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Are we going for retribution or transformation?

 

In the last two weeks, there has been a great deal of controversy and commentary on recent comments from the actor Matt Damon about the #MeToo movement. This has ranged from substantive critiques to complaints that the problem is that he, as a man, is speaking at all. There has even been a petition to remove him from the movie Ocean’s 8.

Some of Damon’s most quoted remarks (here in context) include: “I think we’re in this watershed moment. I think it’s great. I think it’s wonderful that women are feeling empowered to tell their stories, and it’s totally necessary.… I do believe that there’s a spectrum of behavior, right? 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?… We’re so energized to kind of get retribution, I think. And we live in this culture of outrage and injury, and, you know, that we’re going to have to correct enough to kind of go, ‘Wait a minute. None of us came here perfect.’”

He went on to talk about a couple of different cases on this “spectrum” where, for criminal charges, there should be prison time, but for lesser crimes, there would have to be transformation, “reflection and dialogue and some reconciliation.”

Are these statements basically right or wrong? They are basically right. Not just in talking about the way we ought to approach different cases in terms of punishment, but by pointing correctly to a negative trend that has emerged from the #MeToo movement. And this is something that is vital to get right if this movement is going to go forward on a positive basis. We need to get to a world free of all forms of exploitation and oppression, all the underlying economic and political structures and relations that give rise to them, and all the ideas based on—and reinforcing—those structures. But to even have a chance of getting there, we need to get right how we’re fighting right now, today, for changes. I want to focus here on three questions concentrated in this controversy over Damon’s remarks.

1. Are we going for retribution or transformation?

In response to Damon, actress and activist Alyssa Milano tweeted a thread about how it’s “the micro that makes the macro.” She compared sexual assault to cancer: there may be different degrees but it is all still cancer. She explained: “I have been a victim of each component of the sexual assault spectrum of which you speak. They all hurt. And they are all connected to a patriarchy intertwined with normalized, accepted—even welcomed—misogyny.”

She upheld the “culture of outrage” in a way that could lead to justifying the aspect of retribution that Damon was criticizing. She said: “Sexual harassment, misconduct, assault and violence is a systemic disease. The tumor is being cut out right now with no anesthesia. Please send flowers.” Alyssa Milano should pursue her metaphor. In the history of breast cancer, radical mastectomies were once the one and only treatment known. When cancers returned after the surgery, as they often did, the doctors concluded that they had not cut deeply enough. So they operated again, cutting out even more, and often crippling the women so treated without preventing recurrence. It was only when medicine identified a genetic component to certain breast cancers—that is, it was only when the underlying causes were correctly understood—that a more effective treatment could be designed. If we allow this moment and this movement to be reduced to targeting of individuals and if no distinctions are made between them while the actual underlying and truly systemic causes are ignored and the institutional factors are untouched, a few tumors may be removed—along with some healthy tissue—but after the initial surgery the cancer will surely return.

Given the ways our whole world is saturated and shaped by this kind of misogyny, do we think we can or should try to punish our way out of this? For men—who have maybe never considered or understood the depth of the horrors visited on women—what is the kind of debate and struggle needed for real transformation? What kind of broad debate and struggle has to go on for men and, yes, for many women, to recognize the swamp we’re all swimming in and shaped by? To really recognize and uproot all the ways women are viewed—and frankly, view themselves—as less than fully human? The depth of enforced gender roles, the way degradation has embedded itself into our most intimate relations, the way women have been trained to view themselves as commodities… all this flows from a system and needs to be put back at the feet of the system—not by some kind of individualized bloodlust that actually lets the system off the hook.

Without overturning that essential point here, there is something important that Milano was speaking to: the ways in which women are forced to walk through the world surrounded and assaulted at every turn—on the street, in the workplace and in their most intimate spaces. Let us also add in the culture as a whole (including in the way it is saturated with porn, a point way too little noted in today’s movement), and in the family. The abuse, harassment and worse now being righteously called out is systemically intertwined with the larger system of patriarchy, which is not just a curse word but a system of subjugation that arose with the division of society into classes and is now completely interwoven with the system of capitalism-imperialism.

The widespread and ubiquitous character of this is something that men in this society do not spontaneously understand or appreciate, and are trained to be blind to. The institutional character of it is not spontaneously understood by anyone, and one of the original strengths of this movement in drawing out and focusing on that institutional role and complicity is now in danger of being lost.

