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 back then — and thinking about it now seems to serve absolutely no purpose.
What we all forget is that Lewinsky was a White House intern 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 reemerging — not to remind us all of that time in her and our lives but rather to testify from her unique perspective about the dangers of political bullying.
Lewinsky gave a TED talk in Vancouver, B.C., this past week, addressing her experiences with bullying. What she had to say is important — for those of us who cover politics, the politicians who get covered and the people like Lewinsky just caught in the maelstrom.
“For nearly two decades now, we have slowly been sowing the seeds of shame and public humiliation in our cultural soil,” Lewinsky said. “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.”
Lewinsky’s words echo a eulogy that former senator 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 grown-ups 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 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.
“Millions of people, often anonymously, can stab you with their words, and that’s a lot of pain, and there are no perimeters around how many people can publicly observe you and put you in a public stockade,” Lewinsky said in her TED talk. “There is a very personal price to public humiliation, and the growth of the Internet has jacked up that price.”
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.
Winning can’t be the rationale to excuse all behavior. Yes, winning is the end goal of all political campaigns, but there is a cost — personal and societal — every time that line of decency is crossed. 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” 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 that looks like.