Monica Lewinsky survives cyberbullying

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Monica Lewinsky

How long does a person have to pay for a mistake?

If you’re Monica Lewinsky, for quite a long time the answer seemed to be: forever. But maybe her almost two-decades-long shaming is not only going to ease up but also get us to consider the impact of becoming infamous via the Internet.


Lewinsky – if somehow you’ve forgotten or are too young to remember – found herself at the center of an unprecedented public firestorm when it was discovered that at age 22 the White House intern began an affair with then President Clinton.

With that news, Lewinsky pretty much became the first woman publicly slut shamed via the Internet. Back then we didn’t have that name for it, but that is indeed what it was.

Clinton eventually segued into the role of elder statesman. But for years Lewinsky remained the butt of jokes, ridicule. How bad was it? Her name shows up in popular songs, and not in a good way. She tried to embrace her situation (reality show), move past it (handbag line), but without success.  The negative attention continued. It’s kind of ironic, but in the same year , 1998, that Lewinsky’s life started falling apart because of her sexual liaison with the boss, via television we were heralding the sexual adventures of four young women in “Sex and the City.” We’re such a nation of contradictions, aren’t we?

Sure, I think Lewinsky made terrible mistakes, but I also remember she was 22. You never made a bad decision in your early 20s? Wow, maybe the pope should consider you for sainthood then.

Last week the now 41-year-old Lewinsky stepped onto a Vancouver stage and gave a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talk about something she knows too well: “The Price of Shame.” Lewinsky eloquently explained what it’s like to be at the center of such scrutiny. She is not trying to blame anyone else for her actions (early on in the talk she says quite candidly, “I admit I made mistakes.”). Instead she’s trying to explain the impact on herself and her family.

She knows that people being cruel to others is an age-old problem, but lays out how the Internet and now social media have taken things to an ominous level. “Online technologically enhanced shaming is amplified, uncontained and permanently accessible,” she explains. Can’t we bring back empathy and compassion, she asks?

Before the Internet, you did something stupid – even something seriously dumb – and your family, friends and community knew about it. Eventually the attention would recede.

Today, one wrong move that captures the online world’s attention can go global in hours. It can result in a person criticized unmercifully by total strangers who have no trouble saying vile and horrible things to and about you (consider how retorts to actress Ashley Judd’s comments on a recent basketball game quickly dissolved into threats of sexual violence) for as long as they’d like.

Sure, Lewinsky can gain by this talk, “take back my narrative” as she describes it. But there’s more here. How many others, particularly young teens, being subjected to online bullying can look to Lewinsky now and see her as living proof that, yes, a person can be at the eye of the storm – even for quite a long time – and “you can survive it.”

Instead of focusing on her past, it’s time to listen to the lesson Lewinsky can teach us today about the Internet world and its stage for cyberbullying.


Twitter: @sueontiveros

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