Damon himself has clearly been learning a great deal through this outpouring. Later in the same interview with him, he talks about how surprised he has been at how widespread sexual assault is. He said, “I think one of the surprising things for me has been the extent to which my female friends, as, I think, of all the ones I’ve talked to in the last year since all this stuff started happening—I can’t think of any of them who don’t have a story at some point in their life. And most of them have more than one.”

In addition, it’s clear that Damon doesn’t fully understand the ways in which all men are brought up to regard and treat all women, and the way in which all women are oppressed by this. But again, there is inculcated and enforced ignorance about this which comes from and is shaped by this system and prevailing culture. What is needed is serious and principled struggle about all this.

A recent revcom.us article, “The #MeToo Movement: Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize,” made the following point:

This profound fault-line contradiction, which negatively affects every girl and woman on the planet (and yes, more than a few boys and men as well), can and should be understood as a profound contradiction “between the people and the enemy” in that sense. But this contradiction—which truly stems from the workings of this system—nevertheless often, or even typically, manifests as a contradiction among the people. This is a very important issue to reflect on and grapple with when figuring out how best to lead in relation to this current battle and more generally: a key contradiction “with the enemy” that often presents as a “contradiction among the people.”

Just as every girl and woman is negatively affected by sexual harassment and assault throughout her lifetime, every boy and man is, to one or another degree, shaped, trained and ensnared from an early age into a prevailing culture which routinely fosters, encourages, defends, and normalizes the practice of male supremacy in countless forms, from sexist “jokes” to porn to endless daily forms of minor harassment, to outright physical assaults, and rape, the ultimate exercise of power to humiliate, degrade, diminish, and dehumanize. We are ALL drowning in this putrid culture. Don’t we have to deal with the manifestations of such problems via boys and men, ALL the boys and men, shaped by the patriarchy since earliest childhood, boys and men that include loved ones—fathers, boyfriends, husbands, sons, best friends? There are works on the website from BA in particular that get into this, and [other recent] articles began to speak to this, but much more needs to be done.

There is a great deal worth grappling with about this—the reality and implications of this contradiction.

2. Do men have a right and responsibility to speak or should they just shut up and listen?

Another major avenue of criticism towards Matt Damon has been that as a man, he shouldn’t be speaking out about this at all. That right now, he should just “shut up and listen.” But this is wrong and will lead us to a very bad place.

A critical point of epistemology: Truth is not determined by the identity of the speaker; truth is determined by evidence.

First, we should listen to and learn from the flood of stories pouring forth from women. And much more of this needs to happen, even as it has to be increasingly directed at the system and culture that is the source of all this. But while most allegations ARE true and while every woman DOES have a story or more to tell, not every single allegation is true. There are too many painful cases to recount, including the “Scottsboro Boys” 1 and countless lynchings of Black men that took place based on accusations of rape. There are cases in the present day of accusations made that later turned out to be false, including against the Duke University men’s lacrosse team, the story about the University of Virginia printed in Rolling Stone, or even cases of mistaken identification.

Every woman should be listened to and taken seriously, but in evaluating truth we have to go for the evidence.

But there is another, deeper dimension to this. Getting to the truth about the deep societal causes of this and the kinds of changes that must be made to end it, is a question independent of the gender or social position of the speaker and one in which all people who want to see this ended should be participating, with all they can bring to it.

If we think and act based on the false idea that the “truth resides in the speaker,” this will ultimately enforce a society in which “might makes right.” With that criterion, the speaker with the most power will be able to define and dictate what is accepted as true. Here it’s worth thinking about why the Trump/Pence regime is so determined to obliterate the basic concepts of objective reality and evidence-based and science-based truths (words his regime is going so far as to ban from government budgets, documents, etc.). Think about how the fascist movement it is bringing forward is trained to view the truth as what corresponds to and reinforces their feelings—feelings, in this case, rooted in the white supremacy, misogyny, and America Über Alles chauvinism drummed into people in this country from the day they’re born.

If people don’t agree with the content of Matt Damon’s argument, they should argue it out on that basis. And while it’s true that too often men have dismissed women, don’t listen to or hear women, condescend to them, the charge of “mansplaining”—which has been hurled at Damon incessantly—sidesteps and obfuscates the essential question: Is the problem the content of someone’s argument or the gender of the person making it?

