The Monica Lewinsky scandal erupted in 1998 during the early days of the internet. It was the first major news story to spread at the speed of a click and “the world rushed to judgment”. Ms. Lewinsky recounted in her 2015 TED Talk that she “was branded as a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo, and, of course, ‘that woman.’”
Whatever your politics, we all thought the story provided a much-needed revelation about the character and motives of a 22-year old woman and the man behind the Oval Office desk. The truth was now in our hands.
Since 1998, the pace at which scandals erupt, enflame our passions, and then fade from view has accelerated exponentially due to our hyperconnected, social media saturated world. Sex scandals are a dime a dozen. As we share the latest headlines decrying moral depravity, malfeasance, greed, and corruption, we are seduced by the irresistible promise that something good will come from bringing the truth to light.
No doubt that is true. Honesty is better than deception and anyone who thinks they can get away with crimes, abuse, violence or moral failings should be brought to account.
But the whole picture is more complicated. Here are two truths about scandals that we can’t see when we are scandalized:
- Scandals create more problems than they solve.
- Scandals conceal more truth than they reveal.
Unless we can see beneath the surface of scandals, the larger truth about the world and our place in it will forever be out of reach. Let’s look at exactly what a scandal is and what happens to our sense of self and belonging when we are scandalized.
Unless we can see beneath the surface of scandals, the larger truth about the world and our place in it will forever be out of reach.
Anatomy of a Scandal
First thing we need to understand is that scandals are not things, they are relationships. They involve the person at the center of the scandal – let’s call them the scandalizer – and us, the ones who are scandalized by whatever horrible thing has just been revealed. For something to scandalize us, we must have had a pre-existing relationship to the scandalizer, one that involves a complicated blend of feelings, like admiration, envy, trust, and resentment.
We don’t have to know the scandalizer personally to have a relationship with them. Or even to have been aware of them before, as with Monica Lewinsky. But because they have captured our attention in some way by their professional success, fame, stardom, wealth, charisma or some character trait we want for ourselves, we relate to them as models of desire.
We want to be who they are or have what they have and so they fascinate us. Though we would not readily admit it, many of us harbor a secret desire to be recognized by someone rich and powerful as better than all the rest. When 22-year-old Monica was chosen by President Clinton, the snark came in torrents as she was judged deficient in everything from her hair, to her mind, to her seriously flawed sense of style, as illustrated by her famous beret.
The snark reveals more about us than we would care to admit. Because it signals that we can harbor a secret resentment, one that hovers in the background of our scandalized minds, barely coming into consciousness, that asks, “Why her and not me?”
The Benefits of Being Scandalized
If we remain on the surface of a scandal, fascinated and outraged by the revelation, we will never bring the whole truth into focus. The surface is a one-way street in which all the attention, blame and demands for accountability flow from the scandalized to the scandalizer.
This is necessary, right and just, of course, especially in those situations where there are vulnerable people to be protected and crimes to be punished. But to fully understand
the anatomy of a scandal we need to shift our gaze in another direction, toward ourselves. It’s then that the benefits of being scandalized come into view and we may begin to doubt whether those benefits come at too steep a price.
When we are scandalized one benefit is that we get a rather satisfying answer to the question of why them and not me. It’s because they cheated, lied, and deceived us about how smart, classy, talented or morally upright they are!
We pat ourselves on the back for being too good to behave that way. That’s why we don’t have what they have – we are better than they are! Way better, and that feels very good to know. This is what happened to Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton. She bore the shame of being a tramp, slut and a whore and he was branded as a womanizer, liar and a cheat, which enabled the rest of us to know, by comparison, how morally upright we are.
When we share our outrage with others it has the undeniable effect of strengthening our bonds with our social group. We can feel righteous together, convinced that if the bad guys are those guys, then by definition we are the good guys.
But when we build our self-esteem or sense of belonging that way, we will forever be drawn into scandals, not because we want to learn the truth or redress a wrong, but because we have slipped into a negative pattern of knowing we are good.
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To be clear, it is absolutely the right thing to do to hold people to account for their bad behavior. But becoming scandalized may make us feel good about ourselves without actually solving any problems. We might even make things worse because scandalized people can rush to judgment, overreact and risk condemning the wrong person.
I was deeply grieved by Ms. Lewinsky’s TED Talk and the revelation of what she suffered from the public shaming she endured. She is the perfect example of how much suffering we cause by forcing someone into the place of shame for our benefit. I felt nothing but admiration and respect for her courage and ability to reclaim her own narrative. Quite a turnaround from the reputation she was tarred with those many years ago.
As if causing so much suffering isn’t bad enough, if we think that we have solved a problem by holding one person accountable we risk addressing a symptom but not solving a bigger problem. Problems that are pervasive and culture wide, such as sexual harassment, abuses of power, child abuse, violence and political corruption, deserve our sustained attention and not occasional outbursts of concern as scandals come and go off our radar.
If we want to solve problems and create a better world, we need to avoid getting sucked into the latest scandal. Here’s how to become unscandalized:
- Check your resentment at the door. Genuine admiration is good for the soul. Don’t begrudge others their success.
- Assess your desires. Sometimes we want things just because other people have them or the culture tells us we should. Be sure the things you desire are good and right for you.
- Develop healthy patterns of belonging. Connect with people and communities that accept and love you for who you are right now. That way you won’t fall into scandal to know just how wonderful you are.
Most importantly, remember that scandals are a seductive package of false promises. They convince us we know the whole truth about the people at the center of the whirlwind when the opposite is true. Ms. Lewinsky said, “I was seen by many, but actually known by few.”
Ms. Lewinsky’s experience reminds us that the benefits from being scandalized come at too high a price for the one at the center of the scandal and for ourselves. To be our best selves, she offered this advice when we feel ourselves drawn into a scandal: “Just imagine walking a mile in someone else’s headline.” That is a wonderful image for the practice of compassion, which serves us well in all our relationships.