There are few people better-equipped to advocate for people humiliated online than Monica Lewinsky, former White House intern and current queen of my heart. Best-known as the poster girl for public humiliation, Lewinsky has transformed herself into the poster girl for surviving it and examining it.
Lewinsky recently discussed cyberbullying and online abuse in a TED Talk called “The Price of Shame”. It’s a cogent, if imperfect, talk on the toxicity of shame culture.
In her talk, Lewinsky points out that reports of her affair with then-president Bill Clinton was the first major news story to break online. “Overnight, I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one worldwide. I was Patient Zero for losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously.”
TED Talks as an institution can be smug pablum crystal-compressed into congratulatory entertainments for neoliberals with Economist subscriptions, but let’s excuse Lewinsky’s venue. Lewinsky uses her legendary public flagellation as a prism to examine how the internet and media perpetuate humiliation. She is hijacking her infamy to make a point about how slut-shaming flattens humanity — and to make a point that it can be overcome.
Lewinsky is a particularly accessible spokesperson because her scandal is so familiar it’s almost quaint: She was young; she fell in love with her married boss. But the reason she’s so brilliant in this new role is not because her misdeeds are now forgivable cultural nostalgia, but because she refuses to treat them that way, and she is not keen to forgive. Whenever Lewinsky speaks about the scandal she is frank about how calamitous it was to her psyche, how it continues to harm her. And it is in her refusal to hide or deny the wreckage that she transcends that harm.
“I lost my reputation and my dignity. I lost almost everything. And I almost lost my life,” Lewinsky says, acknowledging how she felt suicidal following the scandal. She has been upfront about her trouble, decades later, to find employment.
Lewinsky traces her desire to speak out about cyberbullying back to hearing the story of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who committed suicide after being cyberbullied about his sexuality. I understand why it might weird people out to hear Monica Lewinsky cite Clementi as the impetus for her return to the spotlight. Certainly they were in very different situations: Clementi was abused by his peers for his orientation, whereas Lewinsky was pilloried in the media for knowingly having sex with the very publicly married President of the United States. It is kind of a weird comparison!
But Lewinsky is not saying she did not make mistakes, or that she is a blameless victim. She is saying she was moved to take a closer look at the culture of cruelty after it led to Clementi’s death.
A more obvious connection to draw is between Lewinsky and any number of high-profile slut-shaming incidents where young women suffer the public humiliation of having images of them in sexually explicit positions passed around the internet. Lewinsky did not have a sex tape, but she had the Starr Report, and she was defined and mocked by a sexual mistake she made in her youth on a global stage.
“There is a very personal price to public humiliation, and the growth of the internet has jacked up that price,” she says, drawing a line between Snapchat hacks and last year’s hacked celebrity nude scandal to highlight how both private and public people have their dirty laundry strung up on a much bigger space.
Lewinsky is delivering this message knowing that critics will say that she should stay out of the public eye, that because she became a public figure in a scandal she is undeserving of attention for anything else. This is brave, and her insistence on adding her voice despite continued degradation makes her a promising icon of resilience.
Lewinsky’s TED talk is a recognition that a person can fight against getting reduced to a punchline. I think she’s too optimistic about the potential for a serious sea change in the calibre of online discourse, but her emphatic call for empathy is one that needs to be loudly repeated, often. “You can insist on a different ending to your story,” Lewinsky says, and in standing onstage and saying those words, she’s rewriting her own.