Pin It
JonRonsonStills_ - 35

Jon Ronson on how to end the culture wars

We spoke to the bestselling author on Zoom from his home in New York to find out more about his podcast series, Things Fell Apart, and where he thinks the culture wars are heading

Where exactly does Jon Ronson hide his crystal ball? In his 2001 book Them: Adventures With Extremists, the Cardiff-born journalist and author interviewed InfoWars wingnut Alex Jones, long before the conspiracy theories peddled by his website entered the political mainstream. There was also a prescient chapter on Islamist extremism, which was still seen as an obscure and almost comical cultural phenomenon pre-9/11. In his 2011 book The Psychopath Test, he tackled the issue of overdiagnosis in psychiatry, years before everyone began haphazardly self-diagnosing on Google. And his 2015 masterpiece, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, was a cautionary tale about the implications of social media witch-hunts years before the phrase ‘cancel culture’ went viral.

Now he’s turned his attention to the culture wars, with an eight-part podcast called Things Fell Apart. Available on BBC Sounds, the series explores the roots of the ideological conflicts that consume our digital lives, from the first-ever internet-based public shaming to QAnon conspiracy crusaders and the origin story of the bitter Terfs-versus-trans community feud. We spoke to Ronson on Zoom from his home in New York to find out more about the series, and where he thinks the culture wars are heading.

Why did you want to make a series looking at the culture wars? What were you hoping to learn?

Jon Ronson: My main objective was to make a series about the culture wars that wouldn’t become a part of the culture wars. I was thinking, how can that possibly be achievable? And the way that’s achievable is to tell human stories with twists and turns. Because people respond very differently to unfolding non-fiction narrative when it comes to individual human stories [than they do] to polemics. Most stories about the culture wars are polemical and they just make people angry. I wanted to take anger out of the equation. As a consequence, people could think about this thing [the culture wars] that’s overwhelming all of our lives in a different way, using different emotions – like curiosity and empathy. People are really desperate for stories about curiosity, empathy and connection, because all we’ve been given for so long are adversarial stories about how people are bad. I think people are battle-weary.

There doesn’t seem to be any empathy online at all nowadays, particularly if we’re looking at the culture wars. Do you think that in the future people might be more empathetic towards people with different views?

Jon Ronson: Well no, there’s no empathy. There is selective empathy, though: you’re very empathetic towards the people in your group, and then you have no empathy for any part of the opposing team. It’s weird to wake up every day and make somebody a sickening villain on Twitter – but what’s equally troubling is the way we also make somebody a magnificent hero on Twitter. We’re constantly yo-yoing between “this is the greatest person in the world!” and “this person’s a monster!” 

I think it’s changing a little bit. When I wrote So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed it was hundreds of thousands of people screaming at one person. There was always someone who was the main character on Twitter that day, and there was very little support for that person. But I think that’s beginning to change. I think because we’ve been at it a few years now, the debate is becoming more nuanced and ambiguous. 

“Our imagination is so limited: all we can think to do with an inappropriate shamer is to shame them. It’s like we're just clumsy builders slapping shame on to shame, covering cracks” – Jon Ronson

I know that you probably get asked to comment a lot on public shaming, but did you have any thoughts on the West Elm Caleb drama?

Jon Ronson: I don’t know about West Elm Caleb, so it’s hard for me to comment on it. But I write in So You've Been Publicly Shamed that our imagination is so limited: all we can think to do with an inappropriate shamer is to shame them. It’s like we’re just clumsy builders slapping shame on to shame, covering cracks. You could argue that this is how norms get created. The more sanguine way of looking at West Elm Caleb is this is society trying to figure out what to do about a situation like this. Clearly, West Elm Caleb is a shitty internet dater if he sends dick pics and then ghosts people. But the question isn’t about whether or not his transgression deserves punishment; it’s whether the transgression deserves punishment on social media. Like, does his transgression deserve this new form of uncontrollable public punishment?

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed did make me mildly terrified of Twitter.

