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Monica Lewinsky and Jon Ronson on the “renaissance of public shaming”

Journalist Jon Ronson asks Monica Lewinsky an interesting question in this video: why did she decide to start a Twitter account? For most people, this wouldn’t be a big deal. But for Lewinsky, signing up for Twitter — or doing anything public for that matter — is a bold move.

“It was another step in taking back my narrative,” says Lewinsky in this conversation posted on VanityFair.com last week. “I also felt that by not being on social media, it created a distance.”

“It’s been a wonderful experience,” she continues. “But it’s also been challenging. I think most of my friends would tell you that my humor is not on display on my Twitter feed. I haven’t quite felt comfortable yet to fully be myself.”

Lewinsky’s TED Talk, “The price of shame,” came out on March 20. A week and a half later, Jon Ronson — who gave the TED Talk, “Strange answers to the psychopath test” in 2012 — published his long-awaited book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The timing happened by coincidence, but their ideas dovetail strongly. While Lewinsky points out how online culture has turned public humiliation into a “blood sport,” Ronson looks at the “renaissance of public shaming” happening on the Internet.

“There was a line in your TED Talk that was so wonderful, I had to write it down,” Ronson says. “You said, ‘People had forgotten that woman was dimensional, had a soul and was once unbroken.’ This is really the problem.”

In this video, the two talk candidly about how rage rains down on individuals via social media.

“We want to destroy Monica Lewinsky but not feel bad about it, so what we do is come up with some words to dehumanize her,” says Ronson. “On social media, we’ve set the stakes for high drama. We either have to do something wonderful and heroic, or we have to shame this terrible person. And I think that’s not who we are as human beings.”

The conversation drifts to Justine Sacco, whose public shaming Ronson explored in The New York Times Magazine in February. “We like to pretend that Justine Sacco’s badly worded tweet is a clue to her inherent evil. We know that’s not true … but we’ve tricked ourselves into believing you are that one moment.”

Lewinsky agrees. “We’re in such an important time in figuring out: how are we going to create this social space where you can have different views,” she says. “We’ve lost context for a person — this is someone’s daughter, this is someone’s sister, this is somebody who has a sense of humor that might be different from mine, this is someone who has a long range of life experience that informs how they view the world.”

The two note the synchronicity in the release of the talk and book, which both ask us all to question shaming culture.

“They mirror each other incredibly. Maybe there’s a power to these two things coming out at once,” says Ronson. “Maybe in the months to come, people will notice that they’re behaving differently on the Internet because they saw what this did to you and they saw what it did to some of the people in my book.”

Lewinsky nods. “I hope so.”