“Public shaming as a blood sport has to stop.”
~ Monica Lewinsky, TedTalk, March 2015
I recently attended the New England Women’s Law Conference in Hartford, Connecticut. It struck me as odd that it had such low attendance. When I inquired, I was told it had been much larger but when the final numbers were tallied, it was just under 100.
Ok. I had no objection to the intimacy of a smaller group of women. The speakers were powerhouse women, entrepreneurs, a TV legal analyst, women judges, and the one I was waiting to hear most of all, Monica Lewinsky. I saw her Ted Talk, The Price of Shame, focused on cyberbullying and internet shaming and in this talk she was so eloquent, articulated the issue so powerfully and did so by relaying the story of her life after becoming a reluctant ‘public figure’. (Here are seven must read cliff notes…but do watch.) She shared her rearview mirror epiphany that she was patient zero for cyberbullying and internet shaming long before these terms became buzzwords, long before we had reputation managers, publicists and SEO geniuses to manipulate google search. It was also even before Google, before Facebook and Instagram, texting, blogging, comments by anonymous vicious trolls, hackers and social opportunists. And yet, even in its infancy, the internet’s use and abuse had the power to alter the trajectory of her life in an unprecedented way.
This isn’t a post, though, about what led to her becoming a public figure. That’s ancient history. This is a post about the long term impact of cyberbullying and internet shaming, the role we all play as participants on the internet. We all have the ability to destroy people’s lives as we send a few keystrokes out into the ether or snap a picture of an unsuspecting target, manipulate to our needs and mindlessly (and often, viciously) share. We then move on with our lives never fully appreciating the devastation we have wrought.
So, continuing with my experience this conference day, on the ride up to Hartford I called an older female relative and shared I was going to see Ms. Lewinsky speak. The first reaction was one of incredulity, ‘What could SHE possibly talk about?’ I was taken aback by the tone. At the actual conference, I once again shared I was excited to meet Monica Lewinsky. I talked with one of the older judges and asked if she was going to stay to hear her speak. She said, ‘No. Not really interested.’ It struck me that here is a judge who doesn’t have an interest in privacy, cyberbullying and internet shaming? Ok. I spoke to an older woman attorney and asked her the same thing. She said she wasn’t really interested, it wasn’t why she came. I convinced her to stay, though, because we were long time friends. But I was finding these reactions more and more curious. The younger women, the ones who were babies back in 1998, were very interested to hear the topic. The older women, not so much, even a little hostile. Two of these women were speakers, too. Ok. I’m not sure I had all the puzzle pieces on this one, yet.
Finally, it was the end of the day and before her session started I turned to the back of the room and saw Monica Lewinsky standing off to the side. She was poised, a little reserved yet approachable. I went up to her and told her I saw her Ted Talk and was very moved by how she had spoken to the issue of cyberbullying and internet shaming, the impact it has on those who are targeted, including depression, destruction of identity, and oftentimes, suicide. Of course, I didn’t live her experiences but I did watch the media’s version of the events and their depiction of who they believed she was as it unfolded relentlessly and without mercy on the front page of every newspaper, every television screen, and on this new medium, the internet. It would have taken down the strongest and most seasoned veteran, never mind a 24 year old.
One of the topics she brought up is seventeen years later she is still feeling the aftermath. It just doesn’t go away. Others move on with their lives yet those who have these archetypes created and exploited on the internet don’t get this opportunity. For instance, she was invited to speak at a conference and happily accepted if it meant she could spread the message about cyberbullying and internet shaming and how to help those who are victims. When one of the other speakers, a lawyer for a bank, heard she was speaking, s/he told the conference organizer that s/he would not speak if Monica Lewinsky spoke. At the conclusion of the talk, Monica asked if anyone wanted to know the outcome of the speaking engagement she had accepted? She pointed to Vince Valvo (former CT Law Tribune Editor and current CEO of Agility Resources Group) and said, ‘It was this conference. Your conference organizer maintained his integrity and here I am speaking before you.’
To put the puzzle pieces together for you, the lawyer of the bank ultimately did not speak strictly because of Monica Lewinsky’s attendance as a speaker. Dozens of attendees did not attend and all the sponsors pulled out of their sponsorship because Monica Lewinsky was a speaker. Seventeen years later this remains the impact of the cyberbullying and internet shaming. Seventeen years later, there are still too many people who accepted the character created on the internet known as Monica Lewinsky, formed an opinion they stubbornly refuse to let go of and reacted in this childish and ignorant way. Or maybe they believe Hillary will get into office and don’t want to be on her bad side. As if she really cares! How incredibly tragic not just for the target of their anger…but for themselves.
