At some point yesterday, shortly after TED posted it, Monica Lewinsky’s 2015 TED Talk had about 198,000 views. One day later, as of this writing, it had gotten 644,394. I believe the reason for this is not just because we’re encouraged ourselves when someone has the courage to turn horrific public humiliation into social change. It’s also because of the timing of Lewinsky’s talk.
“There are two kinds of timing,” wrote Chin-Ning Chu in her 2007 book The Art of War for Women (based on Sun Tzu’s millennia-old guide to life as much as martial art). “One is personal timing…. The other is universal timing, which … is like running with the wind at your back…. When you are aligned with an idea whose time has come, you are unstoppable.”
Lewinsky’s courageous talk about replacing public humiliation with compassion online is aligned with both great suffering and a great need on the part of too many young people, parents, LGBTQ people, women, people of color, people of disability and other victims of online hate and harassment.
That the talk’s going viral is by itself an indicator that social media has reached a tipping point. Add in actor Ashley Judd’s story last week, the misogyny exposed in #gamergate, the successful crowd-funding of a documentary about slut-shaming by The Unslut Project, growing media attention pressuring universities to address “rape culture,” Hollaback.org‘s work to end street harassment online as well as offline now, the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative and new helplines in the US and UK addressing so-called revenge porn (the non-consensual posting of nude photos), Facebook’s recent 5th Compassion Research Day, years of research and activism around the problem of cyberbullying and the multiplying calls to get social-emotional learning into US schools.
The evidence is growing that what Lewinsky called for is happening, as we collectively look in the global mirror of social media, see others’ pain and courage, and watch our empathy compel us to bring our thousands of years of positive social norms development into the digital spaces in our lives. Here are two very media-specific social norms she points to early in her talk:
- Never make other people’s words, thoughts and images public without compassion, context or their consent, and don’t click on the links of users and sites who do.
- Be an upstander not a bystander when you see public shaming happen; replace humiliation with compassion.
“Shame cannot survive empathy,” Lewinsky said. And it looks like we’re fast reaching the point where we’ll see empathy and compassion eclipsing public shaming online.
[P.S. Within a week of my posting this, views of Lewinsky’s talk had nearly quadrupled to more than 2.3 million. Something’s going on, and it’s good.]
- In her 2010 TED Talk, Joan Halifax, a Buddhist roshi who works with people all over the world in the last stage of life (hospices and death row), says fear is one of “the enemies of compassion,” along with pity and moral outrage. She also says that – though compassionate people feel others’ suffering more than those who don’t cultivate compassion – they are more resilient. Compassion (or empathy) and resilience, along with the social-emotional learning that fosters them, are two qualities we’ve identified as protective in digital environments (where facial expression and other visual cues are absent); they’re the internal safeguards I’ve suggested with which we need to bring into balance with the external safeguards that have been almost the sole focus of the Internet safety field – along with messages of fear. So, as Halifax points out, if we want to cultivate compassion, spreading fear won’t help.
- I made the reference to Sun Tzu above. Well, back in 2010, law professor Jeffrey Rosen invoked a social norm from another ancient wisdom tradition. He wrote that the Talmud said, “people have an obligation not to remind others of their past misdeeds, on the assumption they may have atoned and grown spiritually from their mistakes” (I linked to this from my blog post here). So now Europe has a “Right to Be Forgotten” law. I can see that’s an attempt, though flawed and misleading, to allow people of the digital age second chances, and that’s a commendable effort, but I think it’s possible that what Lewinsky’s talking about suggests a better, more powerful way. I think her talk, as I wrote above, is a sign that it’s in the works. But what do you think?
- “Thank you, Ashley Judd: Of fixing online hate & harm”
- My post last month about this very subject (with a parenting piece): “From public shaming to public compassion”
- “All kids deserve the safety & other benefits of social-emotional learning”
- “Disconnected: Crucial book for closing the ‘ethics gap’ online”
- “Beginning of the end of #purge, revenge porn & social cruelty?”