Jon Ronson: I wanted people to be frightened; I wanted people to feel what it felt like to be on the end of it. We would destroy somebody and then happily move on with our lives, without giving a second thought to whether that person was OK or in ruins. Nobody was visiting these people after [the abuse had] happened to find out about their mental health. So I think I was the first person to write about the psychological impacts that public shaming has on people in the modern age. And I was so startled by our cognitive dissonance about wanting to hurt people and not feel bad about it, and not thinking about them again. I wanted people to feel anxiety when reading the book. If we’re going to force these feelings onto other people, then let’s feel them ourselves.

Was the divide between the left and right always this bad?

Jon Ronson: No, I think the centre used to be a more fashionable place to be. You hear calls like, “Oh look, he’s ‘both-siding’ it.” I know that sometimes it is inappropriate to ‘both-sides’ something – if there’s a discrepancy or a false equivalence. But I’m going to caveat that: I both-sided the entire series of Things Fell Apart, but in a meticulous way. I made sure that I didn’t draw false equivalences and I wasn’t criticised at all. In fact, people really liked the fact that I was allowing more voices to be heard. Maybe this shows that if you both-sides something in a thoughtful way, people do still like it. 

It’s all Trump’s fault – when he said there were “very fine people on both sides” [at a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017] I really cringed; I thought you’ve just caused a lot of trouble for people who actually do want to hear a range of voices. You’ve just made the phrase ‘both sides’ terrible. Because he was talking about a time when on one side it was Nazis with tiki torches and on the other side it was people who were opposed to racism! I think that’s one of the reasons being in the centre has become a less fashionable place to be.

What influence do you think social media algorithms have had on the culture wars?

Jon Ronson: There was one study I read quite recently which says that we overstate the importance of algorithms in radicalising people. I suppose what this study was saying is that there’s much more of a predisposition to falling down a rabbit hole. It’s not like somebody who is impervious to rabbit holes will fall down one once the algorithms have their say. I thought that was interesting.

I remember something Adam Curtis said to me years ago. He said: “Who created the internet? Engineers. What do engineers love? Stability.” Engineers love nothing more than stability. So it’s no coincidence that libertarian engineers created social media, a world where we all agree with each other and only ever see information that supports our pre-existing point of view. If a destabilising factor comes in, the machine spits that factor out. 

What about age? What role does that play in the divide? 

Jon Ronson: I do think it’s very generational with so many culture wars. We all want to better what we consider to be the mistakes of the generation that came before. The current generation who are setting the rules are pretty draconian; if you say the wrong thing you can really get into trouble. Certain things just can’t be discussed. You could say there’s a generation creating a set of goals for themselves and for other people that are very hard to live by. 

“It’ll be interesting to see what the next generation does on the internet – I wouldn’t be at all surprised if things go back to more like they were in the 90s, when people were just a little more chilled out about allowing people to live their lives”

How do you think that will develop?

Jon Ronson: It does make me think about the new generation, like the kids who are now ten or 11. What are they going to think about this? They can do one of two things: if you want to better or change the ideas of the generation that came before you, which has happened throughout history, then the ten-year-old kids today are either going to be even more radical than the generation that came before, or they’re gonna think, ‘No, these rules are too strict. I don’t want to be tiptoeing around the internet, constantly terrified that I'm going to say the wrong thing.’ 

They might reject some of those rules and decide to live in a calmer way. It’ll be interesting to see what the next generation does on the internet – I wouldn’t be at all surprised if things go back to more like they were in the 90s, when people were just a little more chilled out about allowing people to live their lives.

In ten years time, do you think we will listen more to the people that we disagree with? 

Jon Ronson: Like I said earlier about ten-year-old kids, I think they are going to shake off some of the more restrictive rules that their older siblings have bestowed upon the world. But the worry is climate change: how is that going to lead to new divisions and polarisations? Also, there’s all this stuff happening in America at the moment with Republican legislators. There‘s this fear – which may prove to be paranoia, or may prove to be terribly true – that, come the 2024 election, some of the American institutions may crumble in a way they didn’t in 2020, and that election fraud will be allowed to happen. If there weren’t worrying things like that on the horizon, I think everything would get a little bit more gentle and there would be more of a move.

Things Fell Apart is available now on BBC Sounds