Opinion | Monica Lewinsky Has Some Things to Say About Cancel Culture
When you walk in the room, do you have sway?
Let’s see. I think we need another piece of duct tape.
Sorry, we’re duct taping our thing —
— in here. Monica can duct tape.
Exactly. I can duct tape, people.
I don’t know that I just did anything.
That’s O.K. We’re jerry-rigging our interview here.
All right, we’re starting. All right, Monica. I’m here with Monica Lewinsky. Monica, welcome to “Sway.”
Thanks. Hi, Kara.
So, I just want to say, the backdrop here is Monica and I are in the jankiest studio in West Hollywood. It smells like pot. It’s where Snoop Dogg does things, clearly.
And the microphone is taped. It’s just —
Yellow duct tape.
Yellow duct tape into a diamond —
If we sound funny during this entire interview, you know what happened. Which is not necessarily a good thing, because it’s, like, The New York Times, and you expect it to be the highest level. And now we’re getting high in West Hollywood. In any case, there’s so many things to talk about. We’re going to talk about technology. We’re going to talk about your documentary on shame. But I want to talk about the FX show first because I think it’s where you’ve gotten a lot of attention lately. Beanie Feldstein plays you. You were a producer on it. There’s been a lot of series about the Clintons, very few about you. This one is different. Tell me why you wanted to be involved.
The “American Crime Story: Impeachment,” is really tracking three different women’s perspectives from 1998. And there are three women, including myself, who were in the margins of power at that time. And I think that we rarely see — I mean, certainly the history books from that time period are written by men. And the perspective is usually shaped by men. So with the show, Ryan had this perspective —
That’s Ryan Murphy.
Ryan Murphy’s perspective coming into this, and what was intriguing to me was the idea of looking at this story through different lenses. So my story is a narrative in the 10-part series, but it’s not the only narrative.
Odd fact, Ryan Murphy and I were interns at The Washington Post.
He was the world’s worst intern at The Washington Post.
I think — Oh, at The Washington— I think I sort of probably took the title of —
Oh, right, I’m sorry. I can’t believe — I just can’t believe I said that.
Oh my god. No, he was, actually, if I’m gonna stack-rank you. All right, so what was it like seeing someone playing you?
It was bizarre. I mean, Beanie is an extraordinary young woman. And it’s really interesting because I think it was shortly before Ryan and I had dinner to talk about the show and sort of seal the deal, I had seen “Booksmart.” And there were moments in “Booksmart,” even though Beanie was playing a senior in high school — there were moments where I just felt, god, there’s something about her that reminds me of me. There is a certain age where you’re just becoming an adult and you think you fucking know everything. And you think you’re ready to take the world on. And you don’t, of course. You don’t really understand consequences. I mean, we’re, of course, responsible for our actions at that age. But I think that there was a humor to her, but a sadness. And she sort of seemed to be able to portray, in different characters I’ve seen her, just that thing we see of bright, smart women making dumb choices.
One of the things that I think people don’t understand about you, as well, is how funny you are.
And people have a narrative around them. When you thought about doing this though, it’s the way you want to be portrayed, correct?
Well, it’s — I think, yes. I think this has been a huge learning curve for me because I had never been involved in a dramatic series before. So I think the tango for me of understanding emotional truth and dramatic license and how you can’t take several years of time and when you condense it into a 10-hour episode — understanding what that means, understanding how you have to make all the pieces of the puzzle work. And there were a lot of things that I think are incredible about the show. There are some things that I wish were a little different.
So did you have creative control or veto power?
No. I had no creative control. I felt very listened to. I was able to give notes on everything. I’m sure I gave far more notes than anybody would have ever wanted. And in all ways — Ryan has creative control of his projects. And he definitely listened to me. But being listened to and being heard doesn’t always mean you get your way.
Now, one of the things you said is you felt that you shouldn’t get a pass because you’re a producer. Talk a little bit about that, meaning, portraying you not as an angel or a heroine.
Right. I mean, look, I’m a flawed person. I’m a good person. I think I’m a kind person, but flawed. I make mistakes. I made a lot of mistakes when I was younger. I still make all sorts of different kinds of mistakes as an adult.
Although, Monica, no one’s quite paid for their youthful mistakes as you have, I think.
That’s very true. It was a very high price. I lost a lot, not just then but the long shadow of the repercussions will have forever impacted how I was able to move forward, in some ways.
