What I learned from the world’s most famous ‘other woman’

In the late 90’s I had the opportunity to meet President Bill Clinton.  I waited patiently in a line to shake his hand – when it was my turn, I stepped up, smiled and looked into his eyes.  He looked back at me and made me feel like even though he was the leader of the free world and I was just anonymous hand, for that very moment I was the most important person in the world and the absolute center of his universe.  I had never experienced such an immediate and intense connection and have not experienced anything like that since.  I would like to think this was in direct response to my beguiling personality, but I have since met many people who tell the same story.  Bill Clinton has that effect on everyone.

So when it comes to the Monica Lewinsky story – I totally get it.  It’s not hard to imagine why a young and impressionable intern would be allured and then seduced by such a powerful and charismatic man.  When I compare my 22 year old hook ups with Lewinsky’s – there is no question that she wins, hands down.

Of course everyone knows that she didn’t win.  She lost her job, her reputation, her self-worth and much simpler things, like the ability to go to the supermarket without being gawked at.  After almost two decades of silence, Lewinsky has decided to speak up.  When asked why, she responds that her intent is to reclaim her narrative – she is reframing her story so that it is no longer a titillating historical anecdote, but an honest retelling of her experiences. 

Lewinsky was passionate and poignant, and when she shared her story it still felt raw despite the passage of time.  She spoke about what it was like to be the subject of all those headlines – the shame, the despair – the fact that her mother forced her to shower with the door open fearing for her safety.  I listened with sympathy as well as with guilt as I remembered giggling at Saturday Night Live skits cruelly depicting her in that now infamous blue dress. 

When you think that Lewinsky was at the heart of one of the first online scandals, it seems logical that she has emerged as a vocal advocate against online bullying.  She asks us to act with empathy online instead of engaging in mindless, mob-like behaviour – ridiculing and attacking whoever or whatever is the unfortunately targeted trending topic du jour.

As we evaluate the extremity and cruelty of some online behaviour, it’s easy to agree with her.  While I have never participated in cyber bullying and I don’t usually jump into the fray as people tweet in anger en masse, I can’t say that my hands (or typing fingers) are totally clean.  Lewinsky forced me to re-evaluate some of my online behaviours. 

Click with compassion: Lewinsky reminded us that most click bating headlines invite us to observe someone’s humiliation – and with every click, we increase the count of visitors to the site and in turn enable the publisher to increase the cost of advertising.  As Lewinsky sees it, some sites are basically trafficking in shame for profit.  I’ve certainly been lured by headlines featuring celebs caught cheating or even worse, without make up!  The response is to consider the domino effect of choosing to view that content and instead to choose to click with compassion.

Stop the Snark: Online there is a definite currency – we share our witticisms and clever observations hoping to be paid back with likes and LOLs.  Snarky, cynical comments tend to be well compensated in this world, with little concern for the fact that the person who pays the highest price is the target of the comment itself.   On occasion I do imagine myself as the Oscar Wilde of my generation typing out snarky, cynical critiques.  Why do I do it?  To entertain myself, to disrupt the ennui of the day, and yes, to gain the affirmation of my friends and followers who dutifully ‘like’ and ‘love’ what I have to say.  Upon reflection I acknowledge this contributes to an online culture of cruelty – where words, intended as witticisms, become weapons.  I can’t promise I’ll stop this entirely but I will be more considerate when a person is the focus of a 140 character comment – as clever as I may have convinced myself it is.

Be an online person, not a persona: When online, it’s easy to move from being a person to a persona, filtering reality to make it look glamorous and glossy or worst case scenario, acting in a way you would never dare behave in the harsh and unflattering light of ‘IRL’.  Even the most mild mannered of us have hidden behind angry e-mail missives which we would never have the courage to say face to face.  We need to remember that responsibility doesn’t end just because you are acting as an avatar or hiding behind a handle.

Monica Lewinsky has found her cause, and I applaud her mission to foster empathy and accountability in our online behaviour.  She asks us to ‘walk a mile in someone else’s headline’ before we act, post, type or tweet.  I would suggest that a more fitting plea for today’s online age would be to walk a mile, not in their headline, but in their hashtag…

Avra Lorrimer

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search