Culture At Large

Monica Lewinsky on the price of shame

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

In her well-received TED talk last week, Monica Lewinsky reminded her audience that many of today’s young adults were only children in 1998, when she became infamous overnight for her relationship with then-president Bill Clinton. She learned then what many have learned since: news travels fast and far in the digital age, especially when it’s mortifying.

In her talk, “The Price of Shame,” Lewinsky contends that our culture of shaming has gotten dangerously out of hand and that we must instead encourage the values of compassion and empathy. Her examples are instructive – particularly that of her own experience. She asks her audience if they had made any mistakes when they were 22, which was her age when she “fell in love with my boss.” This question powerfully reframes her story, as has the distance of time. I, for one, was too young to really understand her situation in 1998 - being in your early 20s sounded pretty old to me.

Yet Lewinsky’s question also reveals the problem with empathy as the main solution to the commodification of shame. To feel empathy for Lewinsky’s situation, one has to understand the feeling of being young and silly and having a crush on someone who is not good for you. This is a lot easier to do if you can think of a related experience or temptation. Perhaps the difficulty of that leap explains why so much of our online bullying is directed across lines of gender, race and sexuality.

I wonder if a Christian view of grace might get us a bit further than the sort of empathy and compassion Lewinsky called for.

When it comes to shame, I wonder if a Christian view of grace might get us a bit further than the sort of empathy and compassion Lewinsky called for. Her talk reminded me of the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. It has some clear parallels to Lewinsky’s situation, but Jesus doesn’t say “let the one who did not make a mistake at 22 throw the first stone.” He made it broader. The mob didn’t have to understand how this particular woman got into this particular sin, they just had to acknowledge that they, too, were sinners. And Jesus, who was sinless, offered a message of grace to the woman: “Neither do I (condemn you).”

Theorist Kenneth Burke claimed that the cultural practice of scapegoating comes from our desire to see the faults of our society in some other person and not ourselves. If we can feel superior to the humiliated party of the day on a gossip website or in a newspaper article, then we are reassured that our own sins aren’t so bad. Christ’s forgiveness functions another way. If we are forgiven through God’s grace, then we don’t need to compare, we only need to love one another.

What if, as Karen Swallow Prior recently suggested at TC, the church became more alert to the vastness of God’s grace and more adept at extending it to other people? A church probably would have been the last place Monica Lewinsky would have turned for support in 1998, but I wish we had the opposite reputation. I wish we were a community that was honest about sin and mistakes, yet didn’t dwell on our own or those of others because we were too busy expressing forgiveness, redemption and love instead.

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, History, Media, North America