It completely defined you in a way that was indelible, in a lot of ways. But let’s keep talking about the show for a second.
Right. So just to answer your question — look, there are so many mistakes I made in that time period that I wish I could erase, and I wish didn’t have to be in the show. But I think, particularly because I was a producer and because I wanted people to see the truth of a lot of these stories and what happened, it was obvious to me when I got a script that didn’t have this one incident. This, like— I very clumsily flirted. I’m not a very good flirt. And I very clumsily did this thing with my thong underwear and showed an inch of it. It’s a whole big long thing.
Yeah, I recall.
And that wasn’t in the script. And my first reaction was like, yes, that’s amazing, great. I don’t want to have to go over the tropes. And when I thought about it, I realized if this isn’t in here, people are not going to trust the show. They’re not going to trust all of us as producers and storytellers. And I shouldn’t get a pass. And I recognize that that was important, as much as I wish it didn’t have to be in there.
Right. I’m astonished that I know this fact. It’s really kind of gross. So I’d love to go through this in a very quick way, sort of a lightning round. Your favorite moment on the show, did you have one?
I do. It’s a little bit of a spoiler alert.
That’s okay. People know the story.
Yeah, I know. Well, you know what? I think people are surprised by how much they think they know, and then how much they’re learning. Like, even me, my margin notes. Did this really happen? So, there’s a moment in episode six, which is the F.B.I. sting, which is how I found out about the investigation. And there’s — it’s making me emotional. There’s a moment where — in the Crate & Barrel where Monica is with the F.B.I. agents in the middle of this horrendous 12-, 13-hour day. And there was this feeling of — it sounds crazy, but it was this feeling like somebody would be able to look at me, and they would be able to sense that I was — like, mental telepathy. Help me. Help me. I’m in trouble. Help me. And so there’s this moment where Beanie, as Monica, looks at the salesperson, and she just nailed that moment.
Right, which is get me out of here.
Which is help. Yeah, I need help. Everything is not okay.
Yeah. Was that the most difficult moment for you to revisit?
No, there was sort of an irony for me around the episodes. And I’ve only seen 1 to 7 so far. Where the dual hats of subject and producer, where I left and I’m shattered because I’m so triggered. And I was like, oh, god, this is so hard. And then the producer in me is like, god, this is great. It’s great that I’m triggered. If I’m triggered, it means the emotional truth has been captured and people are going to really experience this. And so there were a lot, and it is so — Kara, it’s so hard. It’s so hard to watch “myself” making stupid mistakes. You just think, you know, don’t smile back. Don’t say that. Don’t flirt. Walk away. Be shy. And then also with Linda Tripp. It’s a split screen for me and my lived experience of the flashback of what actually happened and the flashback of what I’m watching, but I now know more.
So that is — It’s really challenging. It was very challenging to see. And every time I do something connected to this story, it sort of allows me another layer of healing. I think it’s just been — shame is not something that just goes away. It clears in layers. And so I’ve had to really work hard to just try to forgive myself more.
Well, you’re not allowed to leave it behind, as other people are.
You know, or bury it very deeply. So what was a moment that was relieving or affirming?
Episode 7, I sobbed just reading it. I think that they did an incredible job of capturing the first few weeks of what it’s like to go from being a completely private person who didn’t want to be a public person — I did everything within my power, including signing a false affidavit, for this to not become public. Obviously, it became public because I stupidly confided in somebody. And it became public because I engaged in it. But I think people will be surprised to understand and to see what it’s like on the other side of the double-sided mirror. What does it feel like to see yourself on T.V.?
Right. Your character spends part of that episode on the couch watching T.V. coverage of the scandal. The coverage is brutal. I remember it.
Yeah. Me too.
At the time, I thought it was brutal.
I got a sense this probably was the worst part for you, is seeing this happen. You becoming a trope, a character. A reductiveness — the reductiveness that exists today, to me began —
And then I think, too, there’s something I couldn’t see until I was much older, was the famous finger-wagging scene. A scene, I call it a “scene.” As if, you know, it’s like — it was a moment.
It was a scene, Monica.
It was a scene. And in the moment, at the time, I was so young. I was so traumatized. I still had these feelings. It’s not like everything had been over with Bill. And so I still naively loved him. And I was glad, at first, because I thought, oh, good, he can save his job. I didn’t want him to lose his job. In part, for him. And I think, in part, some part of me just thought, I don’t know that I could live if I really am responsible for all of this shattering.
Monica, there is Bill Clinton.
No, no, I know that now. That was me at 24. That was me at 24. But what I also see now, and I think we see this, and this is where it’s very interesting and weaving into more of today’s stories too, is that he laid out the game plan. He signposted for everybody. “That woman.” “I did not have sex with that woman.” And that was it. He was going to deny it. And I was fair game.
Were you surprised?
Naively, I was. Part of me was. Sheila Nevins once said something really interesting to me. Some version of, it’s impossible to imagine other people doing things that you yourself could never do. And so I think that it was — he knew me. So it was one thing for people who knew of me, maybe who worked in the White House. But he knew me as a person.
And I get it. Politics is the oxygen, his oxygen.
So many people would absolutely run over their mothers if they needed to. That’s what I, you know —
There is a type of person who does that.
Particularly in D.C.
Yeah, yeah. So there’s a scene where — speaking of mothers. The character of your mom tries to get you to turn off the T.V., and you won’t let her.
It’s funny. My friends and I talk about this a lot now, with social media, around self-harming.
You know, where it’s sort of like, don’t look at the new girlfriend’s Instagram. It’s just self-harm. Don’t look. And I think that there was an element of self-harm there for me. But more than that is, I had no fucking idea what was happening. I would have to watch the news. Most people forgot this or didn’t know. All of my friends who knew, who were also 24, were dragged before the grand jury. And I wouldn’t know who was going until I’d see on T.V. that morning and just sort of think, O.K., I hope I didn’t say anything about them on the tapes that — they’ll never talk to me again. So it was my source of information.
Right, but you also couldn’t — it’s like looking at an accident —
— but you are in the accident.
Exactly. And I don’t know if this is everybody. I’m someone for whom information feels safe. Nobody does well in uncertainty. I do really poorly in uncertainty. And so I think there was a part of me that also thought the more information I have, like, I can be strategic. How do I think about this? And I don’t know whom I can trust.
Yeah. The other part of it is that, I know this sounds funny, but you were besides the point, once it got out.
You hardly mattered in what it was. You became a trope, a narrative, a tool.
Yeah, I was one-dimensional.
A tool for either side, which was really interesting.
I think that that’s true, in that the Clintons had the left, Linda Tripp and Paula Jones had the right, and I had nobody. I mean, I had my family, thank god. But in terms of a public narrative, I think — and that’s kind of one way where social media may have been helpful. I don’t know. But the only way I heard from people was either they mailed me a letter, they made a comment somewhere online, or they had something that was attention-grabbing enough that they could get into the paper. Like, I know from my friends that people would, initially, when they were asked for comment, if they said something nice, it didn’t make it anywhere. Nobody was interested to hear that I was a decent person. Even still today sometimes, people will say, if someone finds out that we’re friends —
I want to get to that later. You have mega fans, especially women, who do not know you. But at the time, you were caught and not willing to pull aside the way that others did, like Paula Jones, who — I found great poignancy in her portrayal.
Annaleigh Ashford, yeah, she does an incredible job.
That is an incredible thing. Annaleigh Ashford, yeah.
I think we’re finally at a point, hopefully, where both sides are saying, she never should have been invited up to that hotel room, full stop.
There is nothing else to say.
Well, it’s that she had to find refuge in the right.
So talk about this. So much of the Clinton scandal we mentioned has been originally written by men like Ken Starr. This show was written by a woman, Sarah Burgess. It’s the women who are at the center of the story. You, Linda Tripp, Paula Jones. Why is that important from your perspective? Obviously, I found great empathy for Paula Jones and Linda Tripp.
Yep, me as well. What I think this allowed us to do, and Sarah Burgess did do a great job, is — I think that the first thing that went out the door in 1998 was the truth, and the second was context. And there’s no nuance. And we were all women who were thrust into the spotlight underneath a political film or sheen. And we were all reduced. We were all reduced in different ways to serve purposes for other people, for either political points or to make money. And so I think that everybody working on the show felt that humanity is what we want people to walk away with, this understanding of humanity for all these people.
How do you think about Linda Tripp now?
It’s complicated for me because I had a very bizarre thing happen. I started to do a really deep and intense sort of spiritual work, maybe thirteen years ago, which I still do. And I never set out to sort of forgive her or let go of the bile. But one day something happened and I realized I’m not carrying around that bile around her. I don’t get that indigestion. And I think there are times she’s popped up, things she’s said. I mean, she’s passed away now so — there’s no version of me that understands why she did what she did. Her narrative of that she was trying to help me, I think there are myriad ways that she could have done that, that if that were true, she would have done.
Well, she was seeking relevance. She had been shuttled aside.
She was one of those very Washington people that are at the center of things but really aren’t important. She had no power. And this gave her power, by stepping on you. Or using you, really.
Right, which is a very Washington thing to do.
Right. But it only brought her shame, which is —
Right, I mean, she gave a speech a few years ago at a — oh gosh, what’s the word? See, the pot’s getting to me. [LAUGHTER]
It was all planned, Monica.
I know. Whistleblower. So she gave a speech.
This is called hotbox Sway.
Yeah. [LAUGHS] So, Linda. I think the tragedy for her really was that she didn’t have the self-awareness to recognize exactly what you just said. And so she had to couch it in all of these other terms that just really don’t add up. I read an interview that her daughter gave to Vanity Fair after the first episode, remarking on that Sarah had captured — both Sarahs, so Sarah Burgess in the script and Sarah Paulson on screen — had captured Linda’s intelligence and her wit. And she had both of those things. And she was a dynamic spot in a place that — the Pentagon is so different from the White House. Everything is kind of this bland, fluorescent light-colored gray khaki. And here I am, raised in Beverly Hills, went to college in Portland, Oregon. A White House internship as a pit stop on my way to grad school. I did not fit in at the Pentagon.
Yeah, you were both exiles, is really what happened, is how you had each other.
So are you — I’m not saying forgive Linda Tripp, but did you feel satisfied with this portrayal of her?
Yeah. Look, it was complicated for me. I think there were times, in all honesty, some of my script notes, some were looked at, some were not, where I felt there was too much sympathy. But then there were also times where I had to kind of have a talk with myself and sort of say, I don’t need to worry about that. I need to worry about what’s my truth and what’s here. And let people judge me for me. And I have to try to focus on something higher, a higher purpose. Like yes, of course, there are all sorts of selfish reasons I participated. But then there is also a really important reason for me around moving the conversation of this forward, ensuring that something like this doesn’t happen to a young person again. That if they are taken advantage of, 75 percent of the blame should be on the person in power.
I would say more like ninety, Monica.
O.K., 90 percent. 90 percent in this case.
I’m giving it a 99, actually.
How about 85? 85 and 15 —
You’re being kind. Your life has been so derailed by what happened between you and Bill Clinton. How do you feel about the fact that your life has been so altered and his has not, in a lot of ways?
I’ve had moments of bitterness about it, but how I feel now is, I don’t really need anybody else’s life to be fucked up. I just need people to not stand in my way. I think where it is important — my background is in psychology and social psychology. And so I’m always stepping back to look at the bigger picture. And when I look at the bigger picture, where I see it as problematic is, what does it mean for society? What would it have meant if he had stepped down? What would it have meant if he had been meted a punishment that was appropriate at the time for something like that? Would that have then ended up changing history in different ways? Or we see now, too — I mean, when the news came out about Ken Starr being so involved with Epstein. And you’re like, oh my god, the two most powerful men from 1998 —
And Clinton too.
— in this investigation, Clinton and Starr, and they’re both tied to Epstein. And I’m not saying that — I’m not in any way drawing a parallel between what Epstein did with these young women and what happened between Bill and myself. But I think that the fact that these two men could then ride along on their power and end up there, that shows us something. And also too, I think people of a certain age and a certain stature, they end up not changing, not being forced to change.
Why should they?
And that’s the irony of where I was lucky. that I was the youngest and least powerful, is because the only way forward for me, eventually, was I had to do — I hate saying the phrase, “I had to do the work on myself.” I had to evolve.
Yeah. That’s why I’m curious. Did the Republicans approach you to speak out against the Clintons?
I have had outreach —
Especially during the Hillary campaign. You did not.
I did not.
I’ve always been struck by this.
I did not, yeah.
All the others did.
First of all, no matter who was more at fault, I was engaged in something. And any time in my life, when I’m engaged in any kind of behavior that causes pain to other people, I regret that. So it’s just not my way. I’m just not vindictive that way. And not to say that those women are vindictive. They have every right to have their own feelings. That’s just not my path. But it’s interesting. The ladies at “The View” were thrashing me. And I hear this a lot. Look, fair game. If I’m doing things, people get to say what they want to say. But the thing is, like, this idea of making any kind of money on a past history, we never talk about —
Are you kidding me?
But we never talk about what people turn down. The millions and millions and millions of dollars—
— because I just didn’t — yeah, I just didn’t think it was right. That just wasn’t right for me. I don’t want to pass judgment on anyone else. It wasn’t right for me. I always wanted to just — which, thankfully, I have more of now. I just wanted to be seen for my true self.
Yeah. But why shouldn’t you tell your story in a factual, classy way? I don’t even understand that.
Right. I think that there’s — I mean, I don’t know if you’d agree with this or not. I think our political views are sort of our most salient aspects of our identity. I mean, maybe gender or sex, but I think they’re up there. And because it was sort of this mix of sex and politics, and it the first baby boomer president, there were just so many different things —
And there were the attacks on the Clintons, the actual right-wing attacks.
Yeah. I am certain that you would be able to find a day in history where you had Paula Jones being attacked for various things, probably her looks. Linda Tripp being attacked, the same things. Hillary Clinton being attacked for the same things. Myself being attacked for the same things. Misogyny has no party loyalty.
Yeah, that’s very fair.
I think that we’ve gone far, far away from what politics should be.
Right. There’s also women attacking each other, right?
When I interviewed Hillary Clinton in 2018, I asked her if she wanted a do-over of the comments she made you. Privately, I was more strong. I thought it was wrong and you deserved an apology. She wasn’t able to do it on stage. She got close. And we had a very thoughtful talk about it. But do you think that pitting her against you has been one of the most disturbing of all the narratives, or you against Linda Tripp?
Right. I agree. I think that —
I still think she owed you an apology. But go ahead. And maybe you owed her one too.
I do owe her. I publicly apologized, and were I to have the chance privately, I would do so too. I think that this is part of — woman versus woman is one of the playbooks in the patriarchy. And so I think that it is some of the worst ways. But we do it. We do it to ourselves. [MUSIC PLAYING]
We’ll be back in a minute. [MUSIC PLAYING]
Let me get to your documentary, “15 Minutes of Shame.” And one of the things that I thought was most important was a review of this show, “Impeachment,” which said, in the show, you can see a lot of seeds of what is happening now with the media picking apart, with an emphasis on sexual politics and extreme partisanship. Can you make that link to now? Because this is what you’re talking about in this documentary.
Absolutely. We’re kind of asking these two questions of, how did we get here and where are we going. And the “how did we get here” part is what really fascinates me. We can see this thread from when shame started to become monetized, when it went from being out of the town square onto the printing press. And then you add in things like Rupert Murdoch and tabloids, and the tabloid culture started to infect every area of our life. And this could have ended with Princess Diana’s death. She was killed by the paparazzi chasing her. The paparazzi were chasing her because they make money from the tabloids for their photos, right. So there was this moment where we could have pivoted and we didn’t, as a society. And so what happened then is, all of a sudden, the crash of all of these cultural things, with 24-hour news and the competition that had started to happen with 24-hour news and the internet. And so I think that what that meant is that the storylines were louder and were around longer. We also were starting to see with the internet, right around there, blogging. And so people who were non-experts, who normally wouldn’t be published, had a public platform.
Right. And you had done this TED Talk where you said, “As far as the culture of public humiliation goes, what we need is a cultural revolution. Public shaming as a blood sport has to stop. It’s time for the intervention on the internet and in our culture. The shift begins with compassion and empathy. Online, we’ve got a compassion deficit and empathy crisis.” It’s worse, Monica. So this is very prescient, what you talked about.
I’m in the documentary, by the way. I talk about it.
You are. You’re amazing. It’s a 90-minute doc. So we could have done a 90-minute doc just on your interview.
Just saying, fuck you, Facebook, right, essentially? That’s really pretty much my jam these days.
You’re not alone.
You were talking about this in the TED Talk. It has gotten worse.
It has. I think that what we’ve seen is a proliferation of siloed information and viewpoints. We’ve seen a proliferation of people learning to game the system. So how to use the internet for misinformation, disinformation, and chaos.
Which is the point.
Which is exactly the point. But what has happened is we’re in this culture of humiliation now. And, along with attention and outrage, public shaming, piling on people, doxing, all of the different things that can happen to tear someone apart online, they all make people money.
Right. So in the documentary, you wrote, “Our culture is drowning in something, shame. I wanted to understand why.” Do you think you have an answer to that question?
No, I don’t have a definitive answer to that because I don’t think it’s one thing. It’s not just tech. They’re the laws. There’s also human behavior. So I think we need to start having this conversation a little more — I don’t know if “holistically” is the right word, but when we’re talking about these things, it is to be cognizant of all of the different things that are at play. So I think the first place we can start is the place nobody really wants to start. And that’s with us. And I have to do it myself. One of the things that you talk about, which I really like because I feel the same way and I try really hard to follow it, is sort of the difference between dissenting about someone’s opinion and picking them apart for their looks.
I’m the only person who protects Mark Zuckerberg when he puts on the correct sunscreen.
Right, but I mean, I’m the same. And I didn’t — I wouldn’t retweet pictures of Trump and his — whatever, his golf outfits —
Or his pants because I just thought, this isn’t the real stuff to go after someone.
So when you think about how this has evolved, one of the things you were asking for in that speech at TED is compassion and empathy needs to return. Again, it’s only gotten worse. Why do you think that is?
I think probably because, in my view, from my political perspective, we took a pretty sharp turn. So my talk was 2015. We took a pretty sharp turn in 2016. And I think that the way politics unfurled for that election, and the way the internet was used, I think it became something different. Trolls became something different. Troll farms became something different. Internet misinformation —
Isn’t that just an amplification of what happened to you when you were watching those television shows?
Yes, I mean, I went on The Drudge Report every day in 1998, too.
Right, it was integral to getting out. By the way, Billy Eichner plays Matt Drudge.
Oh, doesn’t he do a brilliant job?
And Cobie Smulders plays —
Ann Coulter. And boy, you really do understand the power. Because the internet is what got that out.
I think it was the first time traditional news was usurped by the internet.
Right, in a major news story.
Right. And then when The Starr Report came out, it was the first time that you missed history being made if you didn’t have access to the internet. It’s a fascinating —
I wonder what your scandal would have been like had there been social media, whether, like you said, whether you would have had more power or they would have?
Right. I don’t know. One thing I do know, I mean, I don’t know that it’s the right context in which I would have been judged, but what would have existed is, rather than going to my high school yearbook page to see, what did I put in my stupid collage, you might have seen more aspects of who I was as a person, that people would have been able to anchor. They would have seen that I was funny back then.
That was a joke. But yeah, or just my level of intelligence, or what was I interested in. Or not even level of intelligence, but that I wasn’t a dumb bimbo.
You would have also had power, presumably.
I might have. I don’t know. I might have. I think what it also would have meant is that the kind of loose rules that I had to live under in ‘98, why I couldn’t speak for myself, had to do with legal aspects. And that just doesn’t even exist anymore.
Right. You said the internet might have allowed you to speak for yourself back in ‘98. I wonder what you might have said if you had spoken for yourself.
Oh, gosh. I think if we lived in that world — I’m trying to think now. I try really hard to be honest. My social media, like, that authenticity is really important to me.
You’re very kind on social media, I have to say.
I’m not sure that’s a compliment.
I’d be a lot meaner.
You’re a weak bitch on Twitter.
You’re not weak. You’re very kind.
I can be such a bitch, sometimes, don’t worry.
I have to slap people for you, for Maggie Haberman, for Hillary Clinton. I have to slap people for a lot of people.
Well, you’re principled, Kara.
Thank you. So what’s been the impact of Trump? You said something turned. Was it Trump, or Trump’s ability to misbehave and the tech platforms doing nothing?
Right. I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. I think it was the divisiveness of the two candidates, and what it meant. And that we had a woman running for the highest office in the land. And I think that Trump knew how to use the internet.
He’s using it the way that this documentary —
Right, exactly. So going to your point, I think we were all of a sudden in a new territory. And I think that the platforms don’t act fast enough. There’s a lot of good. There’s a beauty and a beast quality, right, to the internet. And I think we see that in this documentary, where the beast part of it in the doc are people who — some people will know their story and they’ll come to understand a totally different part of their story. But you also see where the beauty of it being used for, like, shaming for change, in a positive way.
You’re saying it’s both things. Net negative, net positive, when you think of the tech companies and what they’ve done, how much blame do you put on them?
I put a lot of blame. I don’t put as much blame as maybe people who don’t swim in this world at all. I know a lot of people who are in the different companies. I know they’re trying different things. They’re trying to roll things out. And I have respect for some of them. What I think is problematic is that they are not prioritizing what they should be prioritizing.
Exactly, safety. Particularly for women, marginalized groups. And that is where, for me, it’s a little less binary. And I kind of just go, we all know we could have something better right now. We all know that could exist. So I don’t know why it’s not happening, but trying to get there. And I agree with you and your comments around Section 230, around — I think if we just, again, in the binary, either keep it or get rid of it. We’re never going to get anywhere. And that we should start by evolving it in smart ways. I guess the thing is, with tech is, that I don’t even know anymore if we can say, is it better with or without, because it’s here. I mean —
So it’s the oxygen.
Yeah, it is. I mean, there’s a great quote, “Everyone deserves a voice, but not everybody deserves a microphone.” And I think that there are ways that our social media should be catering to that, in a sense.
Well, Instagram just paused Instagram Kids.
Yes, I think it would be very challenging to be a young person growing up today.
Right, especially for teen girls. Anderson Cooper did this great documentary a few years ago, where they had access to 13-year-olds’ social media and phones. And this stat stayed with me. And it was that 13-year-olds that they looked at would take 150 pictures for one selfie that they’d post. And what gutted me with that was this idea of, what’s the negative self-talk in the 149, that you were like, oh, no. Nope. Got to take another one. This looks bad here. And how much harder it makes it to not judge your insides by other peoples’ outsides. I think we look at this bigger picture of technology too, and this is where I think the platforms are failing, is we prioritize being first instead of being right. And so what happens is, if you think about — for the longest time, there were certain techniques that people could do for a photograph that was in a magazine, what a touch-up was. And then along came Photoshop. But do you know Photoshop, right? You had to have a certain level of skill.
Here you can just —
Right. And now you have a filter. So, I mean, you see this thread of what happens through technology. And it’s like, we have to get better.
Do you do you see any solutions? I know you keep saying empathy, kindness.
Which I do think is a solution. I mean, look, I don’t have this Pollyanna view that all of a sudden, everybody’s going to wake up tomorrow and be kind on the internet. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think it happens incrementally. And those incremental shifts actually cause more seismic shifts. Or things like, why can we not slow down the tsunami? When something starts to trend that should trigger a bell of, this person is not a public person. I’m not saying anybody’s voice should be taken away. But why can’t we slow down the rate at which those tweets start pelting at somebody? Because we often don’t have context. We often don’t have all the facts. We don’t have the nuance, like the three day rule, this idea around, maybe we should just be quiet for three days until things come out. I mean, I know. Not going to happen. But still, it’s about getting attention —
One of the things that I thought was interesting was a review about your show. “It does push viewers to reconsider a moment when media partisanship, sexual politics, and celebrity took a hard turn toward the reality we’re living in today.” I think you can draw a very bright line. And I’m not sure there is a solution because people liked it. People liked your story as entertainment, as fodder.
And on top of it, they also like to say that they weren’t interested. But I think that if there were a solution, as bright as I like to think I am, I’m probably not the person who’s going to come up with it.
Right, O.K. But you felt heartened.
But I feel that I see things all the time online where strangers are being kind to each other. And when you pause, when you do find the humanity, it’s not going to solve everything but it starts to move us towards a different place, the platforms becoming more responsible. This idea, to me, of the fact that somebody can have intimate video or photographs of themselves, taken by someone else or taken without their knowledge even, put up on the internet where everybody can see it and people fucking make money from it, and that can’t be taken down in two seconds? That’s bullshit. And that is not O.K. for us to be living in a world where — particularly it happens to women — that we should have one more thing we have to worry about and have lorded over us. It’s bullshit. It’s just bullshit.
Let me end on this and cancel culture because then you have people who say you shouldn’t censor people, you shouldn’t —
Yeah, it’s complicated.
It’s such a politically charged term. What do you think of “cancel culture“?
I see the benefits and I see the detriments. And really, my top feeling about it is that — and this is how I feel about a lot of things, that they become a catchall phrase. We need to actually divide cancel culture up into what the pieces are. What are we talking about? Are we talking about a MeToo scenario, where someone has been a sexual predator, abused their power? Are we talking about a scenario where it’s a company? Or are we talking about something that’s a racial issue? What are we talking about? Is it a misstep from somebody who actually rarely does anything like that? Is it something somebody said from a long time ago and they’ve evolved as a person? So we’ve given this one term to all of these things. And it doesn’t work to have this same cycle of behavior for all those things.
Yeah. Well, it’s been reduced. I call it “accountability culture.”
Yeah. Roxane Gay calls it —
Roxane Gay —
Yeah, she calls it “consequence culture.” And I think that there’s a lot of truth there. I also think we — that it’s now a thing. Like, I see people debating, like, was I canceled or not? I’m like, I don’t know.
Yeah, because it can be a public form of shaming someone.
Right, it is.
Maybe some people deserve shaming in some ways.
And that’s the thing. It 100 percent is a form — think about, you couldn’t really have cancel culture without public humiliation and public shaming.
Right. Who should arbitrate these nuances then? Because Twitter — like, who’s running Twitter? Nobody. It’s sort of like the right the inmates are —
Yeah. Or there’s that perception that one person is sitting at the top deciding the algorithm. I think Tristan Harris talks about that. And I don’t know the answer. I mean, I feel like, I know it seems like I should.
I think the truth is, is that —
I think the problem is it’s nuanced, and people have made it reductive.
Did you ever think you’d have gotten involved in this kind of debate, like, from where you started?
No. (LAUGHING) No, I wanted to be a forensic psychologist, so I wanted to work for the F.B.I. I was really interested in criminal profiling.
I’m going to ask just two more questions then.
What would be a surprising thing about you that people don’t know, do you think?
Oh. A few years ago I would have said that I’m funny. Some would still be surprised that, like, I have a master’s degree in social psychology. People might be surprised at how much work I do on myself, maybe. And I take it really seriously, healing and becoming a better person, if you will. I mean, certainly still flawed. I don’t know. I feel like this is a boring answer.
That’s O.K., no problem.
That I’m boring. How’s that? That might surprise people, that I’m boring. I’m happier cuddling on a couch watching T.V. then out at a party.
No, you’re a much classier broad than people think. I think everyone in your entire story has behaved badly, most especially Bill Clinton, by the way, who could be canceled, in my opinion, in many ways. I don’t know if you think that, but I do.
I think — listen, I think he had an opportunity as an elder statesman, when the conversation was changing, to be somebody who could have taken responsibility and done things in a different way, if he had evolved much.
But I knew a small part of him, and I mistakenly thought it was all of him. And I don’t know him. And I haven’t spoken to him in 20-plus years. And so I don’t know who he is today.
I think many people should be ashamed of themselves. I know you talk about shame, but they should have been ashamed of how they behaved and continue to behave. And I think you’re the only one who didn’t throw anyone under the bus, which I think is very unusual. So I’m going to ask this last question. The name of your production company is Alt Ending. What would your alt ending be if you had to rewrite it?
Oh, gosh. I — again, back to maybe the boring or the banal, my alt ending would have been: I left my internship, I went to graduate school, got a Ph.D. in forensic psychology, got married, had kids.
Yeah, so —
You can still have alt endings, you know.
Yes, I can.
This one’s a good one.
I have had — the last seven years for me have been nothing short of a fucking miracle. And so I feel like, all right, well, if I’ve had one miracle, I could have another. And as Pollyanna as my mom can be at times — I think she prefers sanguine — she’s always saying, you never know what or who is around the corner.
You don’t, Monica. You don’t.
I know. Well, you can look out for my next boyfriend.
All right, I know some people. But they’re not going to be assholes. You’re not going to have a bad boyfriend.
Or, as my therapist says, we just need to find you a kind narcissist who’s a little less broken than some of the others.
There will be no bad boyfriends for Monica Lewinsky.
No, I have dated some great guys. I am very lucky.
I will see if I can do something about that. Thank you so much.
Thank you, Kara. [MUSIC PLAYING]
“Sway” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Matt Kwong, Daphne Chen, and Caitlin O’Keefe. Edited by Nayeema Raza, with original music by Isaac Jones, mixing by Sonia Herrero and Carole Sabouraud, and fact-checking by Kate Sinclair. Special thanks to Shannon Busta, Kristin Lin, and Liriel Higa. If you’re in a podcast app already, you know how to get your podcasts, so follow this one. If you’re listening on The Times website and want to get each new episode of “Sway” delivered to you by our worst intern, along with our new companion podcast, “Hotbox Sway,” download any podcast app, then search for “Sway” and follow the show. We release every Monday and Thursday. Thanks for listening.