I spoke with a friend who was recently ousted from a job based on fabricated charges. She told me that she finally understood -- for the first time -- a little bit about what it was like to be me. She told me that before this happened to her, she had always just assumed that if anyone left her previous places of employment or were fired, it must have been because there was something bad about the firee that she simply didn't know about that justified the firing.
It's a commonly held belief (and absolutely self-serving), that if something bad happens to someone, that person must be guilty. It's so common that when an even worse thing happened to a mutual friend of ours, during what became a minor media scandal the precipitated the ouster, her co-workers were quoted as saying things like, "you think you know a person, but I guess everyone is capable of darkness." When this mutual friend was eventually exonerated by her place of employment, the employer gave her a sort of a shrug of his shoulders -- yes she was innocent, but there was no way that they could re-hire her given the salacious nature of the scandal and the delicate nature of the job. Now she has no career.
Even before my own very personal experiences with the media, one of my extended family members was an integral part of a national scandal. Although she was largely kept out of the limelight for being a minor, I was able to see how dodgy even very respectable journalistic outposts were about accurately reporting the facts. There's actually a surprising amount of inferences dot connecting reported as absolute that goes on (probably true of any area of life), and there's an odd sort of hubris and self-assurance that some journalists have that their inferences have to be right, just because that is how the journalist happens to see it.
So Jon Ronson has his book about public shaming out. I haven't read but excerpts (see here for adapted excerpt re Justine Sacco), but obviously I am a fan of the topic, given its coverage on this blog. I've never been a fan of the empath's capacity and eagerness to form lynch mobs. And I can imagine that Ronson's book may be the least loved and most controversial of his books because there is a significant portion of the population that loves lynch mobs so much that they will defend almost every aspect of them, including the capacity and authority to judge others to the point of deciding who gets to live a normal life or not.
For instance, in his piece that reads (at least to me) largely as a defense of his own part in the Jonah Lehrer shaming, Slates's Daniel Engber quotes the observation of a theatre professor regarding the reaction that some had in learning that Lehrer was to speak at a Midwestern university: “As soon as it became clear to certain people on the East Coast that Jonah was here, I started to get phone calls from people who had no other wish than to ruin his life.” Can you imagine hating a stranger so much that years later you are still harassing him in anyway you can?
Engber gives some obeisance to the idea that he was less knight in shining armor and more misguided Crusader:
It seemed to me that Payne might have had a point. Am I part of this East Coast mob of angry journalists, out for nothing less than Lehrer’s blood? Ronson’s book suggests as much. In the coda to his chapters on the scandal, he cites a post of mine in Slate, in which I found signs of plagiarism (among other problems) in Lehrer’s newest book proposal. Could I be, as Ronson hints, a self-appointed fury, cruelly bent on someone else’s destruction?
He concludes, no. Why? Because even though he has done only a bit of anecdotal fact-finding (sound familiar?), he believes that Lehrer has still not owned up to what Engber imagines is scores of misdeeds. What does he base this belief on? Not much more than the fact that Lehrer's publishers never released their reports on his other books, which naturally indicates that they have something to hide: "Houghton Mifflin never published the results of its investigation, so there’s been no full accounting of the problems in Lehrer’s work. But it’s safe to say the Dylan quotes were just the tipoff for something much worse." Is that really safe to say? In what sense of the word "safe"? Safe to say in the sense that it is convenient to assume without verifying and makes Engber's piece seemingly stronger and more compelling (again, what he accuses Lehrer of having done in making "'mistakes'" that "tend to make his stories more exciting".)
Other misdeeds are that the following sentence appears in Lehrer's work and also appears in another book: "The coaches were confident that the young quarterback wouldn’t make a mistake," along with similar descriptions of what happened during a Super Bowl (probably all descriptions of the Super Bowl would be similar because they're all based on the same underlying facts of what actually happened?).
So basically we have a menace to society on our hands in the form of Jonah Lehrer. And Engber concludes, unsurprisingly from a pitchfork wielding member of the original mob, that Jonah Lehrer should never get back into society's good graces perhaps until he acknowledges all of the mistakes that Engber thinks are mistakes, or perhaps never because how could we ever trust him again. As Engber notes himself, "there are rules to telling stories," and when we tell ourselves stories of self-justification to excuse the blood that we may have spilt in enacting justice, best to stick to the original script of -- if something bad happened to a person, they must have had it coming somehow.
Otherwise we'd have to admit, as my friends have unfortunately had to recently, that this sort of life ruining and shaming can truly happen to anyone.