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“You’re just part of the screaming”: Jon Ronson on the culture wars

Writer and broadcaster Jon Ronson talks about the culture wars, public shaming, his new podcast and his upcoming events in Sheffield.

Jon Ronson

Jon Ronson’s latest BBC podcast series, Things Fell Apart, looks back to the origin stories of the modern culture wars. Whether it’s rows about abortion, trans rights or diversity in school textbooks, Ronson applies his trademark empathy and humour to divisive topics.

As a storyteller, he gently resists the outrage culture that we find ourselves in, explaining, “if you start pushing back against it vociferously, then you’re just part of the screaming.”

In advance of two upcoming live events at Sheffield City Hall, Ronson spoke to Now Then about his work. Our conversation below is slightly abridged.

To what degree would you say that social media has fuelled the culture wars? Because I'm torn between thinking either: a) it's just the current means of communication, or b) it's actively making it worse.

I think it’s more than just a new form of communication and obviously public shaming predates social media.

The tabloids did it, and used to be so good at sex shaming. People knew that that would make them money. So it's certainly one of the things that complicates the whole ‘cancel culture’ debate - agents provocateurs, columnists, they were pushed back against in pretty intense ways before the advent of social media.

So those are arguments for this whole thing pre-existing social media. However, I would say that the advent of social media has had a very profound impact on the whole thing. I think everybody who’s been on Twitter long enough would have noticed the shift. Like, around 2009, 2010, Twitter was this extraordinary kind of beautiful, compassionate, calm, gentle and self-conscious corner of the internet.

There's lots of reasons why it hardened. One of the reasons was the mainstream media started to do all of these ‘Who are the 10 best tweeters?’ columns, in the early 2010s. Suddenly that was like the snake coming into the Garden of Eden! Everybody thought that they had to be more performative because now they might get listed in some Guardian list of best tweeters.

So everybody became a bit self-conscious. Everybody became more performative. And then we realised that we had power that we didn't have before.

Jon Ronson Main

Things Fell Apart is my second or third look at aspects of social media shaming because in 2015, I put out a book called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which is all about this stuff. And what I noticed was that we had a power that we didn't have before, we had a whole new weapon, and at the beginning it was utilised in sort of interesting and enthusiastic ways.

So, one of the very first shamings I noticed was LA Fitness wouldn't cancel the membership of a heavily pregnant women who could no longer afford the membership and Twitter rallied, they publicly shamed LA Fitness, and they quickly backed down. She got her membership cancelled, and I think we just sort of fell in love with this new power a little bit too much.

And as I said in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, a day without a shaming felt like a day of picking your fingernails or treading water. It was like an empty day, when there wasn't somebody who had misused their privilege that we could get.

And in the background of this were these tech utopians, these libertarian engineers, who had designed the internet on extreme libertarian, free speech principles and had discovered along the way that their ideology was also making them a lot of money. Because they observed that people stay on for longer when they're outraged.

So I think it began ideologically - let's just let the internet be this free-for-all. And it became, morphed into, ‘Wow, this is making us a lot of money.’

When I was listening to the podcast, something that kept occurring to me is that most of us, and I include myself, believe that our politics or beliefs are genuine and legitimate and not a culture war phenomenon. But I suspect people who disagree with me would think I am part of the culture war phenomenon. How do we assess whether our own beliefs are the right thing to fight for and defend, or whether that fighting and defending is part of fuelling this ongoing culture war?

Obviously, you're getting to the real coal face of it, you're getting to the most difficult part of it with questions like that. I think specifically of some examples, like in Things Fell Apart, I look at how the evangelical Christians got galvanised because progressives wanted more diversity in school textbooks. How can you argue against more diversity in school textbooks?

So the same goes, I would say, with vaccinations. I feel frustrated that even vaccination has become a part of the culture war, or even mask wearing, you know, even Maus – even cartoon books on the Holocaust.

However, we are totally prone to bias. Any one of us can become convinced that the woman who’s looking after our kids in the daycare centre is satanically abusing them, even when there's absolutely no evidence and it clearly didn't happen.

So we have to be aware of our cognitive biases. And I think the other problem – this is more an American phenomenon than a British one I’d say – is that the American media is so partisan, more so than the British media.

The problem with the British media used to be that it was so adversarial. And I used to hate adversarial journalism, but part of me thinks it's a bit more healthy than partisan media, which is what Americans have, which is literally, you watch the same channel all the time and you get a very curated view of the country.

