Brendan O’Neill

In defence of Matt Damon

In defence of Matt Damon
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Movie star Matt Damon has tentatively, politely suggested that the #MeToo cleansing of Hollywood, this chasing of suspected perverts out of the film world, has hints of a 'culture of outrage' to it, and guess what has happened to him? Yep, he’s been consumed by the culture of outrage. He's been insulted, demonised, Twitter-raged against. 'Is Matt Damon OK?', asked one newspaper headline, because if you express an outre opinion these days, people will worry that you're ill. It feels like a grimly fitting end to 2017: someone raises concerns about outrage, and before he’s even finished explaining himself he's shut down by outrage.

I've read Damon's comments, which he made in a couple of interviews, five times now, and I cannot see a single controversial thing in them. He isn't rude, he doesn't demean #MeToo. On the contrary, he praises it. 'It's wonderful that women are feeling empowered to tell their stories, and it's totally necessary', he says. The Damon-bashing fury has been stoked by two of the comments he made, both of which strike me as eminently sensible. First, not all forms of sexual advance or assault are equally bad, he said; and secondly, not all men are nasty bastards. For this, for saying what the vast majority of people would consider to be true, he's been strung up.

Speechcrime No.1 was his suggestion that there's a 'spectrum of behaviour' and 'there's a