Back in 1998 I was a little fixated on why Monica Lewinsky didn’t just take her blue dress to the drycleaner like anyone else. I avidly read The New Republic, which dubbed the media fiasco arising from President Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky as “Bimbroglio,” which at the time I thought was clever. I thought the report by Ken Starr making every last lascivious detail of Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky was creepily gross and hardly a public service. And I was both disgusted and disappointed that America let a story like this disrupt our attention from the important business our country needed to attend to.
What I didn’t get at the time was the reality–the true human reality–of the circus playing out each day on the television. I was just a few years older than Lewinsky, and still sorting out the mess and troubles of my own young life. I hadn’t yet experienced what it felt like to have other people portray me as someone I’m not, or to feel so alienated from what I valued most about myself because of others’ false accusations that I just wanted to disappear from the earth. Fortunately when those things happened to me, I was at least a little older and wiser, although those experiences were so profoundly hard to weather. These years later, I see that Lewinsky was just 22 years old when that happened–in some ways a responsible adult, but in other ways just a kid. And we all collectively sat there and watched as this kid was essentially crucified in every last media outlet across the globe. Without much of a thought at all.
Lewinsky kept pretty quiet for a lot of years and has only recently re-emerged to talk about what happened. At first I wasn’t really sure I even cared. But then I watched the full video of her 25-minute talk at the Forbes Under 30 Summit and now I think she deserves a full, fair hearing. I also think she deserves an apology from those of us who stood by and watched, or even took part in, the character assassination of that 22-year-old girl we hardly even knew. View the full video HERE.
Lewinsky says she has broken her silence because she believes it is important to talk about our culture of humiliation–where a person’s (and perhaps even more likely–a woman’s) misfortune, body, nonconformity, circumstance, carelessness, or some arbitrary factor–is easily subject to ruthless ridicule on a global scale. And how this affects the soul of the ridiculed person. I like to laugh as much as anyone else, and I don’t like censorship. But as I’ve listened and learned from others, and had my own life experiences, I do find that I have an increasing appreciation for human courtesy and empathy. And I agree with Lewinsky that we have a fairly alarming cultural problem with a lack of empathy. She called it an “empathy crisis.” She has a point.
It made me think of a letter written by the Roman philosopher Seneca in the first century on the morality of how one should treat his slaves. As a stoic, Seneca recognized that anyone’s status in life can change in an instant–because of one’s actions, or another’s actions, or simple misfortune. There’s a lot of great stuff in the writings of Seneca. But the statement that always stuck out to me from my reading in college was this profound warning:
Despise, then, if you dare, those to whose estate you may at any time descend, even when you are despising them.
Humanity is universal, and at a core level we are all aware that we’re just one tragic moment away from losing everything, even if we want to avoid thinking about it. And despite our confidence to the contrary, that can also include the good reputation we’ve painstakingly worked to build and maintain. It’s easy to get a cheap laugh from someone’s misfortune. But that cheap laugh speaks volumes about who we are, as individuals, and as a culture as we further entangle ourselves in this sprawling web of social media. Does it matter that there’s a real person who is being humiliated, as we ourselves could be one day? Do we value human empathy over ruthless humor? I think it’s a worthy conversation to have.
Monica, I for one am sorry about all that stuff in 1998. Lately I’ve been leaving my suits piled up in the corner for a while before taking them to the drycleaner, too. And I basically was a mess in my 20s, so I was surely in no place to judge you back then. These days I’m for thinking harder and talking more about our apparent lack of empathy as individuals and as a culture. No one, especially a kid, should be subject to the kind of humiliation and character assassination that we’ve seen over and over in the media and online since 1998. We all keep bemoaning how it seems that respect and a sense of community have eroded in America. Maybe the answer is for each of us to commit to restoring those important things in our own actions and consumption of the media we’re exposed to on a daily basis.