Monica Lewinsky Thinks Bullying is Becoming Less Tolerated

Monica Lewinsky Anti-Bullying
Photo: Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

Monica Lewinsky has called herself "Patient Zero" of online harassment. The writer and activist, now 45, has been in the spotlight for over 20 years, and during that time has been the focus of a years-long barrage of online cruelty. After enduring trauma and public humiliation, she's made it her mission to counteract bullying. Today, she (along with celebs like Kelly Ripa, Questlove, John Oliver, Lena Dunham, Olivia Munn, and Sarah Silverman) is changing her moniker on social media to reflect one of the harsher names she's been called as part of a newanti-bullying campaign, #DefyTheName.

“By asking people to defy what they’ve been called and own it on social media, we’re defanging these names and taking the sting out of them," Lewinsky tells InStyle. "To do that in a community has a collective healing power.”

In looking back on some of the less-than-kind ways she's been labeled (“Lucky me, I have a wide range and long list from which to choose”), Lewinsky says she realized something about the most hurtful ones. “They reflected the things I feared most about myself to be true,” she says. “They are the names around which shame still lingers.”

InStyle spoke with Lewinsky about her new campaign — and our current political moment — over email. Read on for her thoughts on how bullying has changed, and the connection between bullying and power.

Why focus on name-calling?

With #DefyTheName — the campaign supporting the PSA and call to action — we’re asking people to change their name on social media, to dig deep and include some of the more painful names with which they’ve been bullied. Everyone can relate to being called something hurtful. It sticks with you. And with social media, we have more opportunities for community but also more opportunities for cyber bullying. With that in mind, we decided to focus our campaign on creating a wave of hope, love, and community online that can then trickle down into the real world.

#DefyTheName highlights well known people whom you would not necessarily imagine having been bullied. It (hopefully) sends the message — especially to young people — that these successful people didn’t let bullying define the rest of their lives (and that, therefore, they don’t need to either).

Why do you think cruel nicknames carry so much weight?

At the core of the pain around name-calling is the fear of ostracization. Think about the names that have really stung and stuck with you over the years — they are the ones that you fear deep down inside to be true. And the ones you fear, that if true, may make you unacceptable in a larger social sense.

At the end of the day, we all want to belong. Name-calling and exclusion — two forms of bullying both on and offline — can have severe, deleterious effects whether we’re 7 or 70.

Can you explain the names you’ve been called and chosen to highlight during this campaign?

Lucky me, I have a wide range and long list of names from which to choose: Big Mac, Chunkster, Slut, Bimbo, Whore, Portly Pepperpot, Blewinsky, Stalker and, let’s not forget, That Woman.

Sadly, I think they’re all pretty self-explanatory. Obviously, I’ve been called many other names — repeatedly — throughout my life, but these were the ones that came up as we worked on the campaign. And when I examined them in a quiet mental space, I realized they reflected the things I feared most about myself to be true. They are the names around which shame still lingers.

What do you hope to achieve?

Our entry point was thinking about how difference is so often the catalyst of bullying behavior. People fear that which is different. And those made to feel different feel isolated. But what if we could show bullying victims that instead of a negative, they’re actually part of an incredible community that has overcome this behavior?

We want people to join this community and help combat hate by disarming one of the most common forms of bullying: name-calling. Now, I know that “name-calling” may seem like something kids do, it kind of evokes the playground, but the fact is name-calling happens at all ages and it’s incredibly damaging. Someone might say great things about us for five minutes and then they say one negative thing and that’s the one thing we remember – it sinks in and we hang our self-esteem on it.

While gathering people for this PSA and talking to them about their experiences, I realized the enormous weight of the moment after they had said the name they had been bullied with. The pain that they felt back then was still very present.

We want anyone who has been bullied in any way, shape, or form to know they are not alone. They are part of a much larger community of amazing people who have – to varying degrees and myriad reasons – been bullied.

How are you trying to change the narrative today regarding bullying you’ve experienced in the past?

If we look back 20 years, we had no name for the kind of abuse people were enduring as the targets of bullying. Cyber bullying, online harassment, slut shaming, and body shaming are all relatively new social terms. Their birth reflects not only advances in technology, but also the importance and awareness we’re now placing on these issues.

Many of us who are working in this space are first and foremost working to destigmatize what it means to be bullied and publicly shamed. What’s important about the #DefyTheName campaign is that each person who engages with it has an opportunity to change their narrative. Even people who didn’t experience bullying when they were younger (there are some, if you can believe it) can help support others who have by sharing the PSA and making positive comments on accounts where they see someone has adopted his or her bullied name for the month.

How do you think the current dialogue among powerful men in politics relates to bullying?

That’s a big question. At the heart of bullying behavior is humiliation. Humiliation and isolation have been powerful tools for the subjugator for centuries. Living in a patriarchy like we have been means these behaviors have been available to those in power – particularly men – and accepted by the masses as, “This is what happens.”

But that has started to shift in the last few years. And it continues to shift powerfully.

How does bullying relate to the abuse of power dynamics?

Bullying is an often-used tool in the arsenal of the more powerful or higher-status person in abuse of power equations. This comes to mind in particular when we think of workplace bullying and sometimes, the legal arena.

Do you think bullying is less tolerated in the age of #MeToo?

Though it’s still rampant, I definitely think bullying is less tolerated today because we’ve begun to have a much more public discourse on the topic. From the personal narratives which are shared and the conversations happening within and about social media platforms to legislation, #MeToo has certainly helped make a dent in the bullying culture.

Though I imagine some would argue it has also led to more online harassment – particularly aimed at women. Bullying being less tolerated doesn’t necessarily mean it's less prevalent!

Do you have any advice for people – especially women – who’ve experienced bullying?

My advice to anyone who has experienced any kind of bullying is — first and foremost — please don’t suffer in silence. Please. Feeling alone and unseen can intensify the experience of being harassed, shamed, or bullied. There is no shame in being bullied — on or offline — and no reason to marinate alone in the feelings of pain, humiliation, and sometimes fear or anger.

I also try, personally, when I can (which is not always emotionally possible) to have neutral compassion toward the person engaging in bullying behavior. And by that I mean, step outside the sting of the incident and realize that this person is trying to erase his or her own inadequacy or unhappiness by transferring it to you. It won't make the incident go away, but it's one thing you can do to reduce the pain. (Believe me, I know this is challenging to do, especially in our increasingly fractious and fractured online conversations.)

Also, I am a huge fan of blocking people. It’s incredibly powerful. You have no obligation to be connected to people who are abusive.

#DefyTheName is a pro-bono campaign from Monica Lewinsky, BBDO NY + DVM Communications.

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