21st Century Shaming

From Monica Lewinsky to Jennifer Lawrence and even Harper Beckham...why it's time to end online humiliation

Image via TED

In a world where ‘everyone’s a journalist’ and there are more platforms than ever to share our views, a new form of antagonism has emerged and it’s effects can cause much longer damage than sticks and stones.

This week alone, people have been chiming in on the Beckham’s parenting choices, Caitlin Jenner’s swimsuit appearance and online debate around Adam Goode’s recent racial encounter is still running rife.

Arguably the first victim of such cyber-bullying was Monica Lewinsky, back in the late nineties. After a couple of decades of relative silence, she is now speaking out about online humiliation using her very public, very personal experience to highlight the severity of the issue.

Her message is clear and simple. It’s time to stop cyber-bullying. In an address at Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, which mirrored her powerful TED Talk earlier this year, she spoke candidly and passionately about the rise of cyber-bullying and its growing number of casualties.

Monica talks of being “patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously”. When news broke of her affair with then-US President Bill Clinton, the internet was only a few years old. She describes the humiliation of her mistake being broadcast absolutely everywhere. Suddenly anyone could have an opinion.

“Not a day goes by that I am not reminded of my mistake, and I regret that mistake deeply. In 1998 after been swept into an improbable romance, I was then swept up into a political, legal and media maelstrom that we had never seen before.”

“This scandal was brought to you by the digital revolution…what that meant for me personally was that overnight I went from being a completely private figure, to a publically humiliated one worldwide.”

Cyber-bullying and online shaming seem more commonplace than ever before and Monica highlighted some recent occurrences, like the leaked nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence; the Sony hacking scandal; and the death of Tyler Clemente, who committed suicide after his college roommate secretly filmed him with another man.

Monica speaks of the culture that most internet-users (sometimes unconsciously) perpetuate, where the online humiliation of individuals results in more clicks, which means more money for the media outlet.“A marketplace has emerged where shame is a commodity and public humiliation is an industry,” she said. “People are making money off the back of someone else’s shame…We need to return to a long held value of compassion and empathy. We have a compassion deficit and empathy crisis.”

This shift in culture has created what Professor Nicolaus Mills calls a Culture of Humiliation. The price of public shaming does not measure the cost to the victim. But rather, the price measures the profits of those who exploit their shame. The more shame, the more clicks; the more clicks, the more advertising dollars. It’s a vicious cycle. “The more we click on this kind of gossip, the more numb we get to the human lives behind it…and the more numb we get, the more we click.”

So how do we create a more compassionate society – particularly online?

Monica urges her audience to become an up-stander. When you see unnecessary negativity, post a positive comment or report the bullying. Because according to Brené Brown, shame cannot survive beyond the empathy extended. Which means we have the power to snuff out bullying by counteracting it with our kind words or gestures.

“People make brands. If people are compassionate, brands will be compassionate in return.” Therefore, “we can help change behaviour” says Monica. “We can all learn from our mistakes and be more resilient. And we can together make a society where the sometimes distancing effect of technology doesn’t remove our fundamental humanity.”

She ends with a simple call to action: “Click with compassion… Just imagine walking a mile in someone else’s headline.”


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