3. A dangerous trend: the erasure of works

As I noted at the beginning of this letter, the outrage against Matt Damon now includes a petition, signed by over 20,000 people, demanding that he be edited out of the upcoming film, Ocean’s 8 (made this time with a mainly female cast) because to keep him in “would trivialize the serious nature of the charges against sexual abusers…”

This points to a very ugly phenomenon: people’s work being erased on the basis of accusations or, in Damon’s case, a call to do this on the basis of disagreements with what he said and/or unproven allegations about what he knew or didn’t know about Harvey Weinstein. What was the effect of the boycott launched against the film The Birth of a Nation due to accusations of rape against director Nate Parker—for which he was tried in court and legally acquitted—earlier in his life? A significant, and unique, film about an armed slave rebellion went almost unseen, and this was celebrated and encouraged by far too many people who should’ve known better!

What happens when a standard is established in which a work is not only not judged on its merit, due to alleged transgressions of its author, but is effectively not even allowed to get a hearing—no matter the content of the work?

This is happening to the actor Kevin Spacey and others on the basis, again, of allegations. Here, Matt Damon was terribly wrong in the same interview with him when he upheld the decision to scrub Spacey out of an upcoming film, basing this on financial reasons: that this was “smart, from a business perspective.” Tailing behind what is popular at any moment, with commercial success as the ultimate determinant, will lead to a terrible place. Generally speaking, this system fosters and encourages wrong thinking among people, then uses that to justify what amounts to censorship based on public opinion which they’ve created. This is the logic of complicity with blacklists.

The righteous anger unleashed in these past few months must continue and go forward—but that requires standards and principles that reflect the world humanity needs and that do not fall into mirror-opposite examples of the same methods that keep us in this spot.

1. The Scottsboro Boys were nine Black teenagers, ages 13 to 19, accused in Alabama of raping two white women on a train in 1931. They were found guilty twice by all-white juries, but the case was taken to the Supreme Court. They were innocent, but collectively spent years in prison in a brutal injustice.

Annie Day is a correspondent for Revolution Newspaper/revcom.us and a follower of and advocate for Bob Avakian, his leadership and the new communism that he’s developed.
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2 Comments

  1. Sally Dugman says:

    Yesterday, I was talking about Matt Damon and Woody Harrelson to a friend of mine. To sum up our conversation, I’ll share that there is no way that one can be disgusted by people like these ones. … if they wanted to do so, they could just sit on their wealth and keep their mouths shut. Yet that is not their ways. They love social and environmental justice too much to be shut up:

    Matt Damon reads Howard Zinn by HarperAudio Presents | Free …
    https://soundcloud.com/harperaudiopresents/matt-damon-reads-howard-zinn
    Mar 2, 2015 – Since its original landmark publication in 1980, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States has been chronicling American history from the bottom up, throwing out the official version of history taught in schools–with its emphasis on great men in high places–to focus on the street, the home, and …

    A People’s History of the United States: Highlights from the Twentieth …
    https://zinnedproject.org/materials/a-peoples-history-of-the-united-states-highlights-fr

    A People’s History of the United States: Highlights from the Twentieth Century (Audio) Audio. By Howard Zinn. Read by Matt Damon. 2003.
    Matt Damon reads from Howard Zinn’s 1970 speech, “The Problem is …
    Video for matt damon howard zinn people’s history of america
    ▶ 5:05

    2012 – Uploaded by Voices of a People’s History
    Here, Matt Damon reads from a speech Howard Zinn gave in 1970 as part of a debate on civil disobedience …

    Mountain Heroes: Woody Harrelson | Earthjustice
    https://earthjustice.org/mountain-heroes/woody-harrelson
    Woody Harrelson: My Mountain Story. … Woody is a longtime environmental activist and steadfast ally in the movement to stop mountaintop removal mining. … He has spoken extensively on the harms of mountaintop removal mining, having written in the book Coal Country: Rising Up Against Mountaintop Removal Mining:.

    North Country (film) – Wikipedia
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Country_(film)
    North Country is a 2005 American drama film directed by Niki Caro, starring Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Richard Jenkins, Michelle Monaghan, Jeremy Renner, Woody Harrelson and Sissy Spacek. The screenplay by Michael Seitzman was inspired by the 2002 book Class Action: The Story of Lois …

  2. Fair enough women should expose men and they should be charged
    However women also use sex as a tool [men love sex can’t get it they will masturbate] Women will say no I have headache,stressed out, not in mood, etc , when in actual scientific fact that is a good time for sex as the body produces hormones that are beneficial to improvement of body health.
    There are also women who use sex for various reason for there own self interest such as marrying for money having sex with famous people with full knowledge that men find sex hard to resist.