Patient Zero of Internet Shaming

The year – 1998. The headline –  Clinton Accused of Urging Aide to Lie.

A seemingly innocuous statement. Politicians after all seem to be surrounded by tales of lies and deceit. But this headline from the Washington Post, was the spark that ignited the scandal that caused the impeachment of a President. What happened to the woman in the tale?

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 22:  Monica Lewinski arrives at the 2015 Vanity Fair Oscar Party Hosted By Graydon Carter at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 22, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California.  (Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA – FEBRUARY 22: Monica Lewinski arrives at the 2015 Vanity Fair Oscar Party Hosted By Graydon Carter at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 22, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images)

People who were surfing the Internet then are no strangers to the name of Monica Lewinsky. And Monica herself is no stranger to the shame and humiliation she had to suffer in its wake. Over the years she has been questioned, probed, sometimes giggled at and sometimes tut-tutted at. She tried standing up for herself, hid in the closet, tried therapy and came out, finally, to lend voice to her suffering of the past two decades.

At TED2015 in March, Monica spoke out,

“At the age of 22, I fell in love with my boss,” she begins, “At the age of 24, I learned the devastating consequences…. Now I admit I made mistakes — especially wearing that beret — but the attention and judgment that I received — not the story, but that I personally received — was unprecedented,” she continued. “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.”

The social activist became “The Patient Zero of Internet Shaming.”

When she spoke at Cannes last Thursday, she said,

“Violation of others is raw material, efficiently and ruthlessly mined, packaged and sold at a profit. Whether tallied in dollars, clicks, likes, or just the perverse thrill of exposure, a marketplace has emerged where shame is a commodity, and public humiliation an industry.”

I was only 12 when this tale first hit the streets and screens. I had little knowledge of scandals then, especially those that were of an explicit nature, and had little understanding of what it feels like being subject to shame. Over the years, the name of Monica Lewinsky has flitted in and out of my mind; first, when I wanted to know more of what happened and subsequently when I read of women who made headlines.

It was heartening to read Monica’s Vanity Fair interview, published last year (Read it here: http://www.vanityfair.com/style/society/2014/06/monica-lewinsky-humiliation-culture).

The Vanity Fair Cover

Not only because it gives her story of what she had to deal with and how she coped up in the years after, but because she finally took to speaking of dealing with humiliation and making our society more humane and compassionate.

In the aftermath of the scandal, nothing of Monica’s life remained private. The booming of the Internet had ensured that her name became pervasive and her story indelible. Just like with every tweet, every comment, every photograph that Internet preserves for posterity, her story stays. But she has found a purpose in talking about shame and humiliation.

Over the years, many others have had to bear the brunt of their words and actions when the attention of Internet users has been turned on them, some inviting insane threats and some getting fired. Scandals happen often and the characters in there become the talk of the town. But to what extent should one judge another? A few for the sake of perverse pleasure and a few for the sake of simply having an opinion, speak out, tweet or comment, sometimes in ways that become devastating.

midage Where should one draw the line? How do we ensure that criticism over the Internet remains constructive and doesn’t devastate someone to the extent that Monica Lewinsky has been? We mete out punishment so easily by hanging out others to dry, but do we actually do justice? Or are we really reverting to the techniques of the middle ages, albeit in a different avatar? 

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