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General News / May 27, 2019

Jon Ronson on the ethics of curiosity

General News / May 27, 2019

Jon Ronson on the ethics of curiosity

“This is the dark side of journalism, often solving the mystery involves making somebody’s life worse. And this is what I’m always trying to avoid. I don’t want to make anyone’s lives worse.”

 

I ring Jon Ronson as he’s driving in the US countryside, which means that much like in rural Ireland he keeps going in and out of phone coverage. I worry I’m annoy- ing him as I repeatedly phone him back, but he’s ever-polite, funny and engaging, even as he takes my fourth, fifth and sixth calls. There is something surreal about being on the line to him, it pulls me through a wormhole back to a summer in Galway at the tail end of my Arts degree in Galway, in 2001.

That summer I was still in the hazy cocoon that follows final exams, with no job to speak of, but a vague, creeping awareness that reality was about to bite. Someone I thought was cool had invited me to see Jon Ronson at the Galway Arts Festival. I was excited. Ronson’s book ‘Them: Adventures with Extremists’ was the first journalistic book I read about contemporary culture. It made me feel clever by osmosis.

It was funny, curious and non-judgemental.

Even though the talk was at 4pm, we managed to get stuck in traffic and missed it entirely. That sense of dropping the ball chimed with a wider feeling of impending gloom as the sleepy embrace of post-Arts degree Galway began to turn cold. It was a weird summer. I left Galway, and then Ireland, not long after that. I definitely didn’t think one day I’d be having a real-life conversation with Jon Ronson. About porn.

It turns out Jon has a strong memory of that Galway talk too. It was, he says, one of the first talks he did in another town. His projects since have taken him all over the world and off the written page and into film (‘The Men Who Stare At Goats’, ‘Frank’, ‘Okja’), podcasts (The Butterfly Effect, The Last Days of August, This American Life) and onto such diverse topics as Frank Sidebottom, psychopaths and public shaming in the age of the internet.

I first ask him if there are any questions he is bored of answering. He hesitates before saying that people always seem keen to know why he wanted to look at the porn industry in The Butterfly Effect.

“People want an anchor,” he says. “They want to understand why I spent three years on the sets of ‘Stepdaughter Cheerleader Orgy’. I feel like people might have suspicious thoughts about my motives unless I tell the origin story. So maybe I should tell it.”

He dives into one of the motivators for making the two porn-re- lated audio series.

“When I was writing my public shaming book, I was meeting a porn star called Princess Donna in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont Hotel. Everybody in the hotel lobby was dressed exactly like how I dress, you know, in shapeless grey hoodies. Except for Princess Donna who looked like a mad peacock, in this excessively tight dress.”

He noticed something.

“I glanced over at the hotel receptionist. He was looking at her with what I thought was complete contempt. The thought popped into my head that statistically he’s likely to be a porn user. Which basically means he’s fine with porn stars when they are on his computer, but not when they’re in his vicinity, not when they dare to enter the Chateau Marmont. The Chateau Marmont has a reputation for being quite a louche place, but he was looking at that woman as if to say, ‘Why are you dressed like a sex worker, you sex worker?’.

“I just found that really intriguing. If my analysis of the situation was right, I was witnessing a moment of hypocrisy. And hypocrisy is always really interesting to me. So I decided to look into the world of porn performing.”

The end result was The Butterfly Effect. The podcast paints a very human picture of the porn industry, in the throes of huge upheaval as free sites like PornHub and YouPorn suddenly made free porn available on a mass scale. Its sequel The Last Days of August is an unsettling look at the death of pornstar August Ames amidst a social media scandal.

One thing that comes up (or not) is how the ubiquity of extreme porn is having an impact on real world sexual activity. Towards the end of the Butterfly Effect we hear some facts about how in this hyper-sexualised new world young people are having less sex. Are we doomed to die out, as a species? Jon laughs.

“Yes. Well hopefully not. Hopefully we’ll find a balance. Teen pregnancies are way down, which is the positive side of it.

“It seems that young people are having way less sex than young people in previous generation,” he continues. “And part of that reason is erectile dysfunction. Certainly in young people erectile dysfunction has gone up 1000 per cent. And it’s all down to PornHub. When I said that to Fabian, he said maybe I should be investing in the pharmaceutical industry.”

Fabian Thylmann was the boy genius who came up with the technology platform that led to PornHub and its , and he was resigned about the inevitability of these developments.

“I’m with him on that,” Jon says. “If it wasn’t Fabian, it would have been someone else. It’s one of the reasons why I didn’t want to portray Fabian as a kind of a Bond villain. Even though he has swimming pool that magically appears, which is just what Bond villains have.” Jon’s is a pragmatic acknowledgement of the inevitability of tech-driven capitalistic change. He points to one unfair, but familiar aspect.

“They always find a way for artists to make less and less money. Whether that’s in music, or porn. So yes, the technological change is inevitable, but what is sad is that they use the technological changes to exploit creative people. They didn’t have to do that.”

He suggests a different pricing model that would allow consumers to choose that more of their subscription would go to the artists.

Technology can detach people from the invisible and disproportionate results of their actions, hence the butterfly effect analogy. At one point Jon introduces Fabian to Mike, a porn producer whose life has been drastically affected as a result of Fabian’s invention. I asked Jon if this compels him, to show people the human consequences of their actions.

