Monica Lewinsky

On Monica Lewinsky, Patricia Arquette, #BoycottIndiana, and public shaming

Monica Lewinsky is back in the public eye, and not for the affair for which she became infamous. She delivered a TED talk, which has since blown up the internet, about the public humiliation she experienced during the fallout from her relationship with former president Bill Clinton. Her talk centered on the idea that what she experienced was the first public shaming of its kind — and that while it was extraordinary then, it is quite commonplace now.

Lewinsky identifies this phenomenon of public shaming in the aftermath of political scandal, cyber bulling, trolling, and hacking. The examples she gives range from the death of Tyler Clementi to the Sony Pictures hack to the release of nude pictures of actresses. In a poignant moment, she says:

Millions of people, often anonymously, can stab you with their words, and that’s a lot of pain, and there are no perimeters around how many people can publicly observe you and put you in a public stockade. There is a very personal price to public humiliation, and the growth of the Internet has jacked up that price.

This quote is important, not just because of its truth, but because the type of shaming Monica Lewinsky lays bare does not only apply to that of nude pictures and middle school cyber bullying. When Patricia Arquette delivered her now infamous remarks at the Oscars — coupled with the more explicitly offensive remarks she made backstage — the internet eviscerated her. Additionally, we are in the midst of a week of national shaming of Indiana for its new “religious freedom” law.

Lewinsky points out there is also a benefit to be had from publicly shaming others digitally, and participating in that process. Writers, bloggers, and other content creators and managers trade in “clicks,” often with the aim to turn a profit. Shaming is good business.

This invasion of others is a raw material, efficiently and ruthlessly mined, packaged and sold at a profit. A marketplace has emerged where public humiliation is a commodity and shame is an industry. How is the money made? Clicks. The more shame, the more clicks.

Readers and consumers also contribute to this system by clicking, reading, sharing, and otherwise engaging in the shaming of others. With each comment made and story shared, readers go from being complicit to actively participating in our shaming culture.

We shame those who step out of line with our idea of goodness or perfection. Often this comes from the pain of being invisible and living with shame ourselves, which roils our anger. Patricia Arquette wasn’t just another well-intentioned White woman who stepped in the poo, she represented every well-intentioned woman who has ever erased, belittled, or ignored other identities in search of claiming her brand of feminism.

So the question I’m sitting with in this moment: where is the line between public critique and public shaming as we call one another out on our mistakes?

At my core I am an educator, and though I am asked to educate constantly as a person who holds multiple marginalized identities, I find that I often do not mind occupying that space. It is important to acknowledge that this is a personal choice I make, and not a burden to be placed on all of those who experience oppression.

I am also tired, and pretty consistently angry. James Baldwin said: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time.” Given the national conversation around police brutality, this is certainly true for me as I grapple with what it means to be Black at this moment in history. And for all of us who exist at the intersections and live in the borderlands, and consistently have our identities invalidated, unseen, and unheard, this sentiment may also strike a chord of truth.

We are angry, and we are tired, and when people mess up, we have no patience.

Shame is an intense experience, and one than can manifest in so many ways. To purposefully inflict shame on others is violence, and just like desensitization to other forms of violence, we can become numb. We rationalize the violence we inflict because the person on the receiving end is “ignorant” or “bigoted,” and therefore deserving of this shaming. Shaming has its purpose and can be effective in achieving the goal; just look at what happened to Memories Pizza in Indiana yesterday. The public outcry and effective shaming of the legislature in Indiana seems to be affecting change.

But I would also argue that shaming can detract from the goal as well. While I see #BoycottIndiana trending on social media, I have yet to witness the rage turn to solidarity. Where is the increased support to LGBTQ youth? Where is the outcry about Purvi Patel’s prison sentence? The reaction we are witnessing comes from a place of pain, desiring to inflict pain on others. As a Hoosier, I hurt at what is happening in my state. It angers me that Memories Pizza quietly received $48,000 in donations.

The James Baldwin quote earlier in this piece is often seen, but what is less cited is the second part: “So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you.”

Rage can be paralyzing, and it can also be productive. Part of engaging in social justice advocacy is to increase the level of shame surrounding rape, racism, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, sexism, etc., while limiting the shame inflicted by society on women, LGBTQ people, those who are sexually active, etc. In some ways, we, as advocates, deal in shame and rage on the daily.

My question is how to we stay productive? If we allow our anger and pain to consume us, we will not just wither away individually, we will wither away together.

It’s not just our lives on the line, but that of our loved ones, communities, and movements.


Katie Barnes (they/them/their) is a pop-culture obsessed activist and writer. While at St. Olaf College studying History and (oddly) Russian (among other things), Katie fell in love with politics, and doing the hard work in the hard places. A retired fanfiction writer, Katie now actually enjoys writing with their name attached. Katie actually loves cornfields, and thinks there is nothing better than a summer night's drive through the Indiana countryside. They love basketball and are a huge fan of the UConn women's team. When not fighting the good fight, you can usually find Katie watching sports, writing, or reading a good book.

Katie Barnes is a pop-culture obsessed activist and writer.

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