Monica Lewinsky On The Evolution Of Shame Culture & Bridging The Empathy Gap Online

For reasons largely self-evident, Monica Lewinsky has lost count of the number of times she’s been harassed or bullied. “Over 20 years,” she said during a recent interview with Refinery29, “you can only imagine how much I have seen written about me, tweeted about me, posted about me, and in print, too.”
But the truth, she revealed, is that she can count on one, “maybe two” hands the times that people have been outright rude to her face. And while that might seem surprising, it’s actually a reflection of the dissonance between who we are on the internet and who we are in reality, she explains. Here’s the takeaway: We’re nicer, more compassionate human beings when we aren't hiding behind a screen. So what will it take to get people to translate their better offline instincts into their digital interactions?
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That question is being explored by a new public service project Lewinsky launched today, which takes the form of a truly arresting anti-bullying video as well as a #BeStrong emoji keyboard meant to help you express support when you see someone becoming a target — just in time for Bullying Prevention Month. The video, titled "In Real Life" and embedded at the bottom of this page, shows what happens when hateful online comments play out in real life situations; it's also a reminder that our social media needs an empathy overhaul. We spoke to Lewinsky about online harassment culture, what she might say to Melania Trump about tackling that issue, and the right way to intervene when you see someone being bullied. As you can imagine, the short answer is: It’s tricky.
I think most everyone has a story about saying something online or on a textual medium that they would never say IRL. Do you?
"Oh, honey, you haven’t seen my drafts folder! A few weeks ago, I was moving toward having a difficult discussion with a good friend, and due to some of the circumstances, I was feeling scared, envious, and a little angry. Instead of creating an open space for a mature dialogue, I was snarky and passive aggressive. I course corrected by basically owning up to how I was really feeling, but it was embarrassing to have to observe in myself."
What do you think has happened to us, as a culture, that has made it seem okay to talk to each other with the level of vitriol we do on the internet?
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"What I think happened to us as a society is that we began to place more and more value, monetary and otherwise, on humiliation and shame — both of which are a core experience of being bullied. We saw [that shift] in news and entertainment we consumed; as a result, we’re in an empathy crisis that’s reflected in the vitriol we’re seeing online. Couple that with the internet and gaming culture — both of which provide opportunities to create different identities — and you’ll see ample evidence of what psychologist John Suler identified as the Online Disinhibition Effect: We escape online into a world where we’re disconnected from our true selves and our true compass."
Melania Trump has said that bullying is the issue she wants to work on as First Lady. We haven’t seen any movement on that agenda. But what would you say to her about how she should direct her energy on this?
"I have unpacked my personal thoughts about where bullying and politics intersect, and I keep coming back to the same thought: One of the things that has been drilled into me, working on this issue and from all my experiences in politics, is remembering that the only way we can have dialogue is when we create space for both sides to show up and be heard. So it is a challenging thing for me to balance. I want to be mindful of how I talk about that… I am trying to find a way of being true to myself, but also to what’s in service to the issue and how to move the conversation forward. I don’t see my role as stepping into the political part of this conversation. But I also try to stay vocal about issues, not people."
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How do we stop ourselves from accepting the current levels of vitriol as a new normal?
"I wish that there were just a switch we could flip. But it starts with the kinds of things we’ve been doing the last few years around awareness. When we become more aware, when we can step in to make a positive comment to the person who is a target of bullying behavior, or find ways to create dialogue that is not through attacking but rather enlightening. One way to do that — and this may sound a little hokey — is to use emoji, or the hashtag #BeStrong, these symbols of compassion, support, empathy for the person who is on the receiving end [of bullying behaviour]."
Stepping in can be complicated, though, online and IRL. How do you make that decision, to intervene when you see someone being harassed online — or off?
"There are many factors why someone will or won’t come to a stranger’s aid. I witnessed a horrific assault once at Venice Beach, and while I stopped and panicked about what to do, I did nothing because it involved two men. I was at a physical disadvantage and I didn’t feel safe.
"In terms of online: This is one of the places where the feeling of anonymity can be a benefit, because the boundaries of where people feel like they can step in can be stretched a little. Where the bridge is missing, though, is that we haven’t quite perfected nor amplified the best way to engage in that dialogue. We hear a lot that you should always step in and address someone who is engaging in bullying behaviour. That’s not always right. It can be right for some people, in some situations. But it’s really important to communicate that people need to check within themselves: Do I feel safe? Is this the right place to do this? Do I know how to do this in a way that will be safe for me, safe for the target, and is not bullying the person who is engaging in bullying behaviour?
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"I have a lot of people who make comments toward me which I’m sure they would never say to my face. But I think that what I also see is: People who step in to defend me do it with an equal amount of negativity and force toward the person who has made the comment. I don’t like the word 'script', I really think we need to work on finding dialogue patterns and examples of ways that help people to think about, 'How can I step in in a constructive way?'"
The anti-bullying community has done a lot to create solutions and awareness around this issue. But it feels like the technologies themselves aren’t keeping pace. Why do you think that’s so?
"I’m not an expert enough in this area to know if we’re better off trying to reshape what already exists or marshalling our resources to create something new that then addresses those issues. I do know that social media companies are paying attention, and that I would love to see more resources toward a faster response time. The interim step for right now is trying to ensure that things get addressed faster, so that people feel that if something happens there is a way to mitigate the situation, until we can eradicate it for good."
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October is National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month. For more information, or to seek help and resources, visit Stomp Out Bullying.
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