It took Monica Lewinsky more than a decade to heal from the public humiliation suffered after news of her affair with then U.S. President Bill Clinton travelled the globe via the Internet in 1998.
In fact the 42-year-old public speaker, writer (Contributing Editor to Vanity Fair), and social activist said she is still dealing with the aftermath of being harshly branded by the media and portrayed as a person she, her family, and friends didn’t recognize.
She doesn’t want others to face the same fate.
Instead Lewinsky is encouraging the next generation to become “upstanders” in the fight against cyberbullying and to show support for the victims. She shared this advice with Ivey students and introduced her newly launched anti-bullying emoji's as the keynote speaker for the 3rd Annual HBA1 Leadership Character and Candour Conference on February 9.
The day-long event also included a presentation from television personality, fashion designer, author, and newspaper columnist Jeanne Beker and a hands-on workshop where students gained practical experience in developing character and candour in their lives.
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Taking a stand
“Being an upstander is a form of leadership – leader character. Leadership is about being brave, having courage, and sometimes taking the risk to be vulnerable,” said Lewinsky. “We need a cultural revolution. Online we have a compassion deficit – an empathy crisis. Something tells me that matters a lot more to most of us. So please exhibit leader character, be an upstander, and click with compassion.”
The advice couldn’t be more relevant. It coincided with Safer Internet Day and Lewinsky’s launch, in partnership with British multinational telecommunications company Vodafone, of the #BeStrong Emoji Keyboard App. The emojis enable people to show support for victims of cyberbullying when they don’t know what words to say.
Lewinsky discussed how it felt to be the first person to have her reputation destroyed worldwide on the Internet. The federal investigation of her affair while a White House intern unfolded in a changing media environment, which included the rise of 24-hour news networks and the Internet. Details went viral in what some people consider the first moment of truly social media. Lewinsky said the experience of shame and public humiliation online is different than offline because there are no borders and it feels like the whole world is laughing at you.
The power of stories and compassion
Lewinsky attributed her survival to the power of compassion and said support from family and friends helped pull her out of a state of anxiety, depression, and self-loathing.
Then news of another high-profile cyberbullying incident in September 2010 spurred her to take her current stand. Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman, committed suicide a few days after his date with a man was streamed live by his roommate via a webcam. Lewinsky said the tragedy prompted her to emerge from a 10-year self-imposed retreat from public life and share her story to help others.
In 2014, she wrote an essay called Shame and Survival for Vanity Fair in which she shared her personal experiences and cultural observations of a “culture of humiliation.” In March 2015 she was also a speaker at TED2015 in Vancouver and her speech, The Price of Shame, was viewed nearly five million times in the first month of release.
“I believe in the power of stories. In the power of stories to inspire, educate, comfort, and change things for the better. I believe my story can help. Help to do something to change the culture of humiliation in which we inhabit and which inhabits us,” she said. “I want to put my suffering to good use and give a purpose to my past.”