Monica Lewinsky and Jesus Christ had a similar experience — they both occupied the place of shame. In 1998, Monica became a lightning rod for shame in American culture. In her recent TED talk, The Price of Shame, she talks about her experience of public shame. With refreshing humor, she takes responsibility for the “wrong turns” she has taken.
The Lewinsky scandal happened on the cusp of the Internet boom. It was one of the first Internet scandals to go viral. Monica reflects that, “What that meant for me personally, was that overnight I went from being a completely private figure, to a publicly humiliated one worldwide.”
But Monica’s point is not that she’s a victim of shame. Rather, she is using her experience to warn us about our cultural inclination to put others in the place of shame. She hopes that sharing her experience “can lead to a cultural change that results in less suffering for others.”
And there has been a lot of suffering. The Internet has become a public hub of shaming. Monica states that, “A market place has emerged where public humiliation is a commodity and shame is an industry.”
Shame is big business on the Internet. Promoting scandals is the easiest method to get clicks. Monica explains the dangers of this economic system in a radically prophetic way:
"The more shame, the more clicks, the more clicks, the more advertising dollars. We are in a dangerous cycle. The more we click on this kind of gossip, the more numb we get to the human lives behind it. And the more numb we get, the more we click. All the while, someone is making money off of the back of someone else’s suffering. With every click we make a choice. The more we saturate our culture with public shaming, the more accepted it is, the more we will see behaviors…that have humiliation at their core. This behavior is a symptom of the culture we have created."
A culture of shame is more than making money on the Internet. It’s also about developing a sense of moral superiority over and against another person. Gossip sites are addictive because they allow us to feel good about ourselves at the expense of another. Notice that we feel the need to gossip and scapegoat others because we don’t feel good about ourselves. And so we unite with others against another person. Gossip boils down to this thought that runs through our heads: How could they do such a stupid thing! At least I’m not as bad as them!
Sure, Monica made “wrong turns.” But by shaming her, we gained a false sense of moral superiority that is rooted in our lack of self-esteem. After all, deep down, we know that we have made wrong turns, too. We have all compromised ourselves morally and ethically. Shaming allows us to project our own sense of shame upon another. When it comes to shaming, it’s not really about them. It’s really about us.
Monica’s statement is prophetic because she is putting the price of public shaming where it belongs — on us. We are all responsible for the culture of shame. By claiming that “we have created” a culture of shame, Monica admits that she also needs to take responsibility for her part in participating in that culture. But she is also taking responsibility for transforming our culture of shame. Monica explains how we can change that culture,
"Public shaming as a bloodsport has to stop. And it’s time for an intervention on the Internet and in our culture. The shift begins by … returning to a long held value of compassion and empathy," she says.
That’s the key. Yet typically we respond to shame and humiliation by mimicking shame and humiliation. We shame the shamers. We scapegoat the scapegoater. We project our own shame upon someone else. When we do this, we have only reinforced the spirit of shame that permeates our culture.
The answer to shame is not more shame. It’s more compassion, more empathy, and more love for others and for ourselves.
Jesus and Monica were both publicly exposed, shamed, and humiliated. Of course, Jesus’ public humiliation didn’t happen on the Internet — it happened on a cross. Jesus hung on the cross, naked, exposed, and humiliated for everyone to see. The cross was a place of torture and shame.
Jesus didn’t make “wrong turns” as Monica did. He was innocent. And yet the cross reveals that innocence doesn’t matter. He was still mocked, shamed, tortured, and killed.
The remarkable thing about Jesus is the same thing that I find remarkable about Monica Lewinsky — neither are defined by their experience of shame. Neither want revenge. Rather, both invite us into a new reality where the cycle of shame stops and a new cycle of compassion and empathy begins.
Jesus invites us into a new life — a new way of being in the world. Unfortunately, human cultures run on shaming a scapegoat. As James Alison states in his book Jesus the Forgiving Victim, we humans would much rather someone else occupy the place of shame than we occupy that place ourselves. And so we point the finger of accusation and shame against others so that we can feel safe.
But when we play by the rules of shame, no one escapes life without experiencing it. Everyone, whether we make wrong turns or not, experiences shame. The good news is that we don’t have to play by those rules. In fact, we can learn an entirely new game.
Jesus called that new game the “Kingdom of God.” He based that game on two simple rules: love God, and love your neighbor as you love yourself. Your neighbor, Jesus reminded us, might just be your enemy, the one who shames you. While that often hurts, Jesus gives us the freedom to respond to shame with compassion and empathy.
Even more important, Jesus invites us to take responsibility for the way we all participate in the culture of shame. We all stand in need of forgiveness and Jesus hung on the cross to offer that forgiveness. In the face of human violence and shame committed against him, Jesus prayed for his persecutors to be forgiven, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Monica and Jesus both reveal that we can overcome our experience of shame. The place of shame is overcome not by projecting our own sense of shame upon another or by the revenge of shaming those who shame us. Rather, it is overcome by responding to shame with compassion and empathy for ourselves, our neighbors, and even those we call our enemies.
Our culture is run by cycles of shame, but we don’t have to be. By receiving the forgiveness and compassion of God, we can run our lives by different rules. The only way to transform a culture of violence and shame is to play by different rules — the rules of self-giving love and compassion.
Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.