Lessons in Digital Citizenship from Monica Lewinsky

I recently returned from the TED Active conference in Whistler, Canada  where I had the distinct honor of learning alongside 700 other attendees. I listened in awe and at times disbelief to some of the world’s most innovative thought leaders who shared their ideas on a variety of topics. Several of my favorite talks included: What if 3D printing was 100x faster? by John DeSimone, CEO of Carbon3D, Why do ambitious women have flat heads? by tech entrepreneur Dame Stephanie Shirley, and How we’re teaching computers to understand pictures by computer vision expert Fei-Fei Li. But never in a million years would I have predicted my absolute favorite talk of the entire conference would be The price of shame by Monica Lewinsky. Like everyone else in the audience; both in Vancouver and Whistler, I gave Monica, formerly known as “that woman” the standing ovation she deserved at the conclusion of her talk. When Chris Anderson took to the stage and shared that Monica was one of the warmest and most authentic speakers his team of coaches had worked with, I wasn’t surprised at all. By the end of her talk I no longer perceived Monica Lewinsky as “that woman”. I saw Monica Lewinsky, the person. I saw a resilient woman who persevered through global, public humiliation and who, after years of silence, was brave enough to share her experiences and cultural observations. I saw a woman who could serve as a role model to anyone whose ever been the victim of online harassment or cyberbullying. However, this is not how I perceived her prior to my arrival in Whistler. 

As I was getting ready to leave for TED Active and initially saw Monica’s name listed in the program as a speaker, I thought to myself, “what ideas does she have worth spreading?” I was asked by friends, family, and colleagues if anyone “famous” would be speaking. Monica was the first who came to mind. People reacted in the same way as I did. Why was that woman giving a TED talk? Clearly, we were all making a judgement about her, as the rest of world had, based on her reputation; a reputation that had been sensationalized by the media and perpetuated by what we’d define today as online trolls. A reputation based on a mistake she made when she was 22. In retrospect, after listening to Monica’s talk, it was foolish not only of me, but for the rest of our society, to make such a judgement. Hopefully the two million plus people who have watched Monica’s talk have also changed their perspective and feel the same. If you haven’t watched her talk, I urge you to do so. You’ll likely see Monica Lewinsky for the first time, not as “that woman” but as a person who was deeply hurt and truly remorseful for her mistake. And you’ll want to join her quest to make our online world a safer place for all citizens.

Photo Credit: James Duncan Davidson/TED via Flickr

From the moment she started speaking, I was captivated. It’s been more than a week since my return and I remember parts of her talk verbatim. And of all my learning experiences at TED Active, this was the first I wanted to share. Her message resonated with me not only as an educator passionate about digital citizenship, but it also had a profound impact on me because I am a parent. As I listened to her story unfold, I did what she had asked and put myself in “someone else’s headline.” When she stated “it was easy to forget that that woman was dimensional, had a soul, and was once unbroken” and how she recalled seeing the “worst version” of herself, I realized how our society had zero empathy and compassion for the 24-year-old Monica Lewinsky (her age when the story broke). Sadly, almost two decades later, it seems society continues to have zero tolerance when people make mistakes online. In fact, I’d argue it may be getting even worse. After hearing Monica’s talk, I realize now more than ever that our digital society needs a humanity check. Two online wrongs don’t make a right. The suicides that occur due to digital humiliation are the ultimate travesty and underscore how desperately our world needs to change. And when Monica shared that her parents feared she would be “humiliated to death, literally” it really hit home to me as the mother of an eight year old. I found it difficult to hold back the tears. I thought about the parents of not only Tyler Clementi, as Monica reminded the audience of his story, but also 12 year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick. I thought about the horror and devastation the parents of children who take their own lives due to cyberbullying must go through. I finally stopped to think about how her ordeal impacted her family and friends and how utterly paralyzing and hopeless life must have been. 

Monica’s message; to be an upstander and to show compassion and empathy for others, is important for everyone in our society to hear. But her mission to change our “culture of humiliation” and the way people behave online is still an uphill battle. It is one that Monica Lewinsky can’t fight alone. So, I took her message to heart and was able to be an upstander as I headed home from the conference. It was under quite ironic circumstances. During my layover in Seattle, I was having dinner alone at a restaurant in the airport. There were two couples sitting right next to me and out of nowhere I heard them start to joke (they were quite loud) about Monica Lewinsky. Blue dress comments and all. It was at that moment I felt compelled to interject. I stood up, leaned in and said…

“Excuse me folks, I couldn’t help overhear your comments about Monica Lewinsky. Just so you know, she just gave a TED talk that was pretty insightful. Once it’s released to the public, I’d encourage you to watch it. It might change how you view her.” The couples looked embarrassed and the ring leader of the jokes insisted they “didn’t mean anything by it,” and that they “were just joking,” as if I was somehow personally offended by their comments. I assured them that I got they were “only kidding” but that they might be surprised to hear her story. I didn’t mean to embarrass them or be a “Debbie downer” during their apparent “innocent joking,” but I did want to be an upstander. I want my students to go out into the world and not be afraid to do the same. I actually want them to start doing that now!

As a society, we should no longer tolerate public shaming, or be a part of this ugly movement, until we have, as Monica stated, walked in “someone else’s headline.” I’m glad I interjected and made those people think, if only for a moment. Perhaps since my comments they have watched her talk and will think twice before they engage in the “innocent jokes” at the expense of other people. And that’s the key word here. Whenever we click and read the latest headline, we must remember we are reading about a person. Although many of our students in today’s classrooms may not know who Monica Lewinsky is, nor the humiliation she endured, I would still advocate for showing and discussing her talk to as many young people as possible. If you use digital technology in any capacity in your classroom, like it or not, you should take time to educate your students about the elements of digital citizenship.

The truth is, we all need to work together to cultivate a society filled with upstanders who will transform our world, and that includes our digital world, into a more compassionate and humane place to live.

I dare you to be a part of that change.





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