I consider reading one of the greatest pleasures that life can afford, especially when I discover an author who teaches, delights, and makes me a better human being. Jon Ronson is one such writer, and I’ve spent the summer devouring all of his books.
I thought I would share 12 of the strange, beautiful, or disturbing things I learned from Jon Ronson over the summer.
1. The fanatics of the world are united by one common belief: the conspiracy theory that a shadowy elite control the world. This the thesis of Jon Ronson’s book Them: Adventures with Extremists. Underpinning nearly all fanatacism – be it white supremacists, cults, or Islamic fundamentalists – is an unhinged and irrational conspiracy theory.
2. Perhaps the real horror – as he suggests at the end of Them, is not that the world is run by a shadowy elite, but that no one runs the world. Perhaps this prospect is, in fact, far more terrifying.
3. There is a military man named Jim Channon who, in the demoralizing days after the Vietnam War, explored the New Age Movement, and then wrote a manual called The First Earth Battalion Manual for the military, integrating New Age spirituality into modern warfare. Far from being fringe, this manual has gone on to influence the military in unexpected and sometimes horrifying ways, from non-lethal weapons to forms of torture. Ronson explores this story in his book, The Men Who Stare at Goats.
4. In Ronson’s words, “Remember that the crazy people are not always to be found on the outside. Sometimes the crazy people are deeply embedded on the inside.” That inside is the mainline, the government, the military, the powers that be. (The Men Who Stare at Goats.)
5. There is an assisted-suicide underground. Some of these assisted suicides are for people with non-terminal illnesses, and the line between assisted suicide and murder becomes very, very blurry. Jon Ronson explores this world in his profile of the Reverend Exoo in his book, Lost at Sea. He also has a fascinating documentary titled Reverend Death, which is disturbing and fascinating.
6. There is a small town in Alaska called The North Pole, to which all the letters in the world addressed “Santa Clause” are sent. There was also a mass-shooting plot in the local middle school, which turned the entire town upside down (Lost At Sea.)
7. Renowned Film maker Stanley Kubrick meticulously organized all his possessions in thousands and thousands of boxes. After Kubick’s death, Jon Ronson was allowed to open the boxes – he suggests that Kubrick’s obsessive need to categorize every single trivial item was his way of coping, or harnessing his genius (Lost at Sea).
8 One in a hundred people are psychopaths. Psychopaths are people lacking in empathy, remorse, or care. And, terrifyingly, they can wield enormous power. Watch Jon Ronson’s fascinating TED talk on the Psychopath Test.
9 If you want to get away with committing truly evil things, be boring. As Ronson writes in The Psychopath Test, “We journalists love writing about eccentrics. We hate writing about impenetrable, boring people. It makes us look bad: the duller the interviewee, the duller the prose. If you want to get away with wielding true, malevolent power, be boring.”
10. Online shaming is powerful and deadly, but none of us want to face the harm we are inflicting on people. Many people commit suicide after online social media shamings. As Ronson writes in So You’ve Been Publically Shamed, “I suppose that when shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be. The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche.”
11. Social media needs to calm down. “With social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people” (So You’ve Been Publically Shamed).
12. I need to practice kindness and empathy online, and stand opposed to the culture of public shaming. I need to stand against the trend of doling out disproportionate punishment for the perceived crimes of people I don’t even know. I must replace outrage with curiosity. This, to me, is the great lesson I’ve learned from Jon Ronson.
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