In Bridgewater, Monica Lewinsky delivers anti-bullying message

Attendees of Monica Lewinsky’s endowed lecture at Bridgewater College stream into the venue on Oct. 17.

By Bridget Manley, Publisher

Monica Lewinsky — a particularly newsworthy figure at this moment, considering the impeachment inquiry into the current president and against the backdrop of #metoo — spoke at Bridgewater College last night. But you’ll have to take my word for it. 

There’s no photographic proof of her delivering the speech — at least from area media — because that wasn’ t allowed, according to Bridgewater College’s agreement with Lewinsky.  Nor could anyone in the media, including The Citizen, record Lewinsky’s remarks. Or interview her. Or ask questions of her. Or use a device to take notes of her endowed lecture.

Instead, a month before her talk, local news outlets received an email from Bridgewater College’s media relations director saying that while “no recording devices or cameras (still or video) are permitted, reporters may attend the event as part of the general public.”

Then, while introducing Lewinsky, Jennifer Babcock, instructor of communication studies and theater as well as the director of endowed lectures, told the audience — and any members of the media who showed up sans cameras and recorders — that all of Lewinsky’s remarks were “off the record.” 

Off the record,” in journalistic terms, is an agreement between both a source and a reporter that the source’s comments wouldn’t be made public or attributed to that source. That, however, doesn’t apply when someone gives a speech at an event that’s free and open to the public, let alone one attended by hundreds of people, as Lewinsky’s talk at Bridgewater was. 

And, as it turned out, most of Lewinsky’s talk was essentially a word-for-word version of her March of 2015 Ted Talk about bullying that was recorded and has lived on Youtube for more than four years.

You can watch her Ted Talk here.

Privacy amid publicity 

That Lewinsky would closely guard her image in front of the media is understandable, given the amount of cruelty aimed at Lewinsky over the decades. 

At 24 years old, her life and her reputation were torn to pieces when she became known for having affair with President Bill Clinton while Lewinsky was working in the White House. 

The phrase “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” became as definitive of the ‘90s as the opening riff of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The term “blue dress” took on a whole new meaning. And the scandal launched a thousand lame jokes and bad Clinton parodies that still live in right wing talk radio to this day. Some of us may have even *cough cough* dressed as Lewinsky for Halloween in college. 

Monica Lewinsky was, in many ways, the Patient Zero of internet humiliation. 

The last few decades — and the hindsight that goes with it — have given Lewinsky the ability to become a phoenix. She added her voice in the #MeToo movement, which also forced many journalists, pundits and public figures to revisit how she was treated and referred to 20 years ago after news broke that Clinton — the President of the United States — did have sex with that woman while she was an intern. Lewinsky has since used her platform as an advocate for a safer and more compassionate social media environment.

And now that cyberbullying and suicide have become increasingly common, Lewinsky brought a perspective to the current conversation that most few can share – that of a first-person witness to the loss of her own narrative and a survivor of mass humiliation. 

A packed house 

Nininger Hall Thursday evening was packed, with more than 700 people filling chairs on the basketball floor and others sitting in the stands. There was also a bag check (no bags were allowed in the arena) and a police presence.

One student volunteer said unofficially he thought about 850 people might have been in attendance. Even Lewinsky’s first comment was expressing shock at how many people were in the audience. 

In her talk, she updated the number of rap songs she’s found her name in (it was 40 in 2015, but the count is now up to 120 songs), and joked that she didn’t get any royalties. 

There was no mention of the current impeachment hearings, of the present reflecting the past, or of anything other than her anti-bullying initiatives and work to end online harassment. 

The crowd laughed over her own impression of the infamous “I did not have sexual relations” quote, and she made light of her “stupid beret.”

She has been working on a campaign called “The Epidemic” — a PSA that shows a teenager being cyberbullies and attempting suicide.  

Lewinsky, both in the talk Thursday night and in her Ted Talk, discussed her own feelings of wanting to die after the Starr Report was released and knowing that everyone with a dial-up connection could read her most embarrassing moments. 

Lewinsky took photos with some in attendance after the event.

Her main message was that of compassion and empathy. She quoted Brené Brown, who said “shame cannot survive being spoken… And being met with empathy.”

During a Q and A session after the talk, she spoke candidly about going through trauma therapy, and that while she said she does have feelings about the current political climate in Washington, she tried not to get into political discussions because bullying can occur on both sides of the aisle. 

Taking back her narrative has been a big reason for her to reemerge in recent years. In a Vanity Fair article, she said that the suicide of Tyler Clementi after being outed on the internet was what finally made her realize she had a voice to help others with public shame. 

The Media Blackout 

As far as the media blackout for the lecture, Bridgewater College representatives said it was part of the college’s contract with Miss Lewinsky that no photos, recording devices or media were ever permitted to cover the lecture.

“Although the no-media policy is unusual for a Bridgewater College event, the issue of online bullying and overcoming shame is extremely relevant for our students,” said Babcock in an email to The Citizen. “It’s hard to think of anyone better to talk on this issue, so we decided the benefit of inviting Monica Lewinsky to speak outweighed the downside of not permitting media to cover the event.” 

Overall, her talk with met with warm applause from an audience of students and community members who seemed eager to hear her side of the story, engage in serious discussion about cyberbullying and take photos with her after the lecture — as long as the cameras didn’t belong to members of the media.

Journalism is changing, and that’s why The Citizen is here. We’re independent. We’re local. We pay our contributors, and the money you give goes directly to the reporting. No overhead. No printing costs. Just facts, stories and context. Thanks for your support.

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