I relive with a cringe. Sometimes I slip into a cringe coma. Maybe shame replays coincide with certain ages or places or vulnerabilities. Maybe my shame replays are brought on by a shuddery hormonal cocktail. The point is, we all understand shame. And none of us like to live in it. Shame isn’t healthy. I tell my kids (and myself) to tell yourself true things. Sometimes the truth is you did something terrible but the truth is also that you suffered the consequences, that you learned, that you got up in the morning when you didn’t feel like getting up in the morning. The truth is that you keep on. The truth is that you are still very loved. I want Ronson to return to the subjects of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed in another decade, to show how a brief, startling and awful shaming looks against a stack of years. But I don’t think we need that book. Let’s do our own work, stack our own years.
Twenty-four of thirty-nine. 1588 words. I do think about shame often. I currently live in a culture that – I don’t know how to put it. Does Korea value shame? Shame can teach us. Shame can keep us in line, though what that line is varies. I’m not so interested in sussing the giant, awful wrongs people do to one another, universal wrongs. But I am interested in the range of shamed behaviors and the unspoken ways we shame one another. I am interested in why shame is hard to shake. I am also interested in what my faith says about shame and why it is difficult to live as free.