In 1998, a political storm engulfed the president of the United States. President Clinton, confirming suspicions many people shared about his character, was caught in an affair with a young White House intern. When he perjured himself about the affair before Congress, his political enemies used his statements to make him the second president ever to be impeached. Congress ultimately found insufficient cause to remove him from office, and he finished his second term and went on to become a highly visible and occasionally vocal former president.
When we think about it that way, it’s easy to forget that the people involved were actual human beings. The president, the intern, the prosecutor, the members of Congress who worked so long and so diligently to destroy or save the president.
Of course, each one of them was a human being. Each had a mother and father and friends; many had spouses and children; each had hopes and dreams and heroic fantasies. Most of them probably stood at the pinnacle of their personal ambitions.
One was just starting what should have been a huge career. And a mistake she made at the age of 22 doomed her to spend her life as the punchline of a joke.
You have to be brilliant to be selected as a White House intern. You have to be ambitious and have plenty of energy. You have to be outgoing, articulate, and courageous. And you have to be young. You have to be, as a generation even older than mine would have said, going places.
Monica Lewinski was undoubtedly all these things. And she made the mistake of falling for an older man–older, married, charming, funny, possessed of a charisma that is by all reports near-irresistible, whatever you think of him–and telling the wrong person about it.
If the older man had been anybody else, she would have weathered a crisis, would have endured a few months or years of shame and ridicule from a few people. Some of them would never have forgiven her. It would have been her choice whether her mistake haunted her for the rest of her life.
But the older man wasn’t anybody else. He was the president of the United States–a president whose enemies were unwilling to turn a blind eye to his faults. And it was the beginning of the Internet age. And Ms. Lewinski was a much more convenient target than the president.
So instead of weathering a storm of shame and guilt and coming out wiser and continuing her promising career, Ms. Lewinski became the first victim of our culture of shame. She became, and remains, a household name, and not in a good way. People too young to remember President Clinton’s administration know who she is. I’ve even heard her name used as a verb to describe a sexual act. To say nothing of the names she’s been called, the brutal ridicule she’s endured personally and publicly.
Understandably, she has spent almost two decades making herself scarce, minimizing her public presence. Who wouldn’t?
And last year, she stood up again. In March of 2015, she stood on the TED stage and warned us all about the monster we’re building, invited us to imagine what it’s like to fall victim to Internet shaming.
Her talk isn’t about anger or revenge or retribution. It isn’t about fighting back against shamers or bullies or ridiculing hackers or exposing cyberstalkers.
It’s about what it feels like to be the target of shamers and bullies and hackers and cyberstalkers. It’s about what the victims, most of whom have made a stupid mistake but some of whom are just being who they are, are made to experience when the world finds out. It’s about what it’s like to feel the rage not of dozens or even hundreds, but of thousands. Of millions. Of, for all intents and purposes, everybody. It’s about how the storm of shame and ridicule can become terminal as the victims lose their perspective, as they see no hope for tomorrow and decide to end their pain today.
And it’s about how we can change all that by having the courage to stand up against it. It’s about how a compassionate word can provide shelter in the storm, can change the tone of the discussion, can maybe make life just a little more bearable for the victim.
After 18 years of enduring the storm, Ms. Lewinski has shown what she is made of: she has taken the public stage and said let’s do something about this. Let’s protect people, love them instead of ridiculing them. Let’s have the courage to stand against this nightmare we’ve created.
I’m here. I’m standing with Monica Lewinski.
Will you stand with us?