Truth & Dare at TED: The Monica Lewinsky TED Talk


What comes to mind when you hear the name Monica Lewinsky? The blue dress? A beret? Or maybe some rap songs? If so, you’re far from alone. But that all changed for several of us, including me, when she walked onto the TED stage Thursday.

The affair that propelled then 22-year-old Monica Lewinsky into the spotlight happened almost twenty years ago. Celebrities and non-celebrities have done far more scandalous things since. None have been vilified or remained a laughingstock for so long.

The theme for TED2015 was Truth & Dare and, in the first three days of the conference, I heard more discussion of her upcoming talk than the theme or any other individual speaker. Not a single TEDster made a snide comment. And not a single person planned to miss her talk and see what idea, in the spirit of TED talks, she planned to share.

Lewinsky’s talk opened a two-hour session entitled “Just and Unjust.” It came on Day 4, when overloaded attendees might have considered skipping a talk or two. But instead, we packed the Vancouver Convention Centre theater and filled the lobby spaces where talks could be watched via live simulcast.

Like most TED speakers, she opened with an anecdote. At her first major public talk at the Forbes Under 30 Summit, a man in his late 20s had hit on 41-year-old Monica Lewinsky. His unsuccessful pick-up line, which she turned into so revealing an opening punch line? “(He said) he could make me feel 22 again… I’m probably the only person over 40 who does not want to be 22 again.” The story was intended to make us a laugh a little and think a lot. It worked.

Over the next several minutes, she wove a pattern of self-effacing, light-hearted beats and increasingly serious facts that kept one of the world’s most demanding audiences engaged. She spoke of being the first victim of a digital revolution’s now all too common online harassment and having all forms of personal information made public without consent or compassion. Of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, unknowingly filmed by his roommate while with another man, and his suicide in the wake of this footage being shared online without his consent. And of Monica’s family making her shower with the door open and staying by her side at all times for fear she, like others since, might be humiliated to death by her own hand.

At the end of her presentation, she received a standing ovation inside the theater and in the lobby beyond. Her talk was praised for delivery, content, and, in TED style, its ability to foster conversation and action long after she left the stage.

In the days since her talk was released, it’s been viewed by nearly a million people worldwide and the count keeps climbing. If you haven’t seen her talk yet, consider giving it the minutes it will ask of your life. Whatever lingering irritation over the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal you may have, her message will make you think, like it made us think, about the ugly truths behind the content we see headlined, and often click on, every day.

Cyberbullying impacts us all. Not a week goes by when there isn’t a story of a vulnerable young person hurting himself or herself in the wake of online harassment. And not a day goes by when we can’t see, in the quick checking of our social media feeds or favorite news sites, some juicy headline whose juice is derived solely from someone else’s shame and humiliation.

Truth & Dare. Once we hear the truth about cyberbullying, delivered so compellingly by such a well-known victim, do we dare to change the way we think and whether we click on links to painful, humiliating commentary about people whose acts don’t justify the treatment they’re now being given online? Do we dare to counter, online and off, the bullies so that the discourse becomes more balanced?

Monica Lewinsky asked those of us in the audience who’d not done something we regretted or made a mistake at the age of 22 to raise our hands. No one did. From the mistakes of our younger years almost always comes wisdom. Dare to watch her TED talk about one person’s hard-earned wisdom. Dare to hear her insight into a problem that impacts us all. And dare to spread the word.

Holly Jones has been published in several print and online journals, and wrote two column series, “Dispatches from the Anacostia” and “Dispatches from the Capital,” for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency from 2007 through 2011. Working closely with Dave Eggers, she co-founded Washington’s 826DC (initially known as Capitol Letters Writing Center) in 2008 and remains very close to the larger 826 National family and its network. She was awarded the TED Challenge Prize for her work to fulfill Dave’s TED Prize wish and is a long-standing member of that community as well. She holds an MBA from Stanford, an MFA from Vermont College, and is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. Find her on Twitter @hollyhjones. More from this author →