Engaging extremists offers insights into the world, says journalist Ronson

Jon Ronson
Jon Ronson

In his 30-year career as a journalist, Jon Ronson has found his best stories on the fringes of society. He spoke about his experiences interviewing controversial figures such as militant Islamists and Ku Klux Klan members during a Poynter lecture at Yale Law School on March 28.

If you allow yourself to be curious, to try to see through the eyes of other people, it can take you to places that you could never anticipate,” Ronson said.

Once Ronson was reporting on a meeting of militant Islamists headed by the infamous London-based leader Omar Bakri Muhammad, who announced Ronson’s Jewish identity to the group.

My response was, ‘Being Jewish is better than being an atheist.’ To which someone in the room replied, ‘No it’s not,’” Ronson said with a laugh.

Ronson disagrees with reporters who refuse to interview extremists due to fear it will bring the controversial figures more attention.

That is an authoritarian position to take,” he said. “An interesting way for us to see our world is to go to their world.”

Some of Ronson’s past interviewees moved from the margin to the mainstream, such as American radio host Alex Jones. Ronson interviewed Jones in 2001 for “The Secret Rulers of the World,” a documentary series on conspiracy theorists. Jones has since gained notoriety through his conspiracy theorist website Infowars and his reportedly close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump.

It feels like all the worst people I interviewed are now running the world,” Ronson said.

Ronson’s most recent book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” documents the cruelty of social media and the culture of public humiliation online, especially on Twitter. One of the featured stories is that of Justine Sacco, a young woman who tweeted a distasteful joke about Africa and AIDS in 2013 and quickly became the number one trending topic on the platform because of the offensiveness of the joke. Her reputation was ruined, and she subsequently lost her job.

It is a difficult story. Twitter took control of her life and dismantled it,” Ronson said.

Social media shaming differs from traditional shaming in that there is no place for empathy, according to Ronson, noting that with empathy being the cure for shame, there is no redemption from a social media transgression gone viral. Yet through his reporting, Ronson aims to recover the humanity in these stories, he said.

One theme I hope runs through my work is to turn on its head who we consider reputable and who we consider unreputable,” Ronson said.

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