NPR recently reviewed Jon Ronson’s latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – a close study of lives wrecked by the unforgiving social media herd. In today’s world, a small misstep or off-hand remark could invoke a public relations nightmare, thanks to an always-on population where snap judgements are commonplace and cable news networks parse the words of the latest controversial tweet. “I’m just checking the internet to see what I should be outraged by today,” goes one common meme. (See our recent discussion of this phenomenon when applied to the culture wars.)

But Ronson goes further than just an examination of the victims of an internet flogging; the shaming also does nothing good for those on the other end:

It ‘destroys souls, brutalizing everyone, the onlookers included.’ Public shaming, in other words, diminishes all involved. Whether we admit it or not, we take a certain sadistic pleasure in witnessing the downfall of others, especially if those others, like Jonah Lehrer, happen to be young, handsome and wildly successful.

It’s ironic that in an age where fighting cyber-bullying is such a popular mantra, public shamings of this sort are so widespread. There’s no denying it: mob rule is carrying the day, even on issues like complex court decisions that require professional expertise. And if we’re honest, sometimes our own voices comprise the mob. (How does the hymn go? “Ashamed I hear my mocking voice / Call out among the scoffers.”)

So where is this all leading? Ronson makes a sharp observation: we are, he says, “creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland.” It’s a chilling remark about a society ruled by fear. And it bears a resemblance to the famous Russian proverb: “The tallest blade of grass is the first to be cut by the scythe.”

Image Credit: James Vaughan