24 hours ago I would not have said this. I, with many millions of others, thought of her as a celebrity, little more than a cartoon character. The young, bubble-headed woman who behaved inappropriately with President Bill Clinton back in the 1990s. When the scandal broke, I went along with others in condemning President Clinton for jeopardizing his political career for meaningless sex, and assuming Ms. Lewinsky was a thoughtless bimbo.
I have always prided myself on being compassionate and empathetic—on being able to reach through the surface to the pain and suffering within. In 2009, the scandal broke about South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford visiting his mistress in South American instead of hiking the Appalachian Trail. ‘Hiking the Appalachian Trail’ became a euphemism for sexual indiscretion, and there was widespread hilarity about the story. I remember thinking about how painful the stories and the laughter must have been to their families and friends, and how love and sexual obsession can derail careers that have been carefully built up over decades. It is funny from the outside looking in, but not when you are in the grip of it.
But I didn’t think about any of this in connection with Ms. Lewinsky, either at the time of the scandal or since then. She was not a person to me.
Then, yesterday, I saw her 2015 TED talk. It started awkwardly—she told a story of a young man hitting on her, saying that he could make her feel 22 again. The audience seemed uncertain about how to take this. But then she reminded us that at 22, she made the mistake of falling in love with the wrong person, and that mistake almost cost her life. Ms. Lewinsky was articulate and thoughtful in her devastating description of the days, weeks and years after the scandal, and its effect on her and her family.
She went on to show how the development of social media since the 1990s has made cyber-bullying and public shaming easier, more pervasive—and immensely profitable for companies which provide platforms for such activities. Ms. Lewinsky made the case for a change in our culture to one in which such public shaming and humiliation is no longer indulged or acceptable. She correctly pointed out that casual racist and sexist remarks, once fully accepted in our society, are now much less so, at least on television and mainstream media. That kind of cultural change takes time, but it can and does happen.
Finally, Ms. Lewinsky asked that we all bring our compassion and empathy to what we watch and read. Public shaming and humiliation of another person reduces them to an object–in the viewers’ minds, not fully human. No matter how little sympathy we feel for that person, their actions or their lifestyle, it is essential to remember that they are, in fact, as human as we are. They are not a joke or an object to be condemned.
With grace and courage, Monica Lewinsky told her truth and spoke for others who suffer, as she has, from public shaming and ridicule. And more importantly, she reminded all of us to bring our full humanity, our compassion and empathy, to what we read, watch and witness. Watch her TED talk.