Monica Lewinsky has had more than anybody’s fair share of public shaming. We all know her story. She was the intern famously dismissed by Bill Clinton, the President of the United States, as “that woman.” There was “that dress.” And “that impeachment.”
For a long time humiliating Monica Lewinsky was the pleasurable hobby of pretty much everyone – from politicians on the hard right who delighted in the grubbiness of it all, to Jenny Craig who dumped her as a weight loss ambassador because they thought that actually, she wasn’t a very good role model. For years after her public humiliation Lewinsky barely worked, because nobody would hire her. She was the butt of every joke. Eventually she moved to London. Dating was hard and at 41 she hasn’t married or had children. She slipped away from the spotlight for ten years.
But now Monica Lewinsky is back in the public eye – not because Hilary Clinton might be the next president, or Bill continues to enjoy the spoils of having once been a beloved President – but because she wants to be.
Because she now wants to talk about the culture of shame and humiliation that pervades most corners of the internet right now.
Last year Lewinsky wrote an essay for Vanity Fair Magazine on why she was now, after a long time trying to avoid it, seeking the spotlight – on her past and present self.
“I’ve decided, finally, to stick my head above the parapet so that I can take back my narrative and give a purpose to my past. (What this will cost me, I will soon find out.) Despite what some headlines will falsely report about this piece, this is not about Me versus the Clintons. Their lives have moved on; they occupy,” she wrote.
Of the culture of humiliation – of which she has long been an unwilling mascot –
“We have created, to borrow a term from historian Nicolaus Mills, a “culture of humiliation” that not only encourages and revels in Schadenfreude but also rewards those who humiliate others, from the ranks of the paparazzi to the gossip bloggers, the late-night comedians, and the Web “entrepreneurs” who profit from clandestine videos.”
This week Lewinsky gave a TED talk on the very topics she touched on in her essay – on shame, on being a joke to the world.
As Lewinsky pointed out in the speech, she went viral before things went viral.
“In 1998, I lost my reputation and my dignity. … I lost my sense of self.When this happened to me, 17 years ago, there was no name for it. Now we call it cyber-bullying.”
And as Lewinsky says, it has to stop. She’s calling on for people to not be “bystanders” to shaming and bullying – on and offline – and instead to be “upstanders.”
“With every click we make a choice,” says Lewinsky.
“We need to return to a long-held value of compassion and empathy.”
Importantly too, as Eleanor Roosevelt once said, we must always remember that nobody can make you feel inferior without your permission.
For Lewinsky, this has been one of the most difficult parts of her journey toward healing – self-compassion. But now she’s ready for it.
“The top-note answer was and is: Because it’s time. Time to stop tiptoeing around my past … Time to take back my narrative,” she says. “Anyone who is suffering from shame and public humiliation needs to know one thing: you can survive it. I know it’s hard. It may not be painless, quick or easy, but you can insist on a different ending to your story.”