Wide Angle

Even Monica Lewinsky Is Too Optimistic About Online Shaming

Her new documentary proposes a solution that I wish could be enough.

Monica Lewinsky with straight windswept hair
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images.

15 Minutes of Shame, the new HBO documentary directed by Max Joseph and executive produced by Monica Lewinsky, is a plea for mercy for the shamed in an age disinclined to give it. Lewinsky was the right choice for this. She narrates in her capacity as one of the most widely mocked people on the planet, and her theories of its uses and patterns and pitfalls are sufficiently informed by vile experience to deserve serious consideration. Her (and the documentary’s) survey of the problems with public shaming are clear and complex and moving.

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The problem with 15 Minutes of Shame lies in one of its theories on how to make things better. There are many, including an extended discussion of Section 230, but the one that has stuck with me involved a route toward “deprogramming” shamers. Lewinsky’s notable capacity to believe in the good in people, coupled with science showing that our brains don’t fully process people we interact with online as people, leads her to argue that the main way to solve this perpetual problem is to humanize the subjects of pile-ons. The theory is that, if confronted with evidence of the humanity of their targets and of how much they’ve suffered after being ostracized, the shamers might respond with regret. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this both because of how idealistic it is and because of how unlikely (in my opinion) it is to work.

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The documentary, which premiered Oct. 7, starts by offering a social history of shaming dating back to the invention of the printing press, running through things like the stocks and tarring and feathering. Soon, it gets to its real task: exploring the ways in which technology ratchets up volume, distorts stories, settles on targets for mass abuse, and foments a culture in which shamelessness begins to seem like a favorable and even necessary adaptation. The turn to the present takes Lewinsky as its starting point, pinning her experience of becoming a punchline to the beginning of the internet as we know it. Lewinsky has frequently said that internet comments written by ordinary people unsettled her as much as or more than those of her high-profile attackers. Being mocked by late-night hosts is bad, but the pain of being rejected en masse by one’s peers is at the core of 15 Minutes of Shame.

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We hear from a number of recently ostracized people for whom social media pile-ons resulted in job losses or depression or PTSD or all of the above. One of its subjects is Emmanuel Cafferty, a Latino man, who lost his job at San Diego Gas & Electric after a white man took and circulated a photo of him making the “OK” or “white power” sign in his truck while waiting for a Black Lives Matter protest to pass. Then there’s Matt Colvin, whom you might remember as the man who purchased thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer when the pandemic was just getting underway, incurring public ire for profiteering. He was kicked off Amazon as a vendor. And there’s Laura Krolczyk, who, frustrated by COVID denialism, wrote on Facebook that Trump supporters should promise to give their ventilators to someone else. Her remark became national news thanks to right-wing media amplification, and she got fired from her job as vice president for external affairs for a hospital.

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As a director, Joseph, who also made Catfish: The TV Show, makes clear that the rightness or wrongness of whatever each person did is not the issue (though each is presented in a sympathetic light). The documentary is only mildly interested in relitigating; the implicit argument isn’t that people don’t make mistakes. Lewinsky, for example, admits she made many. The emphasis rather is squarely on the effect: What does disproportionate shaming do to the subject? To the shamers? To society?

The thesis is, unsurprisingly, that it’s all bad. The documentary does all the things you would expect such a documentary to do—it successfully captures what the overwhelming volume feels like; it contextualizes why people doing the shaming derive some pleasure from it—and then it also tries to explain why shaming has gotten worse now. Because unlike a spectacle-oriented in-person shaming (in the stocks, say, which your community witnesses), a feature of online harassment is that no one really sees what you’re going through. The firehose of your notifications is yours alone.

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But what particularly interested me about 15 Minutes of Shame was this theory that exposure to the shamed can make people regret how they’ve behaved online. Building on the idea that we dehumanize wrongdoers we encounter on the internet, Lewinsky proposes that if people could see the folks they dogpiled—while it’s happening, sure, but also months later, say, when the effects are still catastrophic but everyone has moved on—if we could see the targets as real people experiencing joblessness and grief, we might regret our contribution to that outcome. Second-guess the impulse to jump in. Interrogate the pleasure we take in shaming.

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This seems wrong to me.

I can sort of see why Lewinsky—whose optimism about human nature I deeply admire—might float the possibility. Her ability to present herself as fully human unquestionably contributed to the wave of recent reappraisals of how badly she was treated, and of how sick a culture must have been to make the mistakes it did. But in positing that what essentially happened in her case could fix us more broadly as a culture, she misses that the regrets some have expressed for how they spoke about her have several elements that are far from accessible in every scenario.