I also found Ms. Lewinsky both strong and fragile at the same time. There were moments in her presentation when a glimpse of a vivacious, funny, disarmingly charming woman emerged. Yet other times, she retreated, vulnerable and nervous. How difficult to live such a schizophrenic existence and never knowing who is friend or judgmental foe. The audience for the most part was supportive and kind, some moved to tears because they felt compassion, understood that internet shaming and cyberbullying are not reserved for the few. They understood that women are, in general, more vulnerable. They commiserated that it can happen to anyone for any reason and they worried for their daughters and sons. The message: what matters most is how you choose to deal with it, to not knowingly be a participant, and to help others who have been victimized.
At the end of her presentation, one final attendee posed a question. She was a retired judge. She asked, ‘What would you tell young women today about avoiding this scenario, falling in love with your boss?’ Everyone just turned to the person sitting next to them deflated and incredulous. Did this woman, this judge, not understand what this whole presentation was about? No. She was in the same camp as those who showed no interest in hearing Ms. Lewinsky speak. She just wanted to judge her internet persona, the media creation. To her credit, Ms. Lewinsky said, ‘It’s not my place to advise people how they should or should not act. I’m here to talk about the aftermath online.’ When the judge shook her head in disapproval Ms. Lewinsky responded very nicely, ‘I’m sorry my answer disappointed you.’ Class act.
Tangentially, during the presentation, Ms. Lewinsky referenced this phenomenon, women as misogynists. She talked about how men such as Bill Clinton, Elliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, and others within a short amount of time after their transgressions were forgiven by both men and women because, well, ‘that’s different’. (Read: They’re men). Yet, there is no such ‘let bygones be bygones’ allowance for women. So, she continues to struggle to reclaim her life even seventeen years later.*
“Many think of the angry rhetoric and personal attacks online as the pesky dues one has to pay to take part in the free, open world of online discourse. But much of what you read online is being shaped by the Web’s angriest participants.”
What’s the moral of this story? There are way too many people, (sadly) including lawyers, who take to the keyboard to denounce their colleagues young or old, seasoned or newbies. They understand the ramifications of what they are doing. They are unforgiving and relentless. They knowingly and carefully walk that fine line between opinion and libel. Others think they are just being funny, comment and share, and then continue on their merry way never once considering the long-lasting impact of what they have republished, retweeted and more.
I’ve seen highly respected lawyers with well-read blogs deliberately destroy younger and more vulnerable lawyers knowing full well their comments will impact their target’s long term reputation and be a permanent fixture on their digital resume. I’ve seen a well respected lawyer call another well respected lawyer a c$@t on Facebook. I’ve seen a lot of lawyer-on-lawyer ugly in the past eight years.
Jeff Curl wrote on the Anxious Lawyer about lawyers who are repeat offenders, attacking others in the profession online. I don’t know Jeff and I don’t know if he is speaking about individuals he’s identified or generalized but we’ve all seen this type of lawyer on line and they do exist:
“The humble little urinal cake fails to deliver on its intended purpose, and, is in fact superfluous. Hyper critical know-it-alls that get their ya-yas by dedicating inordinate amounts of time attacking other attorneys are the urinal cakes of our profession. Your stated intention of weeding out the baddies in our profession is not well-served. It’s a shame that the knowledge and wisdom that many of these attorneys possess is overshadowed by the narcissistic need to craft another clever swipe at the target of the day.
The proudly self-styled curmudgeon lawyers that spend their time mob-criticizing other lawyers online need to own it for what it is. You are not helping the profession, nor is that the intention. You’re not even a modern urinal cake; you’re the old cakes that inject carcinogens into the profession. You are engaged in dopamine-induced social media high fives with your self-congratulatory cliques when you attack. Embrace your inner true urinal cake nature and stop pretending to advance the profession.”
And as Markman from the Furious Trolls article cited above states:
Part of the problem….. is not necessarily that the people writing are some kind of cyborgian hybrid but that the targets of their anger seem inhuman. “You make the worst assumptions about the people you’re communicating with because they are far away and they are an abstraction. They are not a real person.”
But they are flesh and blood real people with families, professions, aspirations, and dreams. They are going to have to live with and maneuver through the aftermath of your actions. If they have violated their ethical responsibilities as attorneys, there are mechanisms in place to address whether or not they have a future practicing law. Lawyers, of all people, should be the most aware of what they do when they hit the publish button, (presumably) anonymous or not, because at the end of the day, it will be your colleague(s) who will represent your target in a defamation action against you.
*Monica Lewinsky has now joined Bystander Revolution, an organization founded by MacKenzie Bezos, wife of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Ms. Bezos launched the site in April 2014 to “create a source of direct, peer-to-peer advice about practical things individuals can do to help defuse bullying. The ultimate goal is the discussion and spread of simple habits of leadership, kindness and inclusion.” Ms. Lewinsky will be benefitting others with her experiences with cyberbullying and internet shaming these past two decades.