The Price of Shame

The online world can be a terrifying place. I feel it runs on rules that none of us understands, and at a pace which is impossible to predict. Of particular concern to many of us is the way a shaming, bullying culture has grown up, especially on social media.

Public humiliation as a punishment is nothing new of course: think of the public stocks in medieval times, or the white feathers sent to men who did not join the troops in the First World War. In American fiction, the power of public shame was memorably depicted in The Scarlet Letter, as heroine Hester Prynne is required to wear an A for adultery.

More recently, no one has epitomised the reality of public shaming more than Monica Lewinsky, who was humiliated worldwide following the revelation of her affair with then President Bill Clinton. “I was patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously,” Lewinsky has said.

She has commented that we would all know her experience as cyberbullying now. “This was not something that happened with regularity back then in 1998. And by ‘this’, I mean the stealing of people’s private words, actions, conversations or photos and then making them public,” said Lewinsky. “Public without consent, public without context and public without compassion.”

She said that the judgment she received, not the content of the story in which she played a role, overwhelmed the news cycle and her.

In the years since, Lewinsky has maintained a low profile – she finds unwelcome attention can still have psychological effects. But she gave a talk in 2016 called The Price of Shame, using her platform to fight for others. I found it a deeply affecting speech to watch. “Public humiliation as a blood sport has to stop,” she said. “We need to return to a long-held value of compassion and empathy.”

There is no doubt cyberbullying is becoming one of the defining issues of our time – especially among the young. A study by the Department for Education in 2015 found that 11% of 15-16 year olds had experienced cyberbullying. And a global YouGov study in the same year found that one in five 13-18 year-olds had experienced it and believed it was worse than face to face bullying.

Internetmatters.org, a not-for-profit organisation that exists to help keep children safe in the digital world, says about half of all cyberbullying comes from someone known to the victim. No wonder then that children are being taught to think more kindly when online, and to avoid sharing or liking anything which is judgmental of their peers.

Could we adults learn from this too? How can we make the whole online world a less stigmatising place? I believe it certainly needs to be addressed. One of Lewinsky’s most comforting messages is that we can all “insist on a different ending” to our stories. That means being kind to ourselves, but also kind to others too.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation

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