I was just 18 years old when Monica Lewinsky became a household name. She was only slightly older than me and so I watched her very public humiliation with no small amount of interest.
My mother and her friends identified with Hillary — the wife, the strategic collaborator, the exasperated but not particularly surprised woman. Back then, it was Monica that I could most recognize myself in — not because I’d ever done anything that salacious or worthy of headlines, but because I was young and hungry for attention and curious about my own capacity to make a mark on the world. Monica Lewinsky was just 22 when her life, barely begun, exploded.
She has mostly disappeared from public life since then, for obvious reasons, but yesterday she gave a TED talk that I was lucky enough to witness. This was her big idea worth spreading: humiliation is a scourge, a deadly one, and it’s only gotten worse in the last two decades. “The Internet is a superhighway for the id,” she said, referring to Sigmund Freud’s tripartite structure of the psyche. The id, of course, is the unfettered instinct. Freud described it as “a chaos” and alternately “a cauldron full of seething excitations.”
Indeed. Social media, in particular, has unleashed the power for people to shame and humiliate one another at scales and speeds never before experienced. Our Internet-fueled ire is not just reserved for public figures — celebrities and politicians and others who, by virtue of their chosen profession, have in a sense opened themselves up to scrutiny. No, in the humiliation industrial complex, everyone is fair game. And anyone can take aim. Our better angels don’t appear to speak very well in 140 characters.
Monica Lewinsky is trying to change that. She challenged those in the audience and beyond to know that they could be “upstanders” as opposed to bystanders, people who pledged to fight the insidiousness of online hatred with the only thing more powerful: compassion.
Compassion requires that we see one another — not as handles or avatars or followers or even “friends” but as living, breathing human beings — people who make mistakes, people who have good intentions, people who hurt. Monica told the TED audience, “I was seen by many, but truly known by few.”
It struck me as the worst possible kind of fate — to be so highly, shallowly visible but not deeply understood. Then it occurred to me that this is not just a struggle for Monica Lewinsky, though she had the freakish version of the experience. This is the modern predicament. In an age where we create highly curated versions of ourselves online, there is little room to communicate about the nuances of everyday life — the fights with our partners, the aching backs, the financial problems, the melancholy, the monsters under the bed. Online, we are eating beautiful, organic meals and our babies are smiling beatifically and all of our creative pursuits are complete and shareable via hyperlinks with hashtags. Offline, we are struggling just like every other human on the planet to be kinder and more accountable to our own dreams, to pay the bills on time and floss like we promised we would. Online we are edited and admirable; offline we are flawed and lovable.
The challenge, it seems to me, is not just to confront shame and humiliation with empathy and compassion. It is to resist performing online in a way that flattens out the nuances of a messy, human life. I’ve tried it, myself — sharing a bit about a bad day here or asking for a virtual hug there, and I’m finding that usually people think it is some kind of cry for help precisely because it is so rare. We are conditioned. We think that the only things worth expressing at scale are those that feature us in a good light. But the result is a sort of dulling of the human spectrum.
Perhaps part of why people are so quick to cut one another down to size online is because we aren’t showing up in full form in the first place. It’s got me wondering: what does the alternative online space look like? The one where we cultivate compassion but also calculate less, show up more raw, reveal our bumps and bruises? I’m not talking about drama, but courage.
The Monica Lewinsky who is, at 41, re-emerging into public life and becoming the author of her own story seems calculated (she, above almost anyone, has cause to be cautious), but she also seems unmistakably brave. It’s as if her new motto is, “What do I have to lose?” When you’ve been humiliated in the most public of squares, and you survive to tell the tale, you realize that the power to resist someone else’s story for your life is all that really matters. In the Internet age, we are each daily authors of our own public narratives. May we tell a story that reflects the full spectrum of our own humanity and may we treat others as they are — not a collection of status updates, but venerable and vulnerable souls.