Election campaigns are in full swing in New York and through all the usual rehashing of a candidate’s previous failures and faux pas, one flashback from the 90s came blazing back onto the world stage like a meteor from space-time: Monica Lewinsky. It is a testament to the scale of what came to be known as the Lewinsky Scandal that, 20 years on, it’s still considered relevant to American politics today. It was the perhaps the first viral story we had in the Internet age, and it was brutal: 22-year-old White House intern versus the world. It was she who was blamed, almost unanimously, for sleeping with the President, and somehow brand Clinton successfully made it though impeachment proceedings, talk show ridicule and tabloid headlines to emerge with their electability pretty much intact. Lewinsky didn’t fare as well at all; that is, until recently.
As of the last few years, she has re-branded herself into an anti-bullying activist with widely seen Ted talks on the Internet’s tendency to be a forum for anonymous and epic public shaming. Indeed, her story was as close a real life version of the Scarlet Letter if ever there was one, so I am inclined to believe what she has to say on the matter. I saw her talk about a year ago. In it, she lucidly detailed what it was like to be publicly shamed by the entire planet – women and men alike – for an intensely personal circumstance, in a time before “slut shaming” was seen as a bad thing. Her very name became synonymous with cigars and blue dresses. The whole experience is horrifying when you actually think of her as a person and not a punch-line. And when you think about it, you also realise that 1998 was a very different time than now. You could send emails, yes, but the ubiquity of Internet trolling and cyber bullying wasn’t yet a thing, and since news outlets were still based on cable TV and newspapers, alternative narratives were not as easily accessible or championed.
Trump has mentioned her a few times in during the campaign already, and perhaps that’s why she gave an interview to the Guardian newspaper this week. Reading it you can sense the fragility of a person literally eviscerated by all the white-hot scorn the world and its establishment could throw at her, and who has rather admirably been able to turn it around into something affirmative by drawing attention to the fact that a mob mentality – on the internet and in real life – is a dangerous thing.
I am so happy that social media and online shaming is something that became popular after my own time in high-school. I would have been a disaster, probably wielding a pixelated pitchfork myself before being silenced by a barrage of anonymous comments about my weight and/or acne, forcing me inevitably to eating a donut while crying naked on my bathroom floor (#torn).
The whole experience is horrifying when you actually think of Monica Lewinsky as a person and not a punch-line
I sometimes write for a paper in India, and by far the most nasty comments and emails I get are when those articles are published. Sometimes they even admit that they haven’t read the piece but just want to vent about where I am writing from. Fair enough. Because most of the negative comments are thoughtful and genuinely constructive, I find I can dismiss the gratuitously nasty ones easily. But even then, the initial reaction to a nasty email/comment is always personal affront, no matter how Oprah you think you are.
Online shaming has now taken on a life of its own in Pakistan. Recently, a Facebook fight between two people on my timeline made it to the national newspapers as an example of class privilege and anti-feminism. I don’t have much to add to what’s already been said about the specific issues. I’ve always thought, like most sane people, that men don’t really have a right to talk about women’s reproductive issues/rights.
That said, public shaming does have its benefits. Remember the Axact fake university fiasco that the Guardian uncovered in Pakistan? Or consider the recent backlash against the Sharif’s about the Panama Papers (you’re gonna make a commission to investigate you so they can report on whether you did anything wrong to you? Really?). More recently, this week there was Dawn newspaper’s amazing exposé of the corruption and land grabbing in Karachi’s Bahria Town that was exceptional in that it took on forces most media outlets stay miles away from, for fear of reprisals (military/ Sindh government/ land mafias/ water mafias/ Malik Riaz, please spare me). That piece is one of the rare examples of truly excellent investigative journalism from Pakistan in recent memory. It lays out, in damning detail, the many discrepancies in how the mammoth model town was built and the many people and civic institutions that have had to pay a price for it. I am curious to see the fallout from the article, and hope that incidents of public scrutiny like this serve a greater purpose than mere shaming.