Brian Williams and the State of Public Shaming

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Brian Williams. Photo: Monica Schipper/Getty Images

As Brian Williams now knows, the scale and speed of public shaming has changed. As journalist Jon Ronson knows, Williams is just the latest to suffer a highly visible flogging. In his upcoming book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Ronson explores stories of individuals (e.g., Bob Dylan–quote fabulist Jonah Lehrer, scandalous tweeter Justine Sacco) who transgressed, were widely scolded, and then punished — quickly and severely.

Ronson, the author of the New York Times best-selling The Psychopath Test, spoke about where the Williams affair fits into the wider narrative of public shaming, whether Williams can be forgiven, and why apologies don’t matter. 

Did what’s happened with Brian Williams follow the normal arc of public shaming?
I think so, yes. First you hear about a transgression, and on a visceral level, it’s like a whoa; you get this sort of little joyous schadenfreude. But we’re all a mix of talents and flaws and sins, and the problem is that social media in the modern age has hardened us and turned us into hanging judges. It’s made us forget that we’re all a mix of talents and flaws and sins. We’re creating a hard, frightening world where somebody can get defined by their stupidity, as opposed to their stupidity being put into a sort of wider human context. That’s what happened with people [like] Jonah Lehrer and Justine Sacco, and it’s what appears to have happened with Brian Williams.

Is there something distinct about Williams’s situation? The fact he was in a position where he was seen as a standard-bearer for truth and then turned out to be untruthful — does that contradiction make the public’s reaction harsher than it would've been had he done something unconnected to his public image?
Unfortunately for Brian Williams, the worst sin these days is privilege. So somebody like Justine Sacco will get torn apart just for perceived privilege — even though she only had 120 Twitter followers and grew up with a single mother in Long Island. Brian Williams, though, is privileged, so he’s screwed however he plays it. The combination of being in a place of privilege and workplace transgressions; in this age, those are unforgivable offenses. My personal viewpoint is that we’re creating for ourselves a world that we only think we want, a world where somebody is ruined for a single transgression. We’re turning Marxism into Stalinism.

In your book, Mike Daisey, who had his own fabrication scandal, has a line where he says that the public and the media are at heart looking to punish rather than forgive. Does that apply to Williams?
That’s the case with Mike and Brian Williams in a nutshell. I think you have to look at Brian Williams and think, Give him a break. The six months he’s being removed from the air doesn’t seem like hugely disproportionate penalty. But people calling for his removal, which some people are, that’s when it gets unnerving.

I wonder if the urge to shame public figures isn’t also tied to the notion that their apologies rarely feel sincere. Every time a famous person screws up, you can tell that the PR apparatus immediately kicks into gear, which completely saps an apology of its sincerity. Even if Williams were sincere, isn’t it almost impossible to believe his words weren’t self-interestedly strategic and therefore inauthentic?
I think those kinds of apologies are worse than counterproductive — they’re pointless. Surviving a shaming is completely out of your hands. [British Formula One official] Max Mosley survived [a sex scandal] not because of the way he behaved nor because he'd admitted what he’d done. He survived because nobody cared. Nobody cared about him having sex. Whereas if somebody happens to do something that the social-media echo chamber does care about, like Brian Williams did, there’s nothing that person can do.

We’re out for blood.
Yeah, it’s interesting because we still see ourselves on social media as the hitherto-silenced underdog, yet we have huge power. We are more powerful en masse than NBC. Brian Williams’s fate was sealed because social media decided that he deserved a severe punishment. We like to see ourselves as righteous people, but we’re behaving as unforgiving and cold. We’ve sort of tricked ourselves into believing that we’re something online that we’re not, or that we haven’t turned into something that we have.

Is there anything Brian Williams — or any publicly shamed figure — can do to rebound?
There’s a guy in England who’s a sort of British Jonah Lehrer, called Johann Hari, and he’s done rather well after being shamed. He completely vanished for a couple of years and just assiduously worked away on this book about the war on drugs that’s been well reviewed. His total silence, completely getting off of social media and just going underground and doing good journalism — that worked for him. He’s a good lesson.

And the lesson is to go away?
Go away and go work on something good.

As a culture, we’re very, very good and well practiced at shaming people, and not nearly as good at forgiving them. There are a lot more angry think-pieces then there are generous ones, for example. Does that disparity also make it harder for public figures to recover from a shaming?
Yeah, there’s a huge imbalance going on. If you were one of the people who shamed Justine Sacco, it’s actually pretty hard to do an about-face. I wrote about this in The Psychopath Test: It’s much easier to make yourself feel better about having done a cruel thing by demonizing the target of your cruelty than it is to do an about-face yourself. It’s easier to say, “Justine Sacco is a racist,” than it is to rethink your own behavior. It’s partly because of the way social media is set up: We surround ourselves with people who feel the same way we do. So we’re congratulated for saying that Brian Williams has betrayed our trust and we should never let him back in. There’s no incentive to change your opinion.

There’s no perceived value in going against the tide?
You’re creating your own tide by surrounding yourself with like-minded people. Which, as a friend recently said to me, is actually the opposite of democracy.