Park City • Monica Lewinsky has been called every name in the world’s book of shame, and now she’s writing a new chapter in her public life, calling for a revolution of compassion.
“Public shaming as a blood sport has to stop,” Lewinsky said. Her 45-minute speech at the Park City Institute before a crowd of about 1,000 concluded with an intimate, frank and humorous Q&A. None of the main players in the political or media circus that shamed her ever apologized, Lewinsky responded to a questioner.
Teri Orr, PCI executive director, concluded the evening by offering Lewinsky a public apology, which sparked a lengthy standing ovation from the Eccles Center crowd.
“We need to communicate online with compassion, consume news with compassion, and click with compassion,” said Lewinsky, 44, in her first-ever ticketed public talk. “We talk a lot about our right to freedom of speech, but we need to talk more about our responsibility to freedom of speech.”
Her speech, which opened the Park City Institute’s 20th-anniversary season, roughly followed the outline of her headline-making 2015 TED talk, “The Price of Shame,” which has been viewed more than 11 million times. The talk followed her prominent 2014 Vanity Fair essay, which changed her life, Lewinsky said, as well as announcing her effort to reclaim her voice after a decade of self-proclaimed public silence.
That TED talk received a standing ovation in the room where she offered it. But as soon as her speech was posted, the nasty, name-calling comments began, the worst vitriol that Nadia Petschek Rawls, director of social media and audience development at TED, had witnessed. Without watching the speech, commenters “attacked her character, her appearance, her choices, even her right to live,” Rawls wrote in an Ideas.Ted.com blog post.
As three people curated “hundreds of hideous comments,” Rawls realized she was experiencing “just a sliver of the abuse Lewinsky had received almost every day of her adult life.”
That background explains the kind of controversy sparked by even the mention of Monica Lewinsky’s name.
In 1995, as Lewinsky told the Park City crowd, she was a 22-year-old White House intern when she fell in love with her boss, who just happened to be President Bill Clinton. “Not a day goes by that I’m not reminded of my mistake, and I regret my mistake very deeply,” she said.
When her name and hours and hours of tape were published as part of the Starr Report, Lewinsky suffered what she termed “devastating consequences.” “It was the first time the traditional news was usurped by the internet for a major news story,” she said, “it was a click that reverberated around the world.”
“I was branded a tramp, a tart, a slut, a bimbo, a floozy, and of course, ‘that woman,’” Lewinsky said.
Her Park City appearance, coming just weeks before the opening of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, seemed well staged against the backdrop of a growing #MeToo movement, an international conversation about the real effects of sexual abuse and silencing of women. The details of her story may be unique and her affair may have been consensual, but she became “patient zero” for internet shame.
“Every day online, people, especially young people who haven’t developed fully and are not emotionally able to handle this, are so abused and humiliated that they can’t imagine living to the next day,” she said. “There’s nothing virtual about that.”
Lewinsky’s Utah visit was carefully managed. The speaker didn’t offer interviews prior to her appearance at Park City’s Eccles Center, news photographers weren’t credentialed, and reporters weren’t granted access to cover an event Saturday morning with Park City High School students. “It was an extraordinary outreach session,” Orr said, adding that teens are very familiar with the concept of cyberbullying.
Why is she speaking up now? Lewinsky said that’s the question she’s asked most frequently, and her answer is simple: Because it’s time. “Time to stop tiptoeing around my past; time to stop living a life of opprobrium; and time to take back my narrative,” Lewinsky said.
Of course, bullies need to be called to account, and that can change the tone of internet comments. But it’s perhaps even more significant for everyone to consider what draws our clicks, she said.
“A marketplace has emerged where public humiliation is a commodity and shame is an industry,” she said. “The more we click on this type of gossip, the more numb we get to the human lives behind it, and the more numb we get, the more we click. All the while, someone is making money off the back of someone else’s suffering. With every click, we make a choice.”
She continued: “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’s the online community, too. Millions of people, often anonymously, can stab you with their words, and that’s a lot of pain.”
Resources to combat cyberbullying
• U.S.: Tyler Clementi Foundation, tylerclementi.org
• United Kingdom: Anti-Bullying Pro, antibullyingpro.com
• Australia: Project Rockit, projectrockit.com.au
More • For tickets to future events in Park City Institute’s art of conversation series, visit http://www.ecclescenter.org.