Monica Lewinsky during a TED Talk Thursday in Vancouver asked for a show of hands in the audience: “Who didn’t make a mistake at 22?”
Of course, no one can say their mistake resulted in the impeachment of the president of the United States.
“Not a day goes by that I am not reminded of my mistake, and I regret that mistake deeply,” Lewinsky said, according to TED, calling her affair with then-President Bill Clinton an “improbable romance.” She also acknowledged that wearing that beret – an accessory she previously said it’s time to “bury” – was a mistake.
Lewinsky, deemed a “social activist” on the TED website, took to the stage to get personal about her affair with Clinton in the context of cyber-bullying on the Internet and how an invasion of privacy has spiraled since she became self-prescribed “patient zero” in 1998. TED is a conference series where speakers of all stripes can share their experiences with listeners.
Commenting on the role of the media in the ’90s, Lewinsky said the salacious headline of her affair erupted in large part to the emergence of digital media. “Overnight, I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one worldwide,” Lewinsky said at the event.
This isn’t Lewinsky’s first recent attempt to resuscitate her personal brand and shed light on a growing issue in today’s Internet culture. During last October’s Forbes Magazine 30 Under 30 Summit, Lewsinky blamed The Drudge Report – the site that originally broke the news of the affair – for her tarnished reputation. Last May, Lewinsky broke her 10-year silence in an essay for Vanity Fair, revealing suicidal tendencies and describing her mother’s fear “that I would be literally humiliated to death.”
The shame she felt then has a name now, she said at the TED event, and it’s “cyber-bullying.”
“This was not something that happened with regularity back then in 1998. And by ‘this,’ I mean the stealing of people’s private words, actions, conversations or photos and then making them public. Public without consent, public without context and public without compassion,” she said.
The event turned its focus on other public and private figures who have recently been shamed on the Internet, including actress Jennifer Lawrence when nude photos of her were leaked; employees at Sony whose salaries and personal emails were exposed; and Tyler Clementi, the college student who committed suicide after his roommate recorded him kissing another man.
Lewinsky describes Clementi’s death as a turning point that forced her to look at humiliation in a different light.
“Just imagine walking a mile in someone else’s headline,” she said.
Lewinsky used the TED platform to be an example of someone who has survived deep shame, and encouraged showing kindness with compassionate comments on the Internet, rather than ones that tear people down.
“Anyone who is suffering from shame and public humiliation needs to know one thing: you can survive it. I know it’s hard. It may not be painless, quick or easy, but you can insist on a different ending to your story,” she said.