Shame. Embarrassment. Humiliation. Disgrace. Degradation.
These are words none of us want to feel. We have all made mistakes, regrettable actions that we’d rather forget. Some have had lasting consequences. For some, those consequences become a lifetime of pain—a seemingly insurmountable task of navigating through a new world of humiliation and a destroyed reputation.
When our private lives, and the unsavory bits we would rather suffer through alone, become the source of public opinion, and even worse, public ridicule and judgment, where do we find solace?
Monica Lewinsky could certainly tell you that solace becomes a scarce commodity when the public takes delight in your shaming, and your mistakes become fodder for the world’s consumption.
Lewinsky, widely known as former President Bill Clinton’s intern in 1995 and 1996, engaged in an “inappropriate relationship” with the president while she worked in the White House. Practically overnight she went from being “a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one.” She recently opened up to a TED Talk audience, and subsequently the world, telling her own story of online harassment and public shaming in the years following the incident.
She asks for an end to cyberbullying in her talk, called “The Price of Shame.”
“In 1998, I lost my reputation and my dignity. … I lost my sense of self,” says Lewinsky. “When this happened to me 17 years ago, there was no name for it. Now, we call it cyberbullying.”
Citing herself as “patient zero” in the almost instantaneous loss of a reputation on a global scale, Lewinsky fell victim to online public shaming – a practice that today has become an acceptable and monetized constant. This online culture of humiliation can and has turned deadly. Lewinsky’s brave talk is a call to action for a revolution of compassion. She asks that we seek a different way.
“I’ve seen some very dark days in my life. It was empathy and compassion from friends, family, co-workers, even strangers that saved me. Empathy from one person can make a difference.”
Lewinsky’s re-emergence into the spotlight was catalyzed when she said she “began to look at the world of humiliation and bullying around me and see something different.”
The death of teenager Tyler Clementi, a gay Rutgers student who committed suicide in 2010 after being cyberbullied, turned Lewinsky’s inner struggle to an outward awareness of the shaming culture around us.
“Tyler’s tragic, senseless death was a turning point for me,” Lewinsky shares. “It served to re-contextualize my experiences. I began to look at the world of humiliation and bullying around me and see something different. … Every day online, people — especially young people who are not developmentally equipped to handle this — are so abused and humiliated that they can’t imagine living to the next day.”
Lewinsky’s talk serves to reinforce what has pulled at my heart now for months. With two teenage daughters who are just now entering into the realm of social media, I have made it my mission to educate them on the responsibility and the danger attached to a public forum.
I will use Lewinsky’s talk to open up a dialogue with my girls. We have already discussed ad nauseum how they must not engage in cyberbullying. I now implore them to also take a stand against it.
Words are powerful. Words heal, hurt, change opinion and change lives, for better or for worse. We must all take responsibility for the words we speak and put out there for public consumption. The next level is to take a stand against others (individuals, bloggers, media) who often profit from using their public presence to defame others.
If not careful, those who seek attention at the expense of another’s reputation can sadly destroy a person’s will to go on, to fight another day. It is individual compassion and a collective intolerance that can make the difference.
“Anyone who is suffering from shame and public humiliation needs to know one thing: You can survive it,” Lewinsky says. “I know it’s hard. It may not be painless, quick or easy, but you can insist on a different ending to your story.”