People got mad on Twitter today. People get mad on Twitter every day. But today, they were mad at the writer Jon Ronson, author of The Psychopath Test, The Men Who Stare at Goats, and most recently So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The irony needn’t be pointed out.
The source of the blowup is a sentence Ronson had in the galleys for his new book. Ronson (not his editor) voluntarily removed the line, but it looked like this:
“4chan aims to degrade the target, right? And one of the highest degradations for women in our culture is rape. We don’t talk about rape of men, so I think it doesn’t occur to most people as a male degradation. With men, they talk about getting them fired. In our society men are supposed to be employed. If they’re fired, they lose masculinity points.” I don’t know if Mercedes was right, but I do know this: I can’t think of many worse things than getting fired.
That last line is the bit that Jon removed, after feedback from friends and colleagues.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: Jon is my friend, though our friendship is decidedly lopsided. I love Jon and his writing the way some people love Jesus. I think Jon loves me the way some people love tacos. I am admittedly biased toward giving Jon the benefit of the doubt, but I like to think that knowing someone brings both insight and liability. Your friendship might blind you to their faults, but it awakens you to their humanity. And in my mind, there’s no doubt of Jon’s humanity. Jon is a caring person who feels deeply. Too deeply, in fact. If there’s one thing Jon and I share, it’s a capacity to worry, and particularly to worry about whether we’ve done something wrong. Jon’s sense of moral goodness is so central to him that if you took it away, I wouldn’t recognize him.
But of course, wonderful people can write horrible things. Monstrous things! I am not immune from saying a horrible, bigoted, racist or homophobic thing. We all have this capacity, and we all rely on those around us to gently, lovingly call us out when we do. If no one does that, the public gets to step in and tell us we screwed the pooch.
That’s the order of it, right? That’s what we’ve agreed on, as a society? You share your raw, unedited thoughts with those close to you, and if one of those people you trust says “That’s a damaging thing to say,” you consider it sincerely, and decide whether to change your mind. And that’s what Jon did. Friends told him that his sentence was ill-crafted, and he took their advice and removed it.
But he had written it at some point, and people who saw it might make the argument that writing it at all is a very bad thing to do. It seems to imply that Jon thinks getting fired is worse than being raped (or so some interpret it). I don’t read it that way. I think he was agreeing with the woman he was talking to (Mercedes), who said that in our culture, we threaten women with rape and men with job loss. Like many men, Jon doesn’t fear being raped, and so he was agreeing: “I don’t know if Mercedes was right, but I do know this: I can’t think of many worse things than getting fired.” He can’t think of many worse things (that could happen to him) than being fired. Of course he can’t — it’s the most likely horrible thing that could happen to him. I realize being burned at the stake would be worse than dying in a car crash, but I fear car crashes more, because I am far more likely to die in one.
But I think there’s a bigger problem here — not just a misunderstanding or disagreement about what the sentence says, but a problem with how we figure out what and who to be mad at. When Trevor Noah nearly went down in flames over some tweets from six years ago, few people mentioned that the person who called him out had to comb through 9,000 tweets to find something sinister. There’s something very unsettling about someone pawing through your dirty laundry to find the dirtiest sock. It’s an ugly version of our sanctimony, that we desperately search for something to be angry about, and then reserve our mercy only for their reply. If they reply correctly, great, they get the mercy. But until then, they’re trampled under foot.
I have only once been on the receiving end of that sort of hostile (and I think in my case, deliberately obtuse) criticism, but I can understand the recipient wanting only to lash back. The moral sphere has spoken: “You’re not welcome here.” What response can we expect but “Okay! So long”?
But Jon did one better. As Twitter excoriated him, he politely and repeatedly replied, pointing out that he doesn’t think being fired is worse than rape; rather that he, as a man, fears being fired more. Exactly the sort of point a feminist should be happy to hear: Jon Ronson gets that the threats faced by women are worse, and that his worst fears might look petty next to someone else’s. That’s something we can all relate to, isn’t it? My worst fears are not as bad as the fears of the average black man, for example, as has been all too horribly made clear in the last year.
Remember how I said the irony didn’t need pointing out? Well, here I go back on my word: It’s disappointing for me, having read Jon’s fabulous book, to see its message not heeded: That criticism is inevitable, even good, but that criticism must be sincere and delicate and merciful.
I hope we take Jon’s lesson to heart.