OBAMA PRESIDENCY & THE 114TH CONGRESS:
Monica Lewinsky’s speech at TED 2015 Conference about Bill Clinton Scandal and Cyber-Bullying Transcript
You are looking at a woman who was publicly silent for a decade. Obviously that has changed, but only recently.
It was several months ago that I gave my very first, major public talk at the Forbes 30 Under 30 summit.
1500 brilliant people, all under the age of 30. That meant that in 1998 the oldest among the group were only 14 and the youngest just 4.
I joked with them that some might only have heard of me from rap songs. Yes, I am in rap songs. Almost 40 rap songs.
But the night of my speech, a surprising thing happened. At the age of 41, I was hit on by a 27-year-old guy. I know, right? He was charming and I was flattered and I declined. Do you know what his unsuccessful pickup line was? He could make me feel 22 again.
I realized later that night I am probably the only person over 40 who does not want to be 22 again.
At the age of 22 I fell in love with my boss. And at the age of 24, I learned the devastating consequences.
Can I see a show of hands of anyone here who didn’t make a mistake or do something they regretted at 22? Yep, that’s what I thought. So like me, at 22, a few of you may have taken wrong turns and fallen in love with the wrong person. Maybe even your boss.
Unlike me, your boss probably wasn’t the President of the United States of America.
Of course, life is full of surprises.
Not a day goes by that I am not reminded of my mistake. And I regret that mistake deeply.
In 1998, after having been swept up into an improbable romance, I was then swept up into the eye of a political, legal and media maelstrom like we had never seen before. Remember, just a few years earlier, news was consumed in just three places: reading a newspaper or magazine, listening to a radio, or watching television. That was it.
But that wasn’t my fate. Instead, this scandal was brought to you by the digital revolution. That meant we could access all the information we wanted, when we wanted it, anytime, anywhere. And when the story broke in January, 1998, it broke online. It was the first time the traditional news was usurped by the internet for a major news story. A click that reverberated around the world.
What that meant for me personally was that overnight I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly-humiliated one worldwide. I was Patient Zero of losing a personal reputation on the global scale almost instantaneously.
This rush to judgement enabled by technology led to mobs of virtual stone-throwers. Granted, it was before social media, but people could still comment online, email stories and of course, email cruel jokes. News sources plastered photos of me all over to sell newspapers, banner ads online, and to keep people tuned to the TV.
Do you recall a particular image of me, say, wearing a beret? Now, I admit I made mistakes, especially wearing that beret. But the attention an judgement I received, not the story, but that I personally received, was unprecedented.
I was branded as a tramp. Tart. Slut. Whore. Bimbo. And, of course, “That Woman”. I was seen by many, but actually known by few. And I get it. It was easy to forget that “that woman” was dimensional, had a soul, and was once unbroken.
When this happened to me 17 years ago, there was no name for it. Now we call it cyber-bulling and online harassment.
Today I want to share some of my experiences, and talk about how those experiences helped shape my cultural observations, and how my past experiences can lead to a change that can lead to less suffering for others.
In 1998 I lost my reputation and my dignity. I lost almost everything. And I almost lost my life.
Let me paint a picture for you. It is September of 1998. I am sitting in a windowless office room inside the Office of the Independent Counsel, underneath humming flourscent lights. I am listening to the sound of my voice. My voice on surreptitiously taped phone calls that a supposed friend had made the year before. I am here because I’ve been legally required to authenticate all 20 hours of taped conversation. For the past eight months, the mysterious content of these conversations has hung like the Sword of Damocles over my head.
I mean, who can remember what they said a year ago?
Scared and mortified, I listened. Listened as I prattled on about the flotsam and jetsam of the day. Listen as I confess my love for the president. And of course, my heartbreak. Listened to my sometimes catty, sometimes churlish, sometimes silly self being cruel, unforgiving, uncouth. Listened deeply, deeply ashamed of the worst version of myself. A self I don’t even recognize.
A few days later, the Starr Report is released to Congress and all of those tapes and transcripts, those stolen words, form a part of it. That people can read the transcripts is horrific enough. But a few weeks later the audio tapes are aired on TV, and significant portions are made available online.
The public humiliation was excruciating. Life was almost unbearable.
This was not something happened with regularity back in 1998. And by this, I mean the stealing of people’s private words, actions, conversations or photos, and then making them public. Public without consent, public without context, and pubic without compassion.
Fast forward 12 years to 2010 and now social media has been born. The landscape has sadly become much more populated with instances like mine, whether or not someone actually made a mistake. And now it is for both public and private people. The consequences for some have become dire. Very dire.
I was on the phone with my mom in September, 2010 and we were talking about the news of a young college freshman from Rutgers University named Tyler Clementi.
Sweet, sensitive, creative Tyler was secretly webcammed by his room mate while being intimate with another man. When the online world learned of this incident, the ridicule and cyber-bullying ignited. A few days later, Tyler jumped from the George Washington Bridge to his death. He was 18.
My mom was beside herself about what happened to Tyler and his family and she was gutted with pain in a way I just couldn’t understand.
And then eventually, she was reliving 1998. Reliving a time when she sat beside my bed every night. Reliving a time when she made me shower with the bathroom door opened. And reliving a time when both of my parents feared I would be humiliated to death. Literally.
Today too many parents haven’t had the chance to step in and rescue their loved ones. Too many have learned have of their child’s humiliation and suffering after it was too late.
Tyler’s tragic, senseless death was a turning point for me. It served to recontextualize my experiences and I then began to look at the world of humiliation and bullying around me and see something different.
