Monica Lewinsky has a keen sense of humour. Ms Lewinsky, “patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale,” is also understandably private and self-protecting.
Speaking in Dublin yesterday, there was to be no recording or reporting of her speech to a crowded room of around 1,000 people. For an hour, you couldn’t see a phone.
Ms Lewinsky was the keynote speaker at the Talent Summit where she began her speech by saying the word “thanks” minus the H, to a warm and universal laughter.
The theme of her speech was compassion and resilience in the digital age.
She wound the clock back to 1998, when her relationship with then US president Bill Clinton became public knowledge, to a time when she was publicly humiliated, “slut-shamed”, and body shamed. There was no word for what was happening to her — now we would call it “cyberbullying” or “online harassment”, said Ms Lewinsky.
Her name is now in some 125 rap songs. The original count had been somewhere around 40, she said.
She discussed needing therapy in order to overcome the highly traumatic experience and why she decided, after almost a decade of silence, to come out from “exile”. She is asked “why” she came out a lot.
It was “time to stop living a life of opprobrium”, she told the audience of HR professionals in Dublin yesterday. She gave a TED talk called the Price of Shame and wrote an essay on the same theme for Vanity Fair. She has also recently featured in a docuseries called the Clinton Affair.
Discussing the ability to be resilient, she described how her parents were interviewed separately for the and how they both told the same story about her. It was of a young Monica standing with her hands on her hips saying that no one was the boss of her.
It was this innate “stubbornness” that gave her the “tenacity” to recover and reclaim her own narrative after a decade of silence.
Ms Lewinsky, who has worked with a counsellor specialising in trauma, said people are born with varying levels of resilience but it is a “muscle” which can be built.
In a question-and-answer session after her speech, Ms Lewinsky was asked whether, in all her time being publicly humiliated from 1998 on, anyone ever stood up for her publicly.
“I’m not really sure I had a public upstander,” she answered, while being able to refer to one empathetic piece written about her back then.
Instead, the love of her family was what kept her alive and their ability to reflect back her “true self”.
Speaking more broadly on the digital age we now live in, the social activist talked about being mindful online.
“Be mindful of what you click on,” said Ms Lewinsky, emphasising this by explaining that people’s attention is monetised, and that salacious stories garner more clicks and more ad dollars than a story of a young Muslim woman winning a Noble prize. Online media is “revenue-based”, she reminded people.
Before receiving a standing ovation, Ms Lewinksy was asked one final question: In 30 years’ time what would she hope people would learn from her experience of being publicly shamed on a global scale?
“For people who are going through personal or private shame or humiliation, you can move on, you can move forward,” she replied.
Like she has done, she said people can take those experiences and help someone else with them.