'That Woman'

(published 30 March 2015, MST)


TED Talks have quite a following on the Internet. These talks feature people believed to have a capacity for inspiring others. They get a few minutes talking about their experiences, their reflections.
Among those who have given such talks are Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet: The Hidden Power of Introverts, and Sting, who needs no introduction. Cain talked about how our culture has marginalized introverts for so long, and how extroverts have been hailed as superstars. Sting, on the other hand, talked about what came after his very long creative dry spell—a musical, The Last Ship, which explored his early experiences and emotions in a shipbuilding town in northern England.
Earlier this month, however, it was Monica Lewinsky who spoke on TED.
Many of us except those who were too young to remember know Lewinsky as the woman who almost brought down a United States President. She was the White House intern who, at 22, had a relationship with her boss, US President Bill Clinton.
Lurid details of the affair came out in a subsequent investigation and media reports. Mr. Clinton made a sweeping denial—“no, I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Lewinsky became famous in the most unflattering manner, and had been rejected by several institutions she had applied to because of her reputation.
That was 17 years ago. The 22-year-ols intern is now a 41-year-old public speaker. In her talk called “The Price of Shame,” Lewinsky characterized herself as Patient Zero of cyberbullying.  There was no social media yet at that time, but there was already email, and people all over the world shared news stories and jokes about her—the tramp/ tart/slut/whore/bimbo/That Woman. She had to deal with what she called a mob of virtual stonethrowers.
Establishing that she had long ago regretted what she had done, Lewinsky said that today, her name can be found in more than 40 rap songs.  Younger people mght know her from these. 
The TED Talk was in the context of technology-aided public shaming. Lewinsky said that what she experienced in 1998 and onwards is now being experienced by more individuals. Like her, they are “seen by many, but known by few.” She bore her shame and learned to live with it. But not everybody who is humiliated on such a scale survives the ordeal.
According to Lewinsky, she was especially surprised to find her mother deeply affected by the suicide of 18-year old Tyler Clementi in 2010. Clementi, then a freshman at Rutgers University, jumped from the George Washington Bridge after a video of him being intimate with another man, and subsequent cruel comments, made the rounds of the Internet.
 She eventually understood that her mother was reliving the events of 1998, when she her was at the center of the storm, and when both her parents were worried she might not find the strength to live another day.
In the latter part of her talk, Lewinsky talked less of herself and more on what is happening right now, with numerous entities profiting from the shame and humiliation of others. These people and organizations are aided by millions with just one click, because the “interesting” stories are read, shared and re-shared much to the delight of the advertisers. “Humiliation has become a commodity; shame has become an industry.”
How does this stop? Lewinsky has one word: Compassion.
* * *
Should people dare listen to Lewinsky, a modern-day woman of ill repute?  Those perhaps who fixate on what she was would scoff at her attempts to redeem herself,  much less offer advice to young people on how they must behave online.
Scoffing, though,would smack of hypocrisy. Who has not done something one later on regretted? Who has not learned valuable lessons from a harrowing life experience? Who has not stood up from a big-time fall?
Lewinsky’s TED Talk was applauded by her live audience. What she said made sense. She definitely knew what she was talking about—after all, she lived through it. Kids these days, and those of us who are always online, could pick up a thing or two from what she said about putting ourselves in the shoes of others and letting compassion guide how we react to what we see, whether online or off.  
Yes, “that woman” is not one dimensional. Nobody is. Let’s keep this in mind as we work our way to Easter.