The Monika Lewinsky Effect: Questioning Our Approach To Kathy Griffin's Controversial Image

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The morning that Kathy Griffin released the photo of herself holding a bloody mask of President Trump, I was watching Monika Lewinsky's 1999 interview with Barbara Walters (I literally cannot even remember how this happened—I fell down a very deep Youtube hole, idk). One of links that Youtube recommended when the 80-minute interview was over was Lewinsky's much-more-recent TED talk on cyberbullying, and the role her story played in how we use the internet today (she refers to herself as "Patient Zero" of the internet crucifixion culture we've grown accustomed to since then).

So as I've observed coverage of Griffin play out, and as I watched her apology video, and then her press conference, I've been thinking a lot about Monika Lewinsky. Lol. I know, maybe bizarre.

But there is something to this.

Kathy Griffin took her situation to the next level last week when she cried at the podium of a nationally televised press conference over the consequences of her own poor decision-making skills.

A lot was said that wasn't true, much of it by her lawyer, Lisa Bloom, who's a famous (infamous?) civil rights lawyer, most recently known for her public take-down of Bill O'Reilly on Fox News.

But there was also a lot said that did have truth to it—claims to Griffin's right to free speech, for starters. And what I'm about to say will inevitably be an unpopular opinion, but hear me out: as Americans, we should not pride ourselves on our freedom of speech if we do not also enact it.

Here's what I mean:

A number of conservative speakers have been forcefully denied access to college campuses because of pushback by the universities, kicking and screaming (and in some instances, more serious violence) by protestors, and a general blowback on the internet for their message and ideas.

And the conservative side of the aisle is (rightfully) critical of this. They say liberal university administrators and lefty activists are stifling people who have a right by the First Amendment to say whatever it is they want to say when they're invited to speak at these campuses. Conservatives say that denying them that right is an attack on the American values we hold so dear.

I'm willing to make the argument that Kathy Griffin could and should be lumped in with the Ann Coulters, Ben Shapiros, and Ryan T. Andersons of this narrative.

Griffin is the most recent subject of this trend in our country that's stamping out the First Amendment. True to her grotesque sense of humor, Griffin created an image that offended the vast majority of people who saw it. It's clear some people were not offended, however, because just as she took the image down, it had already garnered thousands of retweets and shares on social media (everyone knows a retweet presented without comment is totally an endorsement, come on). Now I, in absolutely no way, support or agree with the image she made—nevertheless, her right to make it is protected under the First Amendment. By way of the law, she did nothing wrong.

That didn't stop social media users, and politicians, and journalists, and the Trump family... from calling for her to be fired from her job, dropped from her contracts, and boycotted pretty much across the board. And I suppose that just as Griffin owns a right to free speech, so do all of the people I listed above. They're free to pressure CNN to do that. But just the same—is it right?

I don't agree with Kathy Griffin, nor do I especially like her... but does that make it right to assault her via the internet the way so many of us did? Here's where I think of Monika Lewinsky, who's been the butt of jokes on the internet before the word "meme" was even in the dictionary. There is so much power in the small gesture of a keystroke. We wield so much opportunity when we post online—and those people who have a following beyond their own circle of family and friends have an even greater responsibility.

It's time to take responsibility, and for all of it. Griffin should have been more responsible with the broad audience that she has access to. But does her wrong justify our right to annihilate her for it?

I think that's something for us to think about.

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