It's easy to banish Monica Lewinsky to a cultural corner — a remnant of a time in politics that most Americans would like to forget. The president and the intern. The blue dress. "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." All of it feels so tawdry, so, well, gross. It was a little too much information even back then — and thinking about it now seems to serve absolutely no purpose.
What we all forget is that Monica Lewinsky was a White House intern back in the late 1990s. She was in her early 20s. While our gazes got diverted over the years — Kardashians! Anthony Weiner! Something else! — Lewinsky kept living her life. And now, at 41, she is re-emerging — not to remind us all of that time in her and our lives, but rather to testify from her very unique perspective about the dangers of political bullying.
Lewinsky gave a TED talk in Vancouver on Thursday, excerpts of which are now available on the TED site. (When the full video is posted, I will add it to this post.) What she had to say is very important — for those of use who cover politics, the politicians who get covered and the people, like Lewinsky, just caught in the maelstrom.
Here's the critical piece of Lewinsky's talk:
For nearly two decades now, we have slowly been sowing the seeds of shame and public humiliation in our cultural soil. Gossip Web sites, paparazzi, reality programming, politics, news outlets and sometimes hackers traffic in shame.
Public humiliation as a blood sport has to stop. We need to return to a long-held value of compassion and empathy.
Her words echo the moving eulogy that former Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.) delivered recently for Missouri state auditor Tom Schweich, who apparently committed suicide amid a whisper campaign about his Jewish heritage. Here's a part of what Danforth said:
We read stories about cyberbullying, and hear of young girls who killed themselves because of it. But what should we expect from children when grownups are their examples of how bullies behave? Since Thursday, some good people have said, 'Well, that’s just politics.' And Tom should have been less sensitive; he should have been tougher, and he should have been able to take it. Well, that is accepting politics in its present state, and that we cannot do. It amounts to blaming the victim, and it creates a new normal, where politics is only for the tough and the crude and the calloused. Indeed, if this is what politics has become, what decent person would want to get into it? We should encourage normal people — yes, sensitive people — to seek public office, not drive them away.
I find myself at something of a crossroads on all of this. On the one hand, I have long subscribed to the "politics ain't beanbag" school of campaigns — meaning that the most important thing in politics is winning actual victories, not moral ones. On the other hand, as a victim of bullying in ninth and 10th grade that left me miserable, as well as the dad of two little boys, I am acutely aware of and concerned about the damage bullying can and does do — especially now, as Lewinsky notes, in the Internet age.
I haven't totally resolved whether my two competing realities are incompatible or not. But, what I do believe is that there is a line — societally — that shouldn't be crossed when it comes to how we treat each other. Sure, the anonymity of the Internet makes it incredibly easy to say whatever you want about virtually anyone. That cloak of anonymity frees you from the responsibility of owning your allegation, providing proof or doing something as simple as coming face-to-face — even electronically — with the person you are sliming.
When it comes to politics, winning can't be the rationale to excuse this sort of behavior. It's important to remember that using people as tackling dummies to score political points is ultimately detrimental to what our society should value. It turns people into caricatures, two-dimensional cardboard cutouts rather than fully realized individuals. Again, Lewinsky says it well: “I was branded as a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo and, of course, ‘that woman.’ I was known by many, but actually known by few. I get it. It was easy to forget ‘that woman’ was dimensional and had a soul.”
All of this is easier said than done -- for me and, I think, most of us. The realities of human nature (we all love a bit of schadenfreude) and business (Lewinsky drew eyeballs and readers like few other stories before or since) make drawing a line in the sand and saying "enough" very difficult. What I hope is that it doesn't take another Lewinsky or, even worse, another Schweich, to convince people in politics and journalism that there is such a thing as "too far," and it's at least in part up to us to help define what it looks like.