And that's everywhere. CNN don't lie in the way that Fox does but CNN does offer a very curated, a very partial view of what’s going on, which is just as much of a problem and encourages that thing you talked about in your question, that we all think we're right and they're wrong.

Are there issues where you find yourself losing nuance?

Yeah, yeah, sometimes. Sometimes I think, you know what, I was really annoyed about that. I rarely, rarely get involved. Like I rarely say what I feel about unfolding transgressions just because I just didn’t want to be ‘Mr Shame’.

But yeah obviously. So if a piece of information comes out that portrays somebody as absolutely abhorrent, which is what I thought when I saw the Jimmy Carr thing, I was like, “Yeah, it’s abhorrent”.

Sometimes if you wait a couple of days, you discover… I’m not saying this is necessarily the case with Jimmy Carr, but often, if you wait a couple of days, you find out some more information that puts the original transgression in a different light, so I think we should wait a few days before piling in.

Jon Ronson
Walnut Whippet

I've noticed in myself – and I'm not keen on this, but I've noticed it – that a lot of my reaction [to controversies] depends on what I thought of the person in the first place.

Yeah, but knowing it’s a bias is a really good step in the right direction, I’d say.

There’s a very good book called Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), which was written about a bunch of the cognitive biases and gives them names, and that outlines all the cognitive biases. You can't become fixated on other people's failings if you're not willing to look at your own. Sometimes we feel absolutely right about something and we turn out to be wrong. That does happen.

There's a phenomenon, especially with single-issue campaigners, where people who are obsessed with one particular topic will side with people they would otherwise fundamentally disagree with to further their campaign. Do you have any insight into where that comes from?

Well, I can see it's happening. When Trump appeared in all of our lives he became like a Rorschach test, it forced people into divisions. I think a lot of people at the centre took a big lurch to the left and I think a lot of people sort of lurched one way or the other.

One of the things that surprised me and I found a bit disappointing was how many people in the centre lurched to the right. Enough people did it to make me think, ‘Come on!’ Like in the run-up to Trump trying to get the election overturned and in the run-up to January 6th, there was still a whole bunch of people in the centre who were going on about critical race theory and stuff, and I'm like, ‘Why? How could you possibly think this matters more than what's happening in the White House right now?’

One of the things I looked at in the trans episode of Things Fell Apart was the generation gap, so generational changes, third wave feminism coming in from second wave feminism. And you can see that for some people that's the kind of thing that triggers stuff. Like, ‘Everything I've fought for is now being taken away from me by younger people.’ But I agree with you that it's happening a lot, in a lot of different culture wars. And it's really surprised me, like I didn't expect it to happen. And it's a worry.

I find it fascinating how, these days, if you know one thing about somebody you can deduce a lot about the rest of their beliefs. If somebody is a Trump fan, you pretty much know they’re anti-mask and anti-vax.

It’s so odd. Trump was so good at stoking those flames. And they did pre-exist, it all pre-existed. I mean, all this current rage in the American right began in the early 90s. So it’s true when people say Trump didn’t invent any of this stuff, but Trump was really good at prodding it, as we know now.

And finally, you're coming to Sheffield in April. What can people expect?

Well, when I do a book, or a podcast series, I try and do a few live dates afterwards, where I bring it to life on stage. I always try and plan the show so that it works for people who've read The Psychopath Test or heard Things Fell Apart and those who haven’t.

I'm hoping to have a mystery guest, I'm going to play some video clips, I'm going to read some stuff that I wrote around the subject but that's not in the show. So there'll be stuff that I didn't put into the series, even a little bit of personal stuff I think, about my own life that led me to want to make this show, and there’ll be a Q&A.

So a whole bunch of things. It will be a fun 90 minutes about why we are all screaming at each other and how to make things better. So I very much hope no screaming ensues in the audience.

And Sheffield’s always been a very welcoming place. The last time I was in Sheffield I was there talking at the Crucible, I did Psychopath Test at the Crucible and it sold out. I sold out the Crucible! And for years, for decades I’ve been coming to the Leadmill or the Showroom. I've done it countless times in the Showroom and the Crucible and the Leadmill and it always goes well. I don't remember ever, ever leaving a show in Sheffield and thinking, ‘That didn’t go well.’ So I feel grateful to the Sheffield audience for being so welcoming.

Learn more

Jon Ronson's Things Fell Apart tour is taking place in Sheffield City Hall's Memorial hall on 5th and 6th April 2022. Tickets are available from the City Hall website below.

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