For those who hoped to start their week with news about anything not Ebola related, a blast from the past provided a welcome respite on Monday morning. Monica Lewinsky was back in the headlines, appearing at the Forbes Under 30 Summit in Philadelphia to speak on cyber bullying and the potentially tragic effects of unchecked online attacks.
Sadly, though, many not only missed the point, but in a cruel twist of irony used the story to engage in the very acts she spoke against by shamefully renewing their pointlessly vitriolic commentary against the former White House intern.
The self-proclaimed first casualty of the internet's cruel potential, Lewinsky has vowed to devote her energies in the next several years not to spitefully bringing down a possible 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, but rather to advocating on behalf of those whose lives are damaged - if not altogether destroyed - by online bullies. Instead of continuing to engage in a cycle of injury, she has consistently taken the high road by maintaining a low profile, and - moved to action by the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a gay college freshman who was outed by a hidden webcam - has now re-emerged in an effort to help the voiceless.
In an essay published over the summer in Vanity Fair, Lewinsky first revealed her plans to advocate for those who have been bullied, humiliated and attacked on the internet. After spending most of her adult life hiding from a spotlight she didn't ask for, "I am determined to have a different ending to my story," she vowed. "I've decided, finally, to stick my head above the parapet so that I can take back my narrative and give a purpose to my past."
As we learned on Monday, however, Lewinsky can take back her narrative only to the extent that online bullies - including those in the media itself - will allow her to. Instead of writing their articles on the purpose and content of her actual speech, many news outlets chose to emphasize other elements of the Lewinsky story that had nothing to do with the serious and urgent topic of cyber bullying. Headlines screamed with tangents like "Monica Lewinsky: I Was 'In Love' With President Bill Clinton" and "Monica Lewinsky Joins Twitter." Some ran samples of tweets Lewinsky received within hours of joining the site, most of which were written by online trolls who criticized her supposed weight problems, promiscuity and irrelevance.
Even news outlets like the Huffington Post, which did provide proper coverage of Lewinsky's speech, were hijacked by readers who chose to contribute to the comments section by debating who was at fault in her decades-old affair with President Clinton; uncreatively working in tired sexual wordplay ("Monica blew it," "She should have kept her mouth shut") with tee-hee disclaimers like "pun intended"; accusing her of trying to prolong her 15 minutes of fame; and using her presence in the news as an opportunity to launch political attacks on the Clintons. One commenter actually had several supporters endorsing a misogynistic and uninformed comment that included his admission that he "didn't read the article."
Meanwhile, discussion among readers of the actual story itself was nowhere to be found.
Consumers of the news often complain that there is an unhealthy emphasis on the negative - too much discussion of crime, corruption, abuse. But when provided an uplifting story of a damaged woman who has eschewed self-pity by choosing to support others, these same readers themselves perpetuate that negativity. They are the ones who attack, insult, and publicly decry the decades-old behavior of others from a self-imposed pulpit of moral superiority. In other words, they are the same cyber bullies Lewinsky is trying to stop. And, in setting a poor example, they are the same cyber bullies that their kids are likely to become, feeding a cycle of victimization and abuse that figures to have no end unless someone speaks up.
Despite cruel comments from those whose lives seem stuck in 1998, Lewinsky is a success story, having not only overcome years and years of merciless torment from complete strangers to remain unbroken, but also committing herself to helping others avoid a similar fate. Unlike many accidental pop-culture figures who have exploited their notoriety through tawdry memoirs and reality shows, Lewinsky has elected to lead a productive life by pursuing graduate education and being an entrepreneur. Yet as a culture, we long ago knocked her down - way, way down - and have never given her the chance to get back up. As we learned on Monday, the only thing worse than being down for 15-plus years is having people kick you while you're there.
Like the drug addict who nobly turns his or her life around and becomes a rehab counselor, Lewinsky has expressed regret and accepted responsibility for some poor decisions from her youth and turned them into something positive. It's too bad, then, that on her first day on the job, so many of us felt inclined to try to silence, demean, humiliate and shut her down through the very same tactics that inspired her to speak up in the first place.