Jon Ronson
Photo by Emli Bendixen

Jon Ronson: “I’m interested in hypocrisy”

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Short Profile

Name: Jon Ronson
DOB: 10 May 1967
Place of birth: Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom
Occupation: Author

Mr. Ronson, your investigative journalism has brought us books like The Psychopath Test, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, The Men Who Stare at Goats and Frank. Why did you prefer writing non-fiction over fiction?

Honestly? I just don’t think I’m very good at fiction. (Laughs) I’ve tried it a couple of times with film and it’s been successful, but my brain just doesn’t work that way. Whereas in non-fiction, I think if I walk into a room, I really know how to make it work as a good piece of page-turning writing. I think I always had a natural aptitude for it, right from the beginning. But I’ve got this sort of secret worry that it’s because fiction is harder. So what I’m really saying is that I’m good at the easy stuff! (Laughs)

What is so daunting about fiction for you?

There was a kind of infiniteness to fiction that I found sort of… Disconcerting. I remember having these really panicky thoughts, like, “I can make this person say anything. I could make him do anything! I could put a jetpack onto his back and shoot him into space!” I don’t like this feeling of having no rules. It took me a couple of years to figure out how to take the skills I’d learned with non-fiction and adapt them to fiction. Eventually, you get to a place where your character would do this but wouldn’t do that, and that’s when it becomes more like journalism.

“Fiction is like the quest for believability, and the kind of non-fiction that I do is almost like a quest for unbelievability.”

Your journalism often investigates ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Are you interested in that tension?

Absolutely. With journalism, I want to find really unexpected unfolding situations, and with fiction, you kind of do the opposite. You don’t want to put people in massively extreme and unexpected ways because that would be unbelievable. Fiction is like the quest for believability, and the kind of non-fiction that I do is almost like a quest for unbelievability.

Are you bored by the ordinary?

You know what? No. I really admire the kinds of writers who do that. I really admire Nick Hornby, for example, the way that he can make ordinary stuff so beautiful! The grand climax of one of his novels could take place in the basement of a Starbucks in Islington, whereas I’ll go to a really extreme place and then kind of normalize it. So I’ll go to an asylum for the criminally insane or a paranormal unit of the US military, these kinds of exceptional places — but what I won’t do is make them exceptional. What I try and do is re-humanize them.

It seems like you are interested in rehumanizing the people in your books as well, like the subjects of The Psychopath Test or those who have been shamed on social media in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

What I really don’t like are journalists who go into that kind of situation and say, “Look at me, I’m normal, I’m morally okay, I’m the right sort of human being. And look at you crazy people, you’re wrong!” I understand why it’s important sometimes to have that kind of journalism, but I don’t want to be that person. I don’t want to be a representative of righteous society. This is what’s so interesting about public shaming, for example, because the crazy people abusing their power… It’s us. I’m much more interested in looking at our own failings than going to some far away place and looking at their failings, thus making us feel good about ourselves. It really shocks me how instant judgment has become so fashionable these days.

Social media seems to be the catalyst for that.

Exactly, it starts on social media and then it goes into mainstream media and politics. It’s now considered a weakness to say, “Let’s wait and hear all of the evidence.” And that’s a fucked up world, where curiosity is considered a weakness. Twitter is becoming like the Stasi! (Laughs) The Stasi had so many willing recruits because people wanted to make sure that their neighbors were doing the right thing and that’s what we do on Twitter. I’m really interested in the hypocrisy of public shaming and these psychological tricks we play on ourselves to do bad things but not feel bad about them.

Right, we’ve started convincing ourselves that two wrongs make a right.

It’s funny, I had breakfast with Monica Lewinski not so long ago… She is the epitome of an unfashionable bullying victim: everyone unites against you. That’s why I think I’m so empathetic because hers was a public shaming that everyone could get behind. Everyone! And I think that really captures a kind of deep thing in me… I feel kind of outraged by that. My friend recently said that I’ve become like a “shaming imam” because every time somebody gets shamed everybody wants to know how I feel. (Laughs)

“You spend your life trying to work out who you are and then the next minute, in Monica Lewinski’s case, you’re America’s premiere blow job queen.”

You’ve even become the subject of ridicule yourself because you’ve stuck up for people like Monica Lewinski or Justine Sacco.

Exactly, I became like a little bit of a fucking meme, and it was to an extent my own fault because I was talking about it! I read an article that said, “Jon Ronson has made his career from defending shamed people.” And I thought, “Oh fuckoff.” What about the other 30 years of writing before I ever came to public shaming? It’s interesting because what I’ve noticed is that a lot of shamed people I’ve talked to say the same thing: the most psychologically disturbing aspects of being shamed is being objectified. You spend your life trying to work out who you are and then the next minute, in Monica Lewinski’s case, you’re America’s premiere blow job queen. And in my case, I was the guy who defended unfashionable victims of shaming! I pretty much totally went kind of underground after that, and stopped giving interviews.

Because you felt objectified?

It was horrible! As a sort of schlubby white man, I was way behind on knowing how it felt to be objectified... What a horrible experience it is to be other people’s play thing. I think as a man, unless you’re like a Chippendale’s dancer or a bodybuilder, you kind of get to live a life not being objectified. So when it happens to you, you realize that it’s bad. It’s deeply frustrating, and I didn’t know that until it happened to me.

Is that something that’s motivating your writing these days?

It totally makes me rethink how I’m going to do non-fiction in the future. Each one of my books is increasingly humanistic and non-mocking. I’d like to think I’d never really been the kind of writer that goes into a situation with a kind of air of superiority, but if there was ever an element of that in my writing, there certainly isn’t now. This is a big realization for me. I think as you get older, you become so aware of the fragility of people. So, for me, it’s become much more important to be curious about somebody than it is to be judgmental of them.