As allegations amass against Hollywood celebrities, Emmet Lyons asks the question if it is possible for those like Aziz Ansari can learn from their actions and be forgiven.
As the #MeToo movement becomes increasingly polarised and continues to spring a groundswell of thought pieces, there lies an integral question that has yet to be truly answered: Is there room for both accountability and redemption for those implicated in cases that are less than clear-cut? The answer is dependent on our ability to identify degrees, and our ability to critically analyse each situation.
Recently, Saturday Night Live aired a sketch that was pretty on the nose in reflecting public sentiment in the aftermath of the #MeToo revelations. The comedic premise was simple: the main characters attended a dinner party where the allegations made against comedian Aziz Ansari came up as a subject. Each character would gamely try to voice an opinion only to then shirk away from actually saying anything of substance, terrified to offend or insult their fellow party guests.
We seem to have decided as a society to react to every sexual allegation against powerful men the same way.
This is all too often what happens when discussing topics as sensitive as sexual harassment or assault. We seem to have decided as a society to react to every sexual allegation against powerful men the same way. We read the story, we condemn, we universally agree that they should never work again and there is no further discussion. People conform and refuse to engage. It becomes easier to not have to think about any of it at all. Thus, the cycle of abuse continues and nothing is addressed because our preference is to pretend this societal plague does not have degrees. Every violation is equal to another. We deal in absolutes.
For figures like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Kevin Spacey there should be no recourse. There is no ethical grey area. They are figures who have committed horrendous crimes. There is no place for their actions in any workplace and especially not in an industry that granted them an almost omnipotent ability to silence their victims. Sexual violence against women occurs all too often but these actions are, at the very least, defined very clearly in our society as morally abhorrent.
In the more nuanced case of Aziz Ansari, the so-called debate is divided into two extremes: completely innocent or fundamentally guilty. Each verdict only serves to stifle any meaningful public conversation. It is both dangerous to dismiss Ansari’s case as a hatchet job conducted by a scorned lover or to conflate his actions with the criminal acts of a figure like Weinstein.
What is striking about ‘Grace,’ the accuser in question, and her account of her night with Aziz Ansari is the normality of the situation. It was a date night like any other with a discussion of their shared alma mater, their love of comedy, and upcoming work projects.
Things began to escalate after going back to her apartment where the situation became a sexual one far quicker than Grace would have liked. She asked to take a second to slow down. Ansari only temporarily adhered to before making an advance again.
Grace’s side of the story needs to be heard and understood. These are murky waters to delve into. Her less-than-clear rejection of Ansari may have come from the ever present threat of a sexual encounter turning into something much darker. She stopped resisting because he kept persisting. It is a familiar tale for many women.
The rules for men have been set by our society, by the patriarchal terms that have been set in pop culture. The messages sent throughout pop culture highlight and underline the need for clear teachings on consent. The format in film and television until recently was set very clearly. The male protagonist would ultimately win the affections of the girl who politely turned down his advances. He just had to try harder. If it wasn’t a firm “no,” then the answer was: keep trying.The encounter between Ansari and Grace is a regular phenomenon, does this mean his career should not be obliterated?
Ansari appears as a paradox; the persistent aggressor in Grace’s account and the champion feminist in his Netflix show Master of None. The patriarchal world we live in has bred many such men, men who believe in women’s rights and who have also been taught that women’s bodies are conquests.
Taking Ansari down and destroying his career because he couldn’t read body language and non-verbal cues will not lead to a culture change
Taking Ansari down and destroying his career will not lead to a culture change in how we approach issues like sexual consent. It will only embolden the extremists who masquerade their misogyny under the rhetoric of being ‘anti-PC.’ Such a hard-line stance would also ensure that men do not discuss their conduct with their female friends for fear of being placed in the same category as a sexual predator.
This current reckoning in our society is, although uncomfortable, a vitally important one. Figures like Ansari should be held to account, but if he is allowed to publicly display his regret and explain how he has learned from his actions, it will do a much greater service in the long run. If we cannot have the conversation because we have placed someone like Ansari in the same category as a predator, then there will never be a shift in male behaviour. Open dialogue is the best disinfectant.