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One is time. It’s easier for people to disavow positions they held 20 years ago; if former versions of ourselves sucked, we can flatter ourselves that we’ve grown. But six months isn’t long enough to produce plausible deniability for a former self, and social media doesn’t exactly incentivize habits of introspection. We can barely remember what we read two hours ago; the idea that we might consciously revisit whether we said something unkind about a stranger six months ago—well, it seems unlikely.

Another factor is the relative privacy people have when it comes to their older misjudgments. Say someone said or wrote something mean about Lewinsky 20 years ago. Any evidence of what they said is lost now. No one will ever know how horrible it was. No external party can hold them accountable. That’s not the case anymore—and that matters if we’re talking about inner ethical transformations. Public responses to “cancellation” all too often curdle any possibility of sincere engagement—or sincere regret—into PR strategies for the very reason that all of it is incredibly, and stickily, public.

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There is another point: Regret over how one thought of or spoke about a stranger is rare—rarer now, perhaps, than it’s ever been. Regret is as intimate and introspective an emotion as there is, and we don’t tend to expend that kind of energy on people on the internet. Even when they turn out to be “real.”

One of the defining conditions of a social media pile-on is that while everyone participates in the dopamine surge of participating, no one feels even slightly responsible for any outcome. Would someone who tweeted about Cafferty, who they’d heard flashed a white power sign at a BLM rally, feel regret—again, as intimate and introspective an emotion as we humans are capable of feeling—if they heard six months later that this random stranger who lost his job was just twiddling his fingers while he waited? If they saw him jobless, with a family to feed?

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I just don’t think they would. I don’t think they’d feel responsible for the loss of his job, for one thing; causality is impossible to prove in pile-ons, which (like firing squads) are collective in ways that disperse responsibility. For another, I simply don’t think people take personal responsibility for acting collectively on bad information. (At most, they’ll blame “the media.”) The decision-justification theory of regret is the one that I suspect dominates at present; according to psychology researchers at Massey University in New Zealand, “decision-justification theory suggests furthermore that the intensity of regret felt also depends on the degree to which the individual identifies the decision as justifiable: A decision that results in a poor outcome will cause less regret if the decision was, in retrospect, still justified.” I don’t think anyone who thought a Latino man was making the white power hand symbol is going to think they were wrong to jump to that conclusion, even if it turns out that he says he wasn’t. Because there was a photo, and we’re living through a moment defined by event politics, where isolated incidents spark extrapolations into greater social meaning that they frequently can’t sustain. Whether it’s a kid in a MAGA hat looking at a Native American man or a toddler photographed weeping in the context of family separations (even though she herself was not separated from her mother), there is a tendency to overread. If a message like Children Should Not Be Separated From Their Families is important, the thinking goes, then getting a photo that conveys that (even if that’s not what happened) might matter more than the details.

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While many public figures apologized for getting the Nick Sandmann video wrong, I don’t think many people who condemned Nick Sandmann at the time regret it, even though most of them now know that the incident was not what it seemed. Lewinsky and Joseph’s larger point holds: When the amplification system for shaming runs amok, all it really incentivizes is angry retaliation. (Sandmann, who got hired to work for Mitch McConnell’s reelection campaign after speaking at the Republican National Convention about his experience, has tried, with limited success, to sue a number of media outlets.)

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Shame and regret are such deep and private experiences that “public shaming” can come to seem like an oxymoron if you stare at it too long. And they’re related, shame and regret. Or they used to be. Feeling private shame about something would often lead to private regret—a resolution to avoid a behavior to avoid repeating the feeling. This does not seem to be true of the public versions of these emotions: If public shaming really worked as a social tool, regret is what it would produce instead of resentment and anger and grief. Or rebellion, litigiousness, and opportunism.

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I don’t know how we get out of this. Ostracism can only work if you once considered yourself a part of the community that’s now shunning you; the pain of the rejection is typically a function of the strength of a group’s former embrace. That’s probably why 15 Minutes of Shame attempts to make its case against shaming from the inside, citing people the audience is likely to agree or find common cause with—especially Lewinsky herself. Ultimately, it tackles shame by gently shaming the shamers—but if anyone should know the futility of this, it’s the people who made this documentary in the first place.

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