Public humiliation destroys careers along with personal lives and reputations. Nobody knows that better than Monica Lewinsky. In 1995, a 22-year-old Lewinsky accepted an internship at the White House, where after several months of employment, her married boss began an affair with her. Workplace affairs happen all the time, but in this case the boss in question was the sitting President of the United States. After the affair became public, Lewinsky became the first person to lose her reputation and face instant global humiliation via the Internet. Following the presidential scandal, Lewinsky obtained her master’s degree in social psychology at the London School of Economics. But potential employers were wary of hiring someone with her history as they knew it. Lewinsky tried to escape scrutiny, but every now and then her name has been resuscitated as part of a national conversation in the United States. She continues to be confronted with crass characterizations of her person. At age 40, Lewinsky decided to reclaim her life from the cyber bullies who stole her identity. In a recent Vanity Fair essay entitled “Shame and Survival,” she explained that it was time to stop “tiptoeing around my past — and other people’s futures. I am determined to have a different ending to my story. I’ve decided, finally, to stick my head above the parapet so that I can take back my narrative and give a purpose to my past.” Today, Lewinsky — who gave the keynote address at the Ivey Leadership Character and Candour Conference hosted by the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership in February — uses her story to help other victims of Internet shaming understand that there is life after humiliation (see her recent TED Talk, which has over seven million views). She is also leading the charge to make the online world a safer and nicer place. In this Ivey Business Journal Q&A, Lewinsky talks with Ivey Professor Gerard Seijts about what it takes to survive shame and bullying on a global scale.
GS: Monica, your experience as a White House intern disrupted your life. For people who don’t know your history, can you briefly describe what your career goals were as a student?
ML: In 1995, I graduated from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, with a Bachelor of Science in psychology. I have always been interested in the intersection of psychology and law and, at one point in time, was thinking of obtaining a graduate degree in forensic psychology. One place that I had hoped to eventually work was at the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. A few years after graduating, I did get to work with the FBI — but as an unwilling target of a federal investigation, not an employee. The irony was not lost on me.
GS: You have called yourself the “patient zero” of online harassment and made it your goal to help other victims of public shaming. What advice do you have for other victims of online character assassination?
ML: There are two important things that victims of public humiliation need to remember. First, many people — those bullied and otherwise — suffer from shame or some form of public humiliation, so don’t suffer in silence. Tell someone about what is happening and what you’re experiencing. It’s crucial to know that you are not alone. Reach out to someone and get help.
GS: And the second thing to remember?
ML: Know that you can survive the shaming. When you are humiliated, it seems like there will never be a day, or even an hour, in which you can put the experience behind you. But that moment will come. People are stronger than they realize. As crippling as humiliation can feel, you are more than that moment or incident. The key is understanding that resilience is like a muscle that can be built up. We need to be thinking of resilience through a lens of preventative care. Like wearing a seatbelt.
GS: As an advocate for victims of cyber bullying, you advise people to reclaim their stolen identities and sense of self-worth by offering a true story to counter the false story created online. Why is this so important?
ML: When I was in graduate school, we studied narratives extensively. Particularly those which are legitimized or de-legitimized by power. It’s important to fight against allowing others to usurp your power and craft their own, often spurious, story of who you are. It may be safer to remain silent in the short term, but allowing others to define you ultimately exacts too high a price — both psychologically and socially.
GS: Deciding to speak out can make you once again a target for criticism, scorn and ridicule. And prior to your Vanity Fair essay, you still felt a fear of being literally humiliated to death. So how did you develop the courage to be in the public spotlight again in order to communicate a hard-hitting message?
ML: I had a network of support, including family, close friends and professionals. Public humiliation feels like a vast, overwhelming wave that threatens to drown who you really are. And it is easy to be swept up with worry about other people’s ideas and comments about you. But I am very blessed to have family and friends who reflect back to me, the real me. And the small core group of people in your real life who really know you are the best defense against the enormity of being humiliated online. This core support group is small, tight and concentrated, but it is also stronger than the unseen, unknown public mob. It helps you remember that you define who you are — not people who lash out at others through bullying.
GS: Can you offer an example of the support you received?
ML: In 2014, the night before the Vanity Fair essay I had written hit the stands, one of my best friends gave me a card with an Anaïs Nin quote. It read: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” That summed up so much of where I was in my life.
GS: Anything else?
ML: Early on in the scandal, when I was not allowed to communicate with friends and family because they had been subpoenaed to testify, my best friend from college was subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury. She reached out through lawyers to let me know that she wanted to see me when the legal system allowed it. Spending time with her that day — that simple act — let me know I was not alone. And that meant everything. Knowing you are not alone is so critical. That’s why I was so excited to work with Vodafone to develop a suite of #BeStrong anti-bullying emojis that people can use to show support for victims of public shaming (read the story in Vanity Fair). It’s the easiest way to let someone know that you see the real them, that you see what’s happened to them and that you stand by them.
GS: What steps should society take to make the online world more compassionate and empathetic?
ML: We need a cultural revolution when it comes to empathy and compassion in our society. To succeed, more people need to click with compassion. Algorithms for the net are created by what we click. And when content providers earn advertising dollars from clickbait, they are encouraged to serve up more articles rooted in shame and public exposure. So people need to understand that every time they click on gossip, or an article celebrating a public shaming, they are feeding the beast. People also need to actively take a stand and support the targets of bullying. That means posting a positive comment when you see someone being attacked, or sending a private message of support, or just using the emojies I mentioned earlier. On Safer Internet Day, February 9, 2016, a keyboard designed to help people do this became available in the Apple and Google Play stores.