In 1998 we had no way of knowing where this brave new technology called the Internet would take us. Since then it has connected people in unimaginable ways, joining lost siblings, saving lives, launching revolutions.
But the darkness, cyber-bullying and slut-shaming that I experienced had mushroomed. 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. And some, tragically, don’t. And there is nothing virtually about that.
ChildLine, a UK-based service that is focussed on helping young people on various issue, released a staggering statistic late last year. From 2012 to 2013, there was an 87 per cent increase in calls and emails related to cyber-bullying. A meta analysis done out of the Netherlands showed that for the first time, cyber-bullying was leading to suicidal ideations more significantly than offline bullying.
And you know what shocked me, although it shouldn’t have, was other research that determined that humiliation was a more intensely felt emotion that either happiness or even anger.
Cruelty to others is nothing new. But online, technologically-enhanced shaming is amplified, uncontained and permanently accessible.
The echo of embarrassment used to extend only as far as your family, village, school or community. But now it is the online community too. Millions of people can stab you anonymously with their words, and that is a lot of pain. And there are no perimeters around how many people can publicly observe you and put you in a public stockade.
There is a very personal price to public humiliation. And the growth of the internet has jacked up that price. For nearly two decades now we have slowly been sowing the seeds of humiliation and shame in our cultural soil, both on and offline.
Gossip websites, paparazzi, reality programming, politics, news outlets and sometimes hackers all traffic in shame. It has led to desensitization and a permissive environment online which lends itself to trolls, trolling, cyber-bullying and invasion of privacy. This shift has created what Professor Nicolas Vilas calls a culture of humiliation.
Consider a few common examples just from the past six months alone.
Snapchat, the service which is mainly used by the younger generations and claims that its messages only have the life span of a few seconds. You can imagine the range of content that gets. A third-party app that SnapChatters used to preserve the life span of the messages was hacked, and 100,000 personal conversations, photos and videos were leaked online to now have a lifetime of forever.
Jennifer Lawrence and several other actors had their iCloud accounts hacked and private, intimate nude photos were plastered across the internet without their permission.
One gossip website had over one million hits for this one story.
And what about the Sony Pictures cyber-hacking? The documents that which received the most attention were private emails that had maximum public embarrassment value.
But in this culture of humiliation, there is another kind of price tag attached to public shaming. The price does not measure the cost to the victim, which Tyler and many others, notably women and minorities and members of the LGBTQ community have paid, but the price measures the profit of those who prey on them.
This invasion of others is a raw material efficiently and ruthlessly mined, packaged and sold at a profit. A marketplace has emerged where public humiliation is a commodity and shame is an industry.
How is the money made? Clicks. The more shame, the more clicks. The more clicks, the more advertising dollars. We are in a dangerous cycle. The more we click on this kind of gossip, the more numb we become to the human lives behind it. And the more numb we get, the more we click.
All the while, somebody is making money off of the back of someone else’s suffering. With every click we make a choice. The more we saturate our culture with public shaming, the more accepted it is, the more we will see behaviour like trolling, cyber-bullying, some forms of hacking and online harassment.
Why? Because they all have humiliation at their cores. This behaviour is a symptom of the culture we’ve created. Just think about it.
Changing behaviour begins with evolving beliefs. We’ve seen that to be true with racism, homophobia and plenty of other biases today and in the past. As we have changed beliefs about same-sex marriage, more people have been offered equal freedoms. When we began valuing sustainability, more people began to recycle.
So as far as our culture of humiliation goes, what we need is a cultural revolution. Public shaming as a blood sport has to stop. And it is time for an intervention on the internet and in our culture.
The shift begins with something simple, but it is not easy. We need to return to a long-held value of compassion. Compassion and empathy. Online we have a compassion deficit and an empathy crisis.
Researcher Berne Brown said, and I quote, “shame can’t survive empathy. Shame cannot survive empathy.”
I have seen some very dark days in my life. It was the compassion and empathy from my family, my friends, professionals, and even strangers, that saved me.
Even empathy from one person can make a difference. The theory of minority influence proposed by social psychologist Serge Muscovici says that even in small numbers, when there is consistency over time, change can happen.
In the online world we can foster minority influence by becoming “up standers”. To become an upstander means instead of bystander apathy, we can post a positive comment for someone or report a bullying situation.
Trust me, compassionate comments help abate the negativity. We can also counteract the culture by supporting organizations that deal with these kinds of issues, like the Tyler Clementi Foundation in the US. In the UK there is anti-bullying Pro, and in Australia there is Project Rocket.
We talk a lot about our right to freedom of expression. But we need to talk more about our responsibility to freedom of expression. We all want to be heard. But let’s acknowledge the difference between speaking up with intention and speaking up for attention.
The internet is the superhighway for the Id. But online, showing empathy for others benefits us all
and helps create a safer and better world.
We need to communicate online with compassion, consume news with compassion and click with compassion. Just imagine walking a mile in someone else’s headline.
I’d like to end on a personal note. In the past nine months the question I have asked most is why.
Why now, why now was I sticking my head above the parapet. You can read between the lines in those questions, and the answer has nothing to do with politics. The top note answer answer was, and is, because it is time. Time to stop tip-toeing around my past, time to stop living a life of oppoprium, and time to take back my narrative.
It is also not just about saving myself. Anyone who is suffering from shame and public humiliation needs to know on thing. You can survive it.
I know it is hard. It may not be painless, quick or easy. But you can insist on a different ending to your story. Have compassion for yourself.
We all deserve compassion. And to live both online and off in a more compassionate world.
Thank you for listening.