“Oh god yeah,” he says, and tells me another Butterfly Effect origin story. “When I was writing about Justine Sacco, the AIDS tweet woman, and I interviewed Sam Biddle who at the time was a Gawker journalist and he was the guy who sort of started the onslaught against her. I asked him how it had felt to start this onslaught against her. And he said, ‘It felt delicious’.”

In 2014 Sacco wrote an ill-advised tweet about AIDS in Africa before boarding an 11-hour flight to South Africa. By the time she landed, she was the number one trend worldwide and the object of a huge hate-campaign. Jon was interested in the divestment of responsibility by those that started the finger-pointing.

“Biddle said something like, ‘I’m sure she’s fine now’. That really jumped out at me, that line. Because I knew that she wasn’t fine. And when he said that, I just felt that he was playing this psychological trick on himself. To not feel bad about the bad thing that he did. We always try to find ways to not feel bad about
when we behave cruelly.

“It really stuck in mind and made me think about the internet and how we so rarely think about the consequences of what we do. Honestly I think my contribution to all of this, both with the Butterfly Effect and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and The Last Days of August, is really to remind people that there are consequences to things on the internet.”

There are lessons here about how to be human, but an absence of didacticism. His stories build narrative tension underpinned by a strong moral core, but they are crafted with humour, humility and compassion. He says, “It’s easy for some superior writer to come along and pretend like they’re not part of the problem. Writers love to do that, because writers want to feel sort of perfect”.

Jon reminds me about one of our own, Irish investigative journalist Donal MacIntyre,  “He’s a little bit like me and Louis Theroux, but
much more censorious”. He tells me two stories about MacIntyre who seems to have been on a permanent hunt for outrage. He once wanted to track where stolen computers end up, so tried in vain for hours to have his laptop stolen in Brixton.

“I never want to go into any situation with a sense of superiority.”

 

Jon laughs, “People kept coming up to him and saying if you stand there like that someone’s going to steal your laptop. Eventually after ages, finally someone reluctantly stole it and he immediately burst into tears”.

Another episode saw MacIntyre seek out cocaine at Paris Fashion Week.

“Somebody gave him some cocaine,” Jon says. “So he goes into the toilet and makes a big show of flushing in the cocaine down the toilet with his arm outstretched. With a look of disgust on his face. And I remember thinking, ‘You act like you’ve never seen cocaine before, but you work for the BBC’. I always wanted to do the opposite of Donal MacIntyre. I never want to go into any situation with a sense of superiority.”

Jon is careful with his words. When I joke that we will title the article ‘Jon Ronson: Not Donal MacIntyre’, he adds a footnote.

“Can I just caveat that, he was very, very good at what he did. I’m not dissing Donal MacIntyre as a human, I’m dissing that attitude of wanting to be representative of moral probity. I think it’s good for a journalist to include their own weaknesses, if they are not embarrassed of them, I think it makes it fairer, truer, but I think it’s also better for the reader or the listener.”

Jon is a dogged interviewer. While never aggressive, he pursues answers. How does he cope with that as a sensitive person?

“Well you have to keep going and it’s not pleasant. The last thing I want to do is be confrontational or conflict-y. I hate those things. But you have to do it for so many reasons, for factual reasons, to make sure you’re getting the facts rights, but also for solving a mystery.

“There’s nothing better than that. As long as you can do it without hurting people or exploiting people. As long as you can do it and still not leave a big foot- print, it’s the best thing in the world. This is the dark side of journalism, often solving the mystery involves making somebody’s life worse. And this is what I’m always trying to avoid. I don’t want to make anyone’s lives worse.”

This conscientious streak may explain the anxiety which Ronson openly talks about in his books and audio work. He had earlier  mentioned how creating the Last Days of August had led him to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy sessions as working on the series had sent him “slightly barmy” for a few weeks. I ask him if he felt anxiety drove or impeded his work.

“I’ve only felt impeded in the last year. I’ve become a little bit of a hermit in the last year. But before then I think it drove me a little bit,” he pauses to reflect. “It did drive me. Actually, I remember something Louis Theroux said, when he was asked why he goes into all of these different situations. And he said not doing it feels worse than doing it. I put myself in a lot of dangerous situations over the years and I feel my answer is the same as his. Because if you don’t do it, you don’t get the story, and you don’t get the book. So that’s a way that anxiety drives you in a positive way. But I would say in the past year or so my anxiety has impeded me. I think that was to a great extent down to the difficulties in making The Last Days of August. Now that’s over I sort of feeling like I’m getting my sense back.”

Finally, back to 2001 and ‘Them: Adventures with Extremists’ when he went on an adventure around the world interviewing people with some very strange beliefs. Many of them thought the world was controlled by a global cabal of shadowy figures. At the end of the book Jon conjectures that the scary thing might not be that there is such a conspiracy, but that in reality nobody is running the world in any kind of organised way at all. I ask him what he thinks now? He laughs, “That’s a good question”.

“Well, I think if there was a secret cabal of people ruling the world then Brexit would probably be going a bit better. So I think Brexit proves the point.”

Jon’s excited about being back in Vicar Street in May. He’s full of the love for Dublin audiences and for the storied venue. He was there before for ‘The Psychopath Test’ but says the upcoming tour brings a different show entirely, “There’s no psychopath stuff, there’s lots of porn. PG-rated. It won’t make anybody blush”.

Just in case you were wondering if you should bring your ma.

Jon Ronson is at Vicar Street on May 29.