Funny, spontaneous, articulate, righteous, open, smart. We’re talking about Monica Lewinsky here. Sure, she’s still a little bitter. For that we can forgive her. She may have done the deeds that lit the match, but we’re all responsible, in a sense, for the public firestorm that followed the revelation of the presidential affair. We all know that she was personally devastated, her soul and psyche crushed, one nasty headline, blog post, and comment at a time. But after the unholy hell she went through, who would’ve ever guessed that she would emerge as the leader of a nascent movement?
Lewinsky’s presentation at Cannes ended with an ovation usually reserved for rock stars, and with good reason. She killed. The young lady who was a lost cause is now a powerful woman behind a cause, calling for greater compassion and the end of online bullying and humiliation.
“If you were a brand, what brand would you be? That’s a question I was asked in an interview, a job interview, a few years ago,” she said. “Let me tell you, when you’re Monica Lewinsky, that’s a loaded fucking question.”
Speaking to a standing-room-only auditorium, Lewinsky, 41, gave a powerful personal account of the scandal that threatened Bill Clinton’s presidency, the personal damage caused by her public humiliation, and her arduous journey from suicidal depression to the confident individual she appears to be today. “You’re looking at a person who was publicly silent for a decade, due, in part, to a brand crisis,” she said. “You’re familiar with what it means to nurture, grow, and shape a brand. And while unfortunate, it’s likely that at one point or another you’ve experienced a brand crisis. But can you imagine what it is like when the brand is you? Your likeness, your name, your history, your values, your soul?”
Lewinsky has recovered and gladly moved beyond her past—at least, to the extent that that’s possible. “At the age of 41,” she said, “I was hit on by a 27-year-old guy. Crazy, right? He was charming, and I was flattered. I thought about it for a second, but I did decline. What was his unsuccessful pickup line? That 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.”
Lewinsky peppered her half-hour at the dais with light anecdotes like that, but she made it clear she was dead-serious about starting a movement against public humiliation and shaming, mostly in the online world.
She recalled one Labor Day weekend after she and Clinton were outed, when she finally had found some peace of mind. She was at her stepfather’s place in the Adirondacks, looking out over serene Lake Saranac, when she received a phone call. “Within 48 hours, I’m sitting in a windowless room inside the Office of the Independent Counsel [in Washington, D.C.]. I’m listening to the sound of my voice. My voice on surreptitiously taped phone calls that a supposed friend had made the year before.”
The content of those tapes appeared in a Congressional report, and later were leaked—in print and audio—to the media. At the time, Facebook, Twitter, and instant messaging didn’t exist. But email and celebrity gossip sites—with comments sections, of course—were very much part of the media landscape. It was as if that landscape were a hill with Lewinsky sitting at the bottom, with and an avalanche of boulders rolling toward her.
“This scandal was brought to you by the digital revolution,” Lewinsky said. “When the story broke, in January 1998, it broke online. It was the first time that the traditional news was usurped by the internet. A click that reverberated around the world.”
The volume of vitriol directed at her was unprecedented for a formerly private citizen, she said. But now, 17 years hence, technology has made it possible for just about anyone to be publicly eviscerated in a matter of hours. Lewinsky cited the recent example of Justine Sacco. The communications executive for New York public relations firm IAC was at Heathrow Airport, awaiting a flight to Cape Town, when she tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
“No mater how you viewed her regrettable Tweet, do we want to live in a world with that large a scale of scorn?” Lewinsky asked. “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’ve slowly been sowing the seeds of shame and public humiliation in our cultural soil, both online and offline.”
Lewinsky called for an end to the madness, and put the onus on the individual. “The more we click on this kind of gossip, the more numb we get to the human lives behind it,” she said. “All the while someone is making money off of the back of another’s suffering.”
She also urged the support of organizations around the world working to end cyberbullying, citing Bystander Revolution and the Tyler Clemente Foundation in the United States, Antibullying Ambassadors (antibullyingpro.com) in the UK, and Project Rockit in Australia.
“As far as our culture of humiliation goes, what we need is a cultural revolution,” she said.“Public shaming as a bloodsport must stop. It’s time for an intervention on the internet and in the culture. The shift begins with something simple. We need to return to a longheld value of compassion. Compassion and empathy. Online, we’ve got a compassion deficit, an empathy crisis.”
Lewinsky announced the launch of an effort, backed by Ogilvy. The anti-shaming campaign can be found online at Upstandr.tumblr.com.
“Building a more compassionate society is going to be a bilateral exercise,” Lewinsky said. “Between individuals and the brands that represent their aspirations, their values, and their truths. People make brands. If people are compassionate, brands will be compassionate in return. We can lead one another to a more compassionate, more empathic place. We can help change behavior… All of the most vibrant creative minds in the world are here, and here this week. You are the creative engines that will drive forward our culture. And so I end where I began: if you were a brand, what brand would you be?”