The Internet and media didn’t break Monica Lewinsky, but it almost did. It’s been almost two decades since the former White House intern, in her words, became “patient zero” for internet shame and scandal. But now, after 17 years of being a punchline, she’s stepped out of the shadows to remind us all that she is, after all, a person. She asking that we consider the humanity of people with our stray comments, a practice that is just as important offline as online.
“It was easy to forget that that woman was dimensional, had a soul, and was once unbroken,” she says in her TED Talk, looking bright-eyed and confident. She’s talking about shame, but the real shame is that a mistake this woman made as a naive and starry-eyed girl of 22 has silenced her and held her back for so long. Of course, in her case, she should have known that getting involved with a married man, with her boss, and of course, the president of the United States, would not turn out well. Still, we all make mistakes when we are that young. For a great lot of us, they become mistakes we can learn from and move on from. Their marks upon us, real or imagined, fade with the flow of time. Branding by Internet and branding by political scandal, however, is hard to walk away from. Still, what else can you do? You have to still live.
After years of living without dignity, being turned away from jobs, and, in essence, being turned away from most of life, Lewinsky is using her personal agency to change things. The only way she can do this is to take control of her own narrative, something she’s doing with great candor and poise. People often think that controlling your own narrative means “spinning” it and puffing it up with half truths that only put you in a favorable light. True trust and influence, however, comes from hard-won honesty.
In her TED Talk, Lewinsky recounts for us what it was like to have to listen to 20 hours of taped conversations with a friend (Linda Tripp.) She had to confront herself being mean and presenting “the worst version of herself,” something most of us never face. How often would we be surprised at ourselves if we heard some of the gossipy things we said when caught in a negative whirlwind of conversation? It would be excruciating, no doubt, but it might end up making us better people.
If all you do is read internet comments on news stories, it seems obvious that compassion, which is hard to find face-to-face, doesn’t exist at all on the Internet. The Internet can seem like an echoing tunnel, where everyone is shouting their personal fears and hate and belief systems while wearing noise-canceling headphones. Screaming, not listening to other viewpoints, and slinging insults is not communication, it is madness. It is a nightmare.
Sometimes when I am out in public, I marvel at all the people I see. I wonder what their inner worlds are like, what their stories are, what secret dreams they are harboring. Occasionally, a casual conversation can be had with these strangers, sometimes just a smile. Nothing goes very deep, usually, but it feels nice to have a positive interchange with a random other person. It strengthens the bond of humanity. It makes me feel like maybe things will be ok.
Online we can show bits of ourselves we are concealing in these “real life” interchanges. We can open up, sometimes. I’m constantly enlivened by visiting certain subreddits where people are opening up and telling their stories. This strengthens my view that online communication, compassion, and empathy can exist, and is actually a benefit to society that didn’t exist before. Now, more than ever, anonymous or not, people are speaking up about some of the “weird” things maybe they felt they had to hide, or be ashamed of.
But the flip side is also rampant and ruthless. As Lewinsky points out, we see the private lives and vulnerabilities of others as fodder to distract us from our own miseries, and also, to make a buck. We are all in pain, or have experienced pain, and the pain of others interests us because of that. Pain, in a way, will always be a commodity. But, we can either use it to share the load and learn and grow with each other, or to further hurt and cut ourselves off from each other. Community or alienation. It’s a choice we make every day in tiny minuscule ways.
Does having empathy and compassion for others mean we should accept all action and behaviors? Absolutely not, but how we talk about things matters, even things we reject as bad behavior. When we choose to make a comment, when we choose to communicate online, we need to remember we are not reporting from a self-righteous bubble, no matter how it may feel that way from behind our screens. If we’re that thoughtful about how we communicate online, it can’t help but spill over into our real life conversations. “Shame cannot survive empathy,” Lewinsky notes, a simple, undeniable truth.
It’s a powerful thought, and it’s very freeing. The horrors of the reality, harsh randomness, and shitty actions of others will continue no matter what we do, but we are still responsible for how we perceive and interact with the world. If we are swirling up nasty feelings, we are kicking up a storm that follows us around and bathes everything with experience in a agitating grit. When we fixate on judging others, it often means we are judging ourselves. We shame others, whether we realize it or not, to deflect attention way from flecks of guilt and shame we’re harboring against ourselves.
Shame lives within us. Sometimes the smallest humiliation can be carried through a lifetime. We can put barriers on ourselves by living in the old language of a passing moment. We keep someone’s sneer or idle insult as a pet, letting it inform every story we tell about ourselves. Lewinsky’s situation is epic and unique, but our fragile egos can make us think personal indignities are just as large. Even when it is as large as Lewinsky’s situation, it’s still something you can conquer, for yourself if for no one else. Having compassion for others starts with the hardest thing of all: having compassion for ourselves.