Few women have had the kind of impact on politics that Monica Lewinsky did as a young White House intern, but after years of living down that scandal she has entered public life with a speech on cyberbullying and a new Twitter account. The famous intern spoke in Philadelphia at Forbes’ 30 Under 30 summit and offered her analysis of her role in social media. According to her speech, she was one of the first to experience the pain of being lampooned on social media, which at the time was in its infancy. After watching her own reputation be tarnished repeatedly online, she has decided to use her public image to combat cyberbullying. In the process of talking publicly for the first time about her affair with former President Clinton, she gave the world something very important to think about when it comes to the role of social media in ruining people’s lives.
The history of Monica Lewinsky is well-known as a punchline for political comedy, but at the time it was an important issue in politics. Back in 1998, the debate about the intersection of public life and political life became the philosophical topic of the day. It was on that question that Clinton’s impeachment case rested and Republicans were vociferous in their belief that public life was fair game for political maneuvers. Today that idea is received as a simple fact. Politicians like Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer have felt the sting of their private misdemeanors being used to end successful political careers, largely because of the use of social media to spread the news of their misconduct. But in 1998 the internet was new and, as Lewinsky pointed out in her speech, there was no Facebook or Twitter to carry the ship of public scorn.
Instead, she watched as the case against her was mounted on the newly blossoming news websites and forums of the late 1990s. She described the painful process of reading the headlines labelling her as a slut and other terrible names. In a piece she wrote for Vanity Fair, she wrote about the process of branding that occurred because of the media’s coverage. The idea of a personal brand is common in politics, but in normal life it is the concept of reputation that most people understand. Both Lewinsky’s “brand” and reputation were repeatedly attacked after news of her affair became public.
The consequences for Lewinsky personally were catastrophic. More than once she contemplated suicide and when the “Starr Report” was published, she said she “wanted to die.” Her account chronicles the daily struggle with feelings of violation and depression due to the exposure of her private life to the world. She said it felt like a “punch in the gut” every day for the whole year of 1998. In large part it was this experience that led to her complete absence from the public scene. She has not given a single interview until recently, nor has she sold her story for the millions of dollars she could earn for an inside scoop. But all that has changed.
One of the primary reasons for Monica Lewinsky’s entry into public life and Twitter has been the rise in cyberbullying cases, specifically that of Tyler Clementi. Clementi was a young gay man who committed suicide after a video of him having sexual relations with another man was posted online. This story of betrayal and subsequent suicide resonated with Lewinsky, whose own experience felt similar. Her mother’s reaction to the story was one of the things that greatly affected her and she said that it was like “1998, when she might have lost me, when I, too, might have been humiliated to death.” She likened herself to a “patient zero” for cyberbullying, a trend that led to Clementi and countless others’ tragic ends.
As her first tweet said, Lewinsky is having a “Here we go” moment. She has dived into the realm of the public where she might possibly be ridiculed yet again. Yet she has a good reason for doing so. Her compassion for others is a guiding light to many who have experienced cyberbullying and its negative effects. She expressed the hope that her efforts might lead to some change, which is sorely needed. But her role as a philosophical question remains prevalent in society today. Should someone’s private life be a target in their political one?
It is difficult to answer. On one hand, the events of a private life may be nothing more than personal. To a certain extent they only affect those involved, not the nation or government in which the person is involved. Today, Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky has been reduced to that formula and his achievements in public office are separate from his character as a philanderer. Or at least it has for some. Others see private misdeeds as a betrayal of a trust in them as a politician. The representation of oneself as a trustworthy individual apples equally to affairs of state and affairs of the family. But the equivalence of cheating on one’s wife does not always transfer into cheating in politics. The adage of “once a cheater, always a cheater” has not been proved to be true in all cases and situations. While some may defend politicians whose personal lives have gone awry, there is far from a consensus and numerous politicians have suffered the loss of their political aspirations because of the revelations that end up online.
Besides the problem of political repercussions, though, Monica Lewinsky’s entry into public life and Twitter puts a spotlight on the victims of personal tragedies that end up splashed all over the internet. In her case, Clinton’s political fiasco was a personal one for her. Her story shows, not just collateral damage of a scandal, but the way in which the media perpetuates the persecution of victims of personal tragedy. Some may still view her as a punchline, but for others she is a much-needed voice in their defence.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury