Since coming back into the public eye with a powerful 2014 Vanity Fair op-ed on surviving shaming, Monica Lewinsky has made it her mission to fight bullying — both online and off.
That's why she's launching #DefyTheName today, a new anti-bullying campaign that encourages social media users to change their display names online to the names that they've been bullied with. The idea being that in reclaiming those hurtful names, we can fight name-calling and help people who feel targeted by bullying.
"We’re launching the campaign with what I think is a very powerful PSA [and] a number of brave and generous people who've stepped forward to share the names they've been bullied with," Lewinsky tells Refinery29. "The PSA is going to shine a light around the idea of not letting bullying define you."
To kickoff this new initiative, we spoke to Lewinsky about dealing with public humiliation, social media in the age of #MeToo, and how she handles online harassment.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tell me a little more about #DefyTheName and what you hope it’ll accomplish.
"I think many of us know what it’s like to be called an unpleasant name, and name-calling is the most common instance of bullying behaviour. So this campaign is about taking that name (or names) that we've been bullied and harassed by — whether recently or when we were younger — and defanging the negative label associated with it by claiming it as our own. And in that process, you transfer some of that power that someone has taken [from] you in calling you those names and give it back to yourself.
"We're calling it #DefyTheName because we’re asking people to change their names — not handles — on social media [in an effort to] reclaim the names they’ve been called."
How does this year’s campaign differ from last year’s?
"Last year we really focused on getting people to re-think their online behaviour and question why they bring a different set of behaviours and values online than they do offline. This year we’re really focusing more on the targets of bullying.
"One of the things we felt we’ve seen in myriad ways throughout the last year, and one of the benefits of social media, is really around how we can create community, and the value of community. There's value in seeing that you’re not alone in your experience, even if it’s not exactly the same as everyone else's. We’re hoping to create a moment and a space for people to reclaim parts of themselves that they lost in those moments when they were pained, and to also see themselves reflected in a larger community. We also want to show that you can move beyond being bullied.
What first got you interested in fighting against bullying?
"Well, when I think back to 1998 and my experience of being shamed and publicly humiliated, I never could have imagined at that time that one day there would be so many people — because of the way the world has changed, how technology has changed, particularly because of social media — who were feeling the same kind of thing. The idea that those experiences I went through could now be used to help others is incredibly meaningful for me."
Why was it so important for you to lead this conversation and put yourself in the public spotlight again?
"I talk a little about this in the TED Talk I did in 2015, but I had an experience with my mom after the death of Tyler Clementi. [Editor's Note: Clementi was a 18-year-old college student who committed suicide after he was cyber bullied by his roommate.] Seeing my mom [worry] about me being humiliated to death, [we] felt such sadness for Tyler's family, and what Tyler must have been going through — and he didn't even make a mistake.
"I started to think that maybe if I was going to be the poster child of [being] one of the most humiliated people in the world, maybe there was a value to also trying to shine some light on the fact that you can survive it."
What are some ways you think we can combat that name-calling that we see?
"For me personally, I was so lucky to have a very strong family and wonderful friends, all of whom continue reflecting back to me my true self. That’s why it’s so important for us to invest in our relationships and be mindful of how we can [stand up], particularly online, for people we know and strangers too.
"It’s almost a social civic duty in a way, because where online media can tear us down, it can also build us up. With this campaign, what we wanted to drive home is that you can take the power out of the names you’re being called. In no way are we condoning name-calling, but a sense of agency is so important when you are experiencing bullying and any sort of public humiliation.
"You can often feel — I know I certainly did — you feel like you don’t have any power, you don’t have agency, you lose your self-esteem. And so finding ways to build that self-esteem back, finding ways to not allow other people to take your sense of self away, that’s what we’re really hoping to do with the #DefyTheName campaign."
"I think what we’re seeing is that people are finding solidarity in coming together in using their voices in joint ways. And that we’re able to actually use social media for good to essentially stand up and be counted. Not to harken back to ‘98, but in comparison, the only way I knew if there was support for me was if someone sent a letter, or if they made comments in comment sections online. There wasn’t a vehicle like social media, which I know has its pluses and minuses. But social media has provided us with a place to foster collective conversations and to feel supported, which is invaluable.
Something like the #MeToo movement wouldn’t be able to happen without social media, which is pretty extraordinary.
You’re pretty active on Twitter — do you ever feel like you’re bullied online? If so, how do you personally overcome that?
"Sure, I see lots of things on social media that I wish I didn’t see, but more than wishing I didn’t see it, I actually wish more that the person who sent the comment didn’t feel the need to [send it].
"I really value some of the new tools Twitter has put in place that have shifted my experience. You don’t want to be Pollyanna and just be blissfully unaware of conversations that might be including you, but at the same time, it’s really important to know that you don’t owe anyone anything on social media. You don’t have to listen to people, and I’m a huge supporter of being empowered by blocking people. I know some people have issues with it, but you can say what you want, I do not have to listen."
It seems like whenever someone brings up cyberbullying, someone else’s solution is always to get offline, but that doesn't seem like it's always the best answer!
"I agree and there’s no one size fits all solution for any aspect of this morass of a social issue, but what I do think is that we should be working to curb this behaviour in myriad ways. We can do this by pushing social media platforms to protect us more, through legislation, through choices of self-care, through educating people on the kinds of things we can do to protect ourselves online. For me, it's blocking, I get so much satisfaction — it’s like popping bubble wrap for me. It’s the silent middle finger.
Do you think the support you’ve gotten online outweighs the harassment or bullying?
"I think from the way the algorithms have changed and the tools being put in place, that’s my experience. I don’t know what the reality is. [Laughs]
"I also want to touch on what you brought up earlier, that it’s the target’s responsibility to go offline — it’s really important too for parents to know with kids that that’s not always the best solution. Especially for young people, that can feel like a punishment. You have to make the right decisions for what feels right for you."
To that end, do you hope the campaign will help create more safe spaces online?
"I do, I really think the #DefyTheName is going to create a community of awareness around how many people have experienced name calling as a form of bullying, and how you don’t have to allow it to define you for the rest of your life."