As we live in a world increasingly sensitized to injustice both real (plentiful) and imagined (also plentiful) one of the more interesting (at least for me) developments has been the uptick of incidents involving men whose progressive credentials are well established making the news with public utterances that have come to shake up their “good guy” status. In a little over the last half year there have been three stories in particular that captured my attention although I’ve noticed many more. Each event offers a specific lesson in the way good intentions can run amok, and easily transition to self parody.
The most recent item is in some ways the most ludicrous. In mid-December Matt Damon was speaking about the run of sexual misconduct stories that had supplied a seemingly endless stream of headlines since the Harvey Weinstein revelations beginning in October. His take was that all the behavior in question was unacceptable, but that there was a difference between the creepy obnoxiousness of an Al Franken and the “A” level felony predation of Mr. Weinstein. That struck me as a reasonable approach to the whole sordid mess. He wasn’t making light of any of it. There wasn’t any element of “boys will be boys”. His perspective was simply that not all manifestations of a common problem had the same weight. Coming from a political side of things that far too often engages in the most puerile sort of equivocation it was a refreshing level of candor. It’s also a not remotely radical cognitive approach that has been a huge part of our legal system through out the history of this nation. At the risk of being flippantly succinct, stealing an apple is not seen the same way as stealing somebodies Apple computer, or emptying out the inventory of an Apple store. Grabbing someone’s ass during a photo shoot isn’t necessarily a joke. If it’s not okay with the grabee you’ve got yourself an assault. He just felt it was worth remembering that not differentiating between the above mentioned example and a demonstrably more violent act could have some very negative unintended consequences. Owning up to basic unwanted behavior might become something of a challenge if people are going to see it as interchangeable with serial rape. Judging from the response he got I’d have to say his instincts were on the money. I understand that this is an emotionally charged subject but it’s not like he was interviewed while wearing a “rape, schmape” tee shirt. As if to validate his fundamental point, a petition began to circulate requesting his removal from the upcoming Ocean’s 8. I’ve never met Matt Damon and I can’t claim any special insight into him but in the absence of some direct, compelling evidence deciding to tar him with the “harasser” brush seems unfair to me.
Back in June Bill Maher had Ben Sasse (R-Neb) as a guest on his show, Real Time With Bill Maher. During their exchange Senator Sasse invited Maher to visit Nebraska and come work in the fields. Maher, in a moment of comedic impulsivity replied “… work in the fields Senator, I’m a house nigger.” You can see this incident below.
That’s an awkward moment. Getting this out of the way, his intent was clearly humorous. He apologized the next day, issuing an overlong, roundabout half mea culpa, half validating explanation that struck me as off point. The biggest problem with the joke was the venue/audience. The kind of personal relationship that might make that sort of thing okay just wasn’t there. I’m not saying that any word is in and of itself forbidden. I’m even more emphatically not saying that use of the word “nigger” is only acceptable for black people (up yours Michael Eric Dyson). I am saying that the epithet carries an intrinsic flammability and if your not working in quotations you should have good cause to believe that the person on the other end of it is going to feel like they’re in on it. The blow back had the range of response we would expect at this point. Some of it was fair- rebukes centered on the language but not more generally disparaging of Mr. Maher. Some of it was the usual collection of over the top suggestions starting with show cancellation and leading up to career immolation. Considering Maher’s history of sympathy and support for black issues and his indisputable (if you’re over the age of seven) lack of malice the willful obtuseness to the concept of context is kind of sad, as is the pretentious grasp at intellectual validation that is indicated by that sort of thing. Or maybe, God help us, people actually believe that sort of crap.
The final story I’m thinking of involved comedian Dave Cross. In mid October actress Charlyne Yi recalled an incident from several years past in which Cross had belittled her over her clothes and then upped the ante with a few crude, racially oriented insults. In part…” I think about the first time I met David Cross ten years ago and he made fun of my pants (that were tattered because I was poor). Dumbfounded I stared at him speechless and he said to me ‘ what’s a matter? You don’t speak English? Ching-chong-ching-chong… Then, after he saw I was offended, he asked me if I was going to fight him with karate in a southern accent.” Predictably Cross responded to her accusation with an apology in which he didn’t remember the incident but still felt terrible. That was followed by his suggestion that they both were not remembering the event correctly. He followed that by explaining that his end of the exchange was done in an “… asshole, redneck character.” More on that in a bit. He followed that with a fair, if self serving, closing directed at hyper critical social media users …”I truly hope, and I mean this from the bottom of my soul, that this happens to you too. Maybe then you won’t be so quick to judge. But… probably not.” By the way, Cross’ wife was initially more than casually supportive of Ms. Yi, providing a wonderfully vivid example of the phrase “a perfect end to the perfect day”. Sorry dude, that had to hurt. It strikes me that Dave Cross has two issues to deal with. The first one has been outlined above and leaves room to see the whole thing as a legitimate misunderstanding. At the time of his initial conversation with Yi she was dating a friend of his. It’s not unbelievable to me that he made some attempt to be amusing when meeting her and it went badly. I can see how things got away from him. The second part of this story is the one I haven’t read anything about. You see, as worried as Mr. Cross might have been that people were unfairly hanging an anti-Asian bias label on him he didn’t give a shit if the whole world knew that he sees every one born south of a certain latitude as a moronic, unabashed racist. His excuse for using stereotype A (ching-chong etc.) is that he was really using stereotype B (slack jawed racist son of the confederacy). The problem here isn’t that he’s lying, or even bending the truth. The problem is that he doesn’t see the irony in his position. “Gee your honor I couldn’t have robbed the bank, I was too busy driving drunk” might be a legitimate legal defense but it does leave us with some other questions about the defendant’s character. I know that Cross grew up in Georgia and Florida and can only surmise that it must have been a rather unpleasant experience for him. Hey, his unflattering perspective on all things southern might be heavily based on miserable first hand knowledge. I’m just wondering if he would be able to extend the kind of forbearance needed to sympathize with him under those circumstances to someone else who’s schtick involved a mocking depiction of another group. Look, it’s comedy. I get it. Somebody had to get slapped. Just saying that even a quick aside acknowledging the whole thing might have made it all a little easier for some of us to empathize with.