Monica Lewinsky Was the Internet’s First Shaming Victim. Here’s How She Overcame It

“Shame cannot survive empathy,” Lewinsky reminds us. The growing trend of online public shaming can only be curbed by compassion.
Monica Lewinsky

Photo from TED Talks.

When the Monica Lewinsky “scandal” broke in 1998, I was only 10 years old. I wasn’t exactly politically active. Yet I remember exactly how I felt about Monica Lewinsky. I remember that her name was a schoolyard joke. I remember thinking of her as “that woman.” She was the example of how I, as a female person, was not supposed to be. She was the slut, the whore, the Jezebel. She was bad.

I don’t remember once being told by an adult that I should have compassion for Monica Lewinsky...

Back then, there was no discussion about how she had been wronged; no empathy for this woman who was seeing her life crumble around her. I don’t remember once being told by an adult that I should have compassion for Monica Lewinsky—that she was a very young woman in a complicated, unbalanced relationship with the most powerful man on the planet; a young woman who made a mistake anyone could have made.

For many years—even into adulthood—I recall participating in jokes at her expense and failing to empathize with a woman who had become like a cartoon character in my head, complete with beret.

So when Lewinsky got up on a prestigious stage to deliver her TED talk, "The Price of Shame," she invited her audience to “Imagine walking a mile in someone else’s headline.” She spent more than 20 minutes rewriting—and humanizing—the history of a scandal long discussed by many, but understood by few.

Lewinsky’s speech offered a new perspective. It was a story of a young woman, only 22, humiliated beyond belief after being caught in an intimate act with a man she’d fallen in love with; a young woman whose mother sat by her bed every night and kept a constant watch to keep her from killing herself. Back in 1998, was there anyone out there besides her family and friends who worried Lewinsky might become suicidal as her name was publicly destroyed?

Lewinsky calls herself “patient zero”—the first victim—of the Internet’s particular culture of shame: She wasn’t just in newspapers and on TV—every aspect of her story and life was picked apart and mocked online, where anyone with access could participate. In 1998, this was new.

She calls for a revolution of “upstanders” to replace “bystander apathy” by reaching out with compassion to those being shamed.

Shame sells, Lewinsky explains. And you can sell a lot of shame on the Internet. The deeper the humiliation, the more clicks you get. Gossip websites and what we’d once thought of as more serious news outlets exploit humiliation and shame for money, desensitizing the public to it and making it easier for us to forget that the person behind the scandal is, well, a person.

After 17 years of working through her own experience, Lewinsky explains how the Internet has ramped up the marketability of shaming and the easy, clickable access to—and participation in—the humiliation of others. From last summer's widely published, stolen celebrity nude photos, to the spate of young people who’ve killed themselves after videos of their sexual assaults were shared and dissected online—where does it end?

“Shame cannot survive empathy,” Lewinsky says, quoting researcher Brené Brown. She calls for a revolution of “upstanders” to replace “bystander apathy” by reaching out with compassion to those being shamed. We can use the incredible tool of the Internet to hold and support those experiencing the worst harassment.

“I’ve seen some very dark days in my life,” Lewinsky said near the end of her speech. “It was the compassion and empathy from my family, friends, professionals, and sometimes even strangers, that saved me. Even empathy from one person can make a difference.”