These were the questions Monica Lewinsky asked of the TED2015 audience when she took the stage yesterday in Vancouver, British Columbia. Hands up, those who didn’t do something dumb. Hands up, those who have no regrets from that time. Unsurprisingly, not a single hand went up.
We all have moments in our evolution we prefer to forget, stumbling stones on the road to maturity -- and, for most of us, these moments fade into oblivion. But imagine if that weren’t the case. Think about that one time you crossed a line -- got a bit too drunk, said something inappropriate, experimented, as we do, with sex or drugs or a version of yourself you later came to reject. And now imagine that that moment, that experiment, that lesser facet of your humanity were held up publicly as the entirety of who you are, paraded in front of the world for millions to laugh at, to scorn, to judge.
Lewinsky’s 22-year-old foolishness happened right when the democratization of our publishing platforms also democratized our ability to humiliate others. It wasn’t just news outlets pointing fingers at her; it was emails, it was forums, it was online comments. Twenty hours of conversations with her, recorded by a “friend” without her knowledge, were made available on the Internet: made public without consent, context or compassion. She became, as she says, the “Patient Zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously.” In yesterday’s talk, she used words like, “excruciating,” “unbearable,” “humiliating.”
Maybe you think Lewinsky deserved what she got -- that that’s what you get for having an affair with the President. Maybe you think Justine Sacco, whose life was effectively ruined after sending an extremely ill-advised tweet in a moment of outstanding thoughtlessness, deserved what she got, too.
But there is no way you think Tyler Clementi deserved what he got. In 2010, 18-year-old Clementi was a freshman at Rutgers, just coming to terms with being gay. One day, his college roommate surreptitiously filmed him being intimate with another man; the roommate then posted the video online. The ensuing harassment and bullying broke Clementi down, and he jumped from the George Washington Bridge to his death.
Lewinsky wasn’t on stage to ask us to feel bad for her. She was there to tell us about people like Clementi, and to share the grim statistics: that, between 2012 and 2013, ChildLine reported an 87% increase in calls and emails related to cyberbullying. That a study shows humiliation is a more intensely felt emotion than either happiness or anger. That young people are not developmentally equipped to handle public shaming. She was there, in short, to issue a clarion call for compassion.
It sounds like such a simple thing. But there’s a whole machine geared up to prevent us from thoughtful empathy, a machine that benefits from humiliating others. “Mined, packaged and sold at a profit,” said Lewinski, “public humiliation is a commodity and shame is an industry. The more shame, the more clicks. The more clicks, the more advertising dollars. The more we click, the more numb we get, and the more numb we get, the more we click. All the while someone is making money off the back of someone else’s suffering. We need a cultural revolution. Public shaming as a blood sport has to stop.”
Lewinski urged us to imagine walking a mile in someone else’s headline. She talked about the right to free speech versus the responsibility of free speech. She distinguished between speaking up with intention and speaking up for attention.
So think twice. Before you reflexively retweet, before you swiftly share with righteous indignation. Investigate further before posting that meme-ish photo with the shockingly offensive quote. Seek context before inviting others to join your disgust. Be, as Lewinski implores, an upstander, not a bystander, so that, together, we can create a more compassionate, more just online world.