John Oliver dedicated Sunday’s Last Week Tonight to “one of America’s favorite pastimes,” public shaming. He detailed the devastating effects and the ethical grey areas of targeting a public versus a private citizen. On hand to discuss her own “shitstorm” experience was Monica Lewinsky, who became a punching bag for media to late-night comedians after the Bill Clinton sex scandal in the mid-to-late Nineties.
“Thanks to the Internet, it’s never been easier to pile onto a public shaming,” said Oliver. “This is a golden age of Internet shame, and you’ve probably participated in it if you’ve ever been mad at a potential Oscars host with shitty tweets [Kevin Hart], a company who made a black-face shirt [Gucci], a beloved Irish actor who wanted to a commit a racist murder [Liam Neeson], an aquarium that called an otter ‘thicc’ [Monterey Bay Aquarium], a gender reveal party that started a wildfire, whoever attacked Jussie Smollett, whoever didn’t believe Jussie Smollett and, finally, Jussie Smollett.”
Oliver argued that, while shaming can be destructive and dangerous, it can also be used as an accountability tool when “well-directed” — like “if someone’s caught doing something racist or a powerful person is behaving badly.” His infamous example is Fox News host Tucker Carlson — “the answer to the question ‘What if the sound ‘thud’ grew a face?'” — who is currently in the midst of controversy after liberal watchdog organization Media Matters for America unearthed several of his radio appearances criticized as misogynist, racist and homophobic (like calling Iraqis “semiliterate, primitive monkeys” and comparing women to dogs.)
“Tucker is actually a good example of an Internet pile-on being merited,” Oliver argued. “He’s a public figure. He made his comments publicly. They are appalling, and he’s standing by them. But clearly it’s not always that simple. Because when misdirected, Internet pile-ons can destroy people’s lives … Ordinary people who did not ask for attention can get sucked into the spotlight.”
In 2015, a woman infamously dubbed the “Aunt from Hell” and “Auntie Christ,” sued her nephew for $127,000 after she broke her wrist during an overly enthusiastic hug. But that lawsuit was just a technicality — her health insurance didn’t pay all of her medical bills, so to cover in order to cover costs, she went through her relatives’ homeowners’ insurance; that tactic forced her to name a person in a lawsuit, even though the family was fine with the approach and wouldn’t be required to pay. That didn’t stop the Internet, or even some media outlets, from continuing the onslaught of criticism — even after she went on The Today Show to clear her name.
“We make fun of people constantly on this show — it’s a comedy show,” Oliver said. “But for what it’s worth, we do think, probably more carefully than you might imagine, about who we’re making fun of, why we’re doing it and how. We ask ourselves questions all the time, like, ‘Should we use their name?”, ‘How much power do they have?’ and ‘Do they have a soul patch?’ That last one can be a real deal-breaker.”
“The punishment,” he continued, “can be vastly proportionate to the offense. And perhaps the best example of this is Monica Lewinsky. Two decades ago, this country put her through hell.” At 22, she began an affair with President Bill Cinton that wound up being made public — graphic details and all — in a report from independent counsel Kenneth Starr. “It is impossible to overstate just how globally famous Monica and public details of her life became,” Oliver said, cueing up a series of “relentless” late-night comedy punchlines from former Tonight Show host Jay Leno. (Oliver even took blame for his own jokes, pointing to a “gross” retrospective piece on The Daily Show that used the graphic “10 Suckin’ Years.”)
Instead of speculating on the effects public shaming had on her life moving forward, Oliver sat down with Lewinsky — who has since emerged as an anti-bullying leader — and asked directly about the “ferocious and devastating” ordeal.
“It’s exacerbated beyond what anybody could have imagined initially,” she told the comedian in a pre-filmed segment. “The anonymity that comes with [the Internet], that sort of unleashed these whole new personas for people.”
Asked “how the fuck [she got] through that,” Lewinsky said she wasn’t sure. “It was a shitstorm,” she continued. “It was an avalanche of pain and humiliation … At 24 years old, it was really hard to hold onto a shred of dignity or self-esteem when you’re the butt of so many jokes and being so misunderstood.” She also focused on being the victim of “slut-shaming” and numerous jokes about her appearance. “Part of my vanity now comes from the wound of having been made fun of for my weight, for people saying I was unattractive,” she said.
She noted that the scandal, which affected her ability to get a job, is forever linked to her name because of society’s “sexist” lens of naming the affair after her. Lewinsky insisted she never wanted to change her name — partly because of the double standard that Bill Clinton wasn’t pressured into doing the same. “Nobody’s ever asked him [if he thought] he should change his name,” she said.
While she acknowledged that social media could have increased the volume and intensity of the hatred she received, it also could have helped. “I think I would have heard some support from people,” she said, “so it would have been a little more balanced. One of the things that happens with these kinds of experiences is that you start to disappear — you start to feel like you don’t matter. I think that when somebody sees you and just acknowledges your humanity in the smallest way, it really can make a world of difference. And you don’t know — it can help save someone’s life. And I think that’s important.”