Cruel Intentions: The Lewinsky Effect

In this digital age, with our lives documented by social media, we need a cultural revolution against online bullying, harassment and shaming.

Like every woman I know, I’ve worn my hair a multitude of shades, lengths and styles. For a period of time in my 20s, my hair was black and in a layered bob. Back then, with that hairdo, I could not go out in public without being harassed. Night after night I was subjected to countless sexist remarks about how much I looked like Monica Lewinsky.

“Hey, Monica!”

Initially it was amusing.

Very quickly it became an annoyance.

Eventually, it was a liability.

I remember crossing the street in the Sydney central business district one night when an intoxicated ‘suit’ hurled venomous abuse at me for “what I had done to the First Family”. That experience took my mistaken identity from being something silly to something potentially serious.

I changed my hair style soon after.

Fast-forward 20 years (God, it pains me to say that!) and I today watched and read the transcript of Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk, delivered just hours ago in Vancouver.
I’ve previously read Monica’s 
Vanity Fair essay.

Having emerged from her exile (my first impulse was to refer to it as a ‘self-imposed’ exile, but let’s call a spade a spade), Monica is now using her notoriety to speak out against cyber bullying.

To confront all trolls.

To champion the reinstatement of kindness.

“Public-shaming as a blood sport has to stop. It’s time for an intervention on the internet and in our culture.”

As Chip Cutter identified in his LinkedIn blog, “Cruelty is hardly a new phenomenon. But technology has amplified the scale of it, making it easier for millions of people to shame and troll, sometimes anonymously.”

Monica points out the problem is now so widespread that we’re desensitised to it.

I’ve built my career in corporate marketing and communications. As an occasional writer and blogger I accept that expressing my point of view comes at a cost. Understand, I have no celebrity – mostly my content is published in low circulation outlets and in ‘safe’ environments, such as on LinkedIn, where feedback is in name and is therefore self-moderated. Even so, I have experienced ridicule and personal attacks online. I’ll likely experience more in response to this blog (the irony won’t be lost on me).

How did we become so cruel?

As I see it, the issue is two-fold:

  • Firstly, there’s what psychologists refer to as the ‘online disinhibition effect’ – users of the internet can do or say as they wish without fear of any kind of meaningful reprisal. Most trolls hide behind a veil of anonymity.

  • Secondly, the rest of us allow it to continue.

A couple of days ago a local news story popped up in my Facebook feed. I clicked through because the article related to my neighbourhood but what caught my attention were the comments: ugly, vulgar, discriminatory.

I spoke up.

Specifically, I called attention to one openly racist remark (made by a man who stupidly attached his employer’s name to his Facebook profile but that’s a whole other blog topic).

The incident caused me to question why more people don’t call out discrimination, racism, homophobia, cyber bullying. If we did, the trolls would surely retreat.

Our children are growing up in an era where every move they make is documented and widely circulated. I’m both relieved and thankful that my youthful foibles, flaws and f*ck-ups are not forever on the public record.

What I choose to have on the public record is that I admire and respect Monica Lewinsky. And I agree with her: we need a cultural revolution against online bullying, harassment and shaming.