One of the most talked about books in the country this month is Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, and for good reason: the phenomenon he’s talking about has become something of a national pastime. In the book, Ronson outlines the sort of ritualized tar-and-feather pageantry through which the digital mob slakes our collective bloodlust for the foot-in-mouth villain du jour. Think Justine Sacco, the publicist who wrote an offensive joke on Twitter that set off a national witch hunt last year, for one memorable example. (Note: Sacco worked for The Daily Beast’s parent company, IAC.)
It’s a wonder Ronson was ever able to wrap up the book, since each fresh internet news cycle bring with it a new sacrifice he might have also profiled. In a timely bit of meta-commentary, the author even found himself staring down the social media firing squad this week when a paragraph from his unpublished galley was shared around as evidence that Ronson somehow equated the prospect of a man being fired with a woman being raped. Never mind that it did no such thing. When the bull sees red he can't help but charge the matador waving the cape.
Ronson’s imbroglio is old news by now, however. True to form, a day or two later, a shiny new model rolled onto the outrage lot in the form of ESPN reporter Britt McHenry, who was universally excoriated for berating an employee at an impound lot.
McHenry, whose car had been towed from a restaurant in Arlington, Virginia where she’d dined earlier that night, was caught on camera at the lot unleashing a string of invective at the attendant, ridiculing her physical appearance and her presumed lack of education.
“I’m in the news sweetheart, I will fucking sue this place,” McHenry said.
“I wouldn’t work in a scumbag place like this,” she said. “That’s all you care about, taking people’s money. With no education, no skill set, just wanted to clarify that. Do you feel good about your job? So I can be a college dropout and do the same thing? I’m on television and you’re in a fucking trailer, honey.”
And for a parting gift: “Lose some weight, baby girl.”
All of this despite the fact that she was apparently aware that she was being filmed.
Shameful, and shame-worthy stuff, indeed. Although, in McHenry's defense, if you've never felt yourself seething with that type of anger, you've probably never had to deal with a towing company. (And for what it's worth, Advanced Towing, the company in question, has more than its share of detractors online for it's so-called shady business practices.)
Nonetheless, McHenry should know better—not just as a media professional, but as an adult human with a bare minimum of decorum. There’s nothing quite so pathetic as an entitled public personality dressing down a blue collar worker for their membership in a lower, filthier caste.
True to Ronson’s premise, McHenry has been thoroughly pilloried across the entire media landscape, from TMZ to Deadspin, FOX to CNN, and of course up and down the social media frothing-houses, much of which, no doubt, led to ESPN announcing that McHenry would be suspended for one week for the incident.
She issued an apology as well:
“In an intense and stressful moment, I allowed my emotions to get the best of me and said some insulting and regrettable things,” McHenry said. “As frustrated as I was, I should always choose to be respectful and take the high road. I am so sorry for my actions and will learn from this mistake.”
You might think the story would stop there, but the ritual hasn’t completed its cycle yet. Neither the suspension nor the apology are enough for many. There’s still some meat left on the bone. USA Today called the one-week suspension “an embarrassing slap on the wrist,” an appraisal of the situation shared by many.
“When we deployed shame, we were utilizing an immensely powerful tool,” Ronson writes in his book. “The silenced were getting a voice. It was like the democratization of justice.”
In this case, that sort of justice is spurned by the angry masses—the average worker banding together to amplify the put-upon towing attendant. This woman’s life must not be belittled, the cry goes—particularly, in this instance, because she’s a woman.
And yet a lot of people have a strange way of righting that injustice. In the rush to shame McHenry for shaming a woman for her looks and education, the default argument seems to be doing just that to the reporter herself.
“Does Britt really think that ESPN hired her for her brains and college education?” asked one commenter on Sports Illustrated, echoing what hundreds of others wrote there and elsewhere. “Really? Come on, honey. They hired her for the pretty eyes, blonde hair and girly girl looks. That she can speak semi-intelligently about sports is a convenience; she’s eye candy, plain and simple. I’m so sick of the sense of entitlement some of these little sideline reporter brats get.”
“Hilarious. This witch got her job because of her looks, not because of her education or intelligence (both appear to be lacking)” added a reader on Busted Coverage. “They should dump her tomorrow—hot chicks are a dime a dozen.”
And so, too, am I shaming the shaming shamers? It’s a Russian nesting doll of shame, an infinite feedback loop of finger-wagging. Should we be embarrassed we haven’t figured this out by now? Or is there no one innocent left to call us out on it?