Written by Devon Mitchell
In January 1998, a 24-year-old White House intern’s life was forever changed when her personal life was thrust under a media microscope for the entire world to see. Monica Lewinsky was confronted with cyberbullies and an onslaught of public humiliation that would make her “patient zero of harassment” in the online era that was just beginning to emerge by the late 90s. Last Tuesday, Lewinsky talked about her experiences and struggles in a new digital age in a lecture titled “The Price of Shame” that was delivered to RC students, faculty, and staff in the Cregger Center.
The event began with Dr. Todd Peppers from the Public Affairs department reading a slew of vitriolic, insult-laden tweets from Donald Trump over the past two years to emphasize the decline in civility in public discourse. Highlighting the familiarity of harsh words and rude criticism, Peppers touched on a new era of politics in which common decency and constructive discourse have been overtaken by fast verbal jabs and targeted hate speech. From there, he introduced Lewinsky, stating that she had been greatly affected by the “collateral damage of this incivility.”
Lewinsky began her story by explaining that she fell in love with her powerful married boss at the vulnerable age of 22, and by 24 she began to experience the consequences of her actions when the scandal story exploded in the news. Lewinsky made light of the situation by retelling lighter, funnier stories as well, such as how her name has appeared in 125 rap songs and counting.
Despite her light attitude, the seriousness of the situation was made apparent to her audience. Lewinsky explained that due to the internet revolution, anyone anywhere could now read details about her personal life. Overnight, Monica Lewinsky became a household name for public humiliation and a tarnished reputation.
She described how she found there were two Monica’s. There was the real Monica, whom she, her friends and family knew, and the public Monica, the one she didn’t even recognize. Through the late 90s, Lewinsky found herself at the heart of cyberbullying and became a punching bag for politicians, late night television show hosts and citizens. In September of 1998, Lewinsky truly felt the effects of the globalization of the internet. The Starr Report publicized personal transcripts of sensitive conversations which Lewinsky never meant to be heard or seen.
After explaining the hurt she felt from this, Lewinsky explained her new purpose after twenty years of coming to terms with her trial by media firestorm. Referencing a college student from 2010 who committed suicide when he was the subject of public humiliation, Lewinsky cited his tragic death as her call to action.
Addressing the lack of compassion and empathy on the internet, Lewinsky encourages students to be more thoughtful about what they are clicking on. The culture of cyber humiliation is run by the consumers. With every click on a gossip column there is a person behind the information who is feeling the effects of their life and flaws on display for the world to see. She argues that the price of public shame measures the profit marketplace which emerged from cyberbullying.
“If we didn’t click on it, it wouldn’t make money. That’s what I mean when I say ‘click with compassion’,” said Lewinsky.
Luckily for Lewinsky, the personally directed hate speech which emerged from the late 90s is a thing of the past. When the talk was opened to a Q&A, students’ questions were nothing but supportive. Some questions that were asked touched on themes including the role that gender played in the outcome of her public humiliation and the sudden rise in popularity and influence of the #MeToo Movement.
Lewinsky explained how she doesn’t believe her situation would change as much as people might think had the Clinton scandal happened in the 21st century. At the heart of the scandal there was a power imbalance and a charismatic democratic president who won the nation’s hearts. Lewinsky also expressed how it is important to remember hate speech and cyberbullying are a product of human behavior, and she feels it is important to show compassion to those who hate instead of firing back.
“Online media can tear us down, but it can also build us up. Shame cannot survive empathy,” said Lewinsky.
Lewinsky’s words of encouragement to those who are facing cyberbullying themselves as well as her words on the importance of empathy and compassion showcase a new attitude toward media and public humiliation. Monica’s message for Roanoke is clear: we are a new generation of considerate thoughtful citizens who must redirect the country toward empathy and compassion.
“I think speaking out in 2014 was the right thing to do. I’ve been so humbled to hear from people of all ages and around the world how my speaking out, writing, public speaking and activism work with anti-bullying organizations and creating anti bullying campaigns has helped them in their own lives. It is a privilege to sometimes help ease other people’s pain. We need to see people reclaim their narratives to know it can be done – especially for women,” said Lewinsky.