One unfortunate response to the current sexual harassment storm has been the painting of a complex issue in black and white tones. In such an ‘us versus them’ paradigm, attempts to inject nuance into the conversation are denounced as ‘bad opinions’. This approach ends up harming both the falsely accused and more importantly, the victims of abuse.
Yesterday morning an Anchor listener sent me this Vulture article from her Twitter feed. The headline helpfully proclaimed that ‘Matt Damon Is Sharing All His Bad Opinions on Sexual Misconduct’.
Now, I’m generally wary of the notion of bad opinions. As a term, it strikes me as being a little too close to the Orwellian notion of crimethink – defined as thoughts that are unorthodox or outside the official government platform of Big Brother’s regime. As you can imagine, it’s the opposite of goodthink – thoughts that are approved by the Party.
I prefer to characterise opinions as being somewhere between correct (i.e. borne out by the facts) and incorrect (contradicted by the facts). The issue with the opinion that the Jews have all the money and want to enslave the rest of the world is that is (probably) incorrect. If it were correct, then the rest of you best have a talk about these troublesome Jews. I’ll be in the corner with my brethren, eating pickles and plotting your downfall.
Back to Matt Damon’s allegedly Bad Opinions on sexual misconduct. A little premise here. It’s sad that we live in a world where who states an opinion matters more than the quality of that opinion, but I can’t choose the planet I live on any more than I can choose my skin colour. Which is white. Also, I have a penis. Yet, despite what I understand are to be considered my colossal imperfections, sexual abuse and women’s rights are issues I deeply care about and that have affected my life very closely. I am also passionately engaged in exploring what it means to live righteously and applying it as best I can. As to Marc, these days he spends most of his time working on strategies that facilitate female empowerment in countries where women do not enjoy equal rights. So we’re hardly a duo hostile to the concept of, y’know, wimmin.
That said, I’m going to let the author of the article make the case in his own words:
[Matt Damon] now says the consequences for such behavior should fit the crime. And, to his mind, not all such crimes are equal. “I do believe that there’s a spectrum of behavior,” he begins. “And we’re going to have to figure — you know, there’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right? Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated, right?”
Right. So, it appears that Matt’s first Bad Opinion is that the consequences of a behaviour should fit the crime, and that “to his mind” not all such crimes are equal. How odd.
Are we to believe, then, that consequences should not fit a crime? And that all crimes involving sexual misconduct are the same? That in determining an appropriate penalty, there should be no differentiation between miming a grope, hitting on a minor and rape?
There’s more, the author continues incredulously. It seems that Matt said:
“All of that behavior needs to be confronted, but there is a continuum. And on this end of the continuum where you have rape and child molestation or whatever, you know, that’s prison. Right? And that’s what needs to happen. Okay? And then we can talk about rehabilitation and everything else. That’s criminal behavior, and it needs to be dealt with that way. The other stuff is just kind of shameful and gross.”
Now, I doubt the author means that it’s wrong to believe that jail time is the appropriate punishment for rapists and child abusers. So, I can only infer that Matt’s Bad Opinion here is the idea that we should consider these behaviours as falling on a spectrum, instead of perceiving them as identical in their gravity.
This is bizarre to say the least. If anything, it is precisely the idea that these acts are on the same spectrum that legitimises us treating them similarly. Without acknowledging that there is a spectrum, there is simply no reasonable way any rational human could consider an ill-chosen compliment to be remotely comparable to sexual assault. It’s apples and oranges.
The only way those things can be compared is by admitting that, despite their differences, they might have something in common – the element of sexual misconduct. Which is, itself, an admission that these things lie on a spectrum.
Of course, once we admit that there is a spectrum, we are saying that from one extreme of the spectrum to the other, there are degrees of gravity. On a moral spectrum stretching from Genghis Khan to Buddha, Bin Laden lies on the same spectrum as Whoopi Goldberg. Yet we treat those two differently – nobody thinks we should order a night raid at Whoopi’s address and dump her body in the ocean. Reason and decency demand that our responses be calibrated to those gradations.
Perhaps this is the Bad Opinion the author is really objecting to – that consequences should be proportionate to actions. “Fine” the author seems to be thinking, “I can admit that the acts themselves are on the same spectrum, but they deserve equal moral condemnation.” What’s happening here is sleight of hand. The author must accept the Same Spectrum argument, because without it he can’t conflate “hey baby nice ass” with sexual assault, but then he conveniently discards the Spectrum bit and just focusses on the Same part.
Of course, this is at best absurd and at worst both disingenuous and absurd. So obviously it’s emerged as the designated goodthink view on this sexual harassment storm.
So what we’re told is that we’ve got this big pile of behaviours we now label as Sexual Harassment. Within this pile we find everything from cat-calling to the Rape of the Sabines. The problems with the Big Pile approach should be obvious.
On the one hand, culprits are afforded equal scorn, irrespective of the degree of severity (or legality) of their behaviours. This leads to the Worst of Both Worlds: irreparable damage done to the lives of people guilty only of minor offences, and a downgrading of the offences of monsters who deserve to be locked up forever. In law we distinguish between felonies and misdemeanours. Why should this issue be any different? Is it truly a Bad Opinion to admit a distinction between the merely creepy and the outright criminal?
Perhaps more disturbingly, this lack of proportionality affects victims too, when we conflate regrettable inconveniences with life-shattering events. This inevitably devalues the experiences of those who have suffered real trauma at the hands of predators. I know women who have been horrifically abused and I have seen the emotional scars they have been left with. There is something deeply distasteful in comparing that to an inappropriate shoulder massage at work. Neither is acceptable, but only one is a tragedy.
As Bret Weinstein (no relation) put it:
When we maximize outrage over every offense, we steal from the victims that were most harmed, and we move toward excusing the perpetrators who have done the most damage.
So given how evident the pitfalls of the Big Pile approach are, why should we want that? Why should we want a pat on the bum to be stigmatised the same way as rape? Try as I might, I can’t think of any charitable way to interpret this desire, other than as either irrationally vindictive or as an ends justifies the means approach to achieving a socio-political objective.
The latter is a surprisingly popular view among some who, paradoxically, claim to be pursuing equality. Teen Vogue writer Emily Lindin recently tweeted:
…seemingly oblivious to the fact that she wouldn’t be the one paying the price she so eagerly promises.
Maybe this is what makes Matt Damon’s opinions Really Really Bad. If Party-approved goodthink can only include the kinds of opinions that are conducive to achieving a goal, then evaluating opinions ceases to be about correct and incorrect, but instead, becomes about which opinions are useful to the agenda versus those that might harm it. Truth-seeking takes a backseat to mere winning. Within this paradigm, the mildest degree of common-sense nuance becomes intolerable to those wishing to paint the world as black and white in order to justify their purge of unbelievers.
Years ago George W. Bush kicked off his War on Terror with a very particular choice of words:
Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.
But we knew better than that. We understood that to question the ideology or methods of the War on Terror did not mean to support terrorist groups. Today we should understand that to question the moral panic that has exploded in response to the sexual harassment storm does not mean legitimising the monstrous acts of those who have scarred their victims for life.
Nuance, moderation and critical thinking aren’t inconvenient obstacles on the path to some warped version of social justice. They are the tools we deploy in our search for truth and fairness. They are the means by which we avoid unfair punishment of those who don’t deserve it, while ensuring that those who have suffered most find true and lasting justice.