You may have heard that Monica Lewinsky recently gave a Ted talk entitled “The price of shame”, about her experience as a victim of cyber-bullying following the discovery of her affair with President Clinton in the late ’90s.
I love the message, but I fear it gets lost, or at least seriously undermined, by the messenger.
Lewinsky begins her Ted talk with a vignette of recently getting hit on by a young man in his 20s, with the intimation that it’s flattering to be deemed sexually desirable at age 40. I’m not sure that’s the best lede for a diatribe against cyberbullying and slut shaming, but I’ll chalk that up to a difference of opinion on narrative construct.
Then she asks who in the audience did not make a mistake or do something they regretted at age 22.
Ah. Yes. The “infidelity was a mistake, why are you making this such a big damn deal” rugsweep. I’m familiar with that one.
Except that, nearly 20 years later, it is not Bill or Hillary Clinton, or politicians or reporters, who have not let it go.
As I listened to the rest of her Ted talk, I alternately felt appreciation for her heartfelt, well spoken, intelligent discourse on our toxic (and sometimes deadly) culture of shame and cyber-bullying, with the distinctly unsettling and somewhat familiar sensation that what I was hearing was a calculated reframe of a personal failing used for self-promotion.
I decided to google “Monica Lewinsky Ted talk reviews” to see what the court of public opinion thought. I found many articles praising her for “reframing her narrative”, applauding her for “standing up to cyberbullying and our culture of shame”. Then, I found this article from The New York Times, about how Lewinsky attended a play titled Slut, and became emotional, triggered even, by watching a scene about a girl who was sexually assaulted being interrogated by the police. The article clearly parallels Lewinsky with the girl.
A girl who was sexually assaulted, with Lewinsky, who in her Ted talk, freely discusses how she “fell in love” with her boss. Likewise, in her Ted talk, Monica Lewinsky draws parallels between her life in 1998, and those who are publicly shamed today, including minorities and gays and lesbians. She mentions the leaked Jennifer Lawrence photos, the iCloud hacking, how our 21st century just loves to expose, to ridicule, to shame, to relentlessly torment.
Yes. Agreed. But let’s be clear: one example involves bullying because of difference (race, sexuality) or public fascination (celebrity), while the other involves public condemnation of failings in character.
Or as Lewinsky would say, a mistake.
Let me state, in no uncertain terms, that I believe what happened to Monica Lewinsky in 1998 was a nightmare. I believe the responsibility for their “relationship”, as it were, rests heavily on the shoulders of the man who was in power. I cannot imagine what it would be like, at the age of 22, to be thrown into that maelstrom. I felt compassion for her in 1998, and still do, when it comes to the consequences for her actions.
I feel compassion, and empathy, for the consequences for her actions, but I absolutely believe they are the consequences for her actions. Which is why I recoil when Lewinsky parallels her situation with victims of sexual assault, or gays and lesbians who are bullied, or minorities.
Because while she got a raw deal, certainly more than (in my opinion) she “deserved”, whatever that means, she did make choices. She chose to have an affair with the most powerful husband and father in the world. Even at the tender age of 22, you know having an affair with the President of the United States is wrong.
Do you deserve to have your life made a living hell, to contemplate suicide, to have that be your calling card for the rest of your days? No. I do not believe so. I think, fundamentally, I agree with her point that no one deserves that, because we, as a society, simply shouldn’t do it. People in glass houses, and all that.
But neither do I believe that Lewinsky is an effective ambassador for this movement, at least, not without serious suspicions and reservations regarding her motive. Her claim that she is “breaking her silence” purely for altruistic reasons, out of moral outrage for our culture’s transgressions, strikes me as disingenuous. I absolutely agree with the reviews that she is “reframing her narrative”; I wish the reframed narrative focused more on acknowledging and owning mistakes, and learning from them to be a better person, rather than a self-righteous castigation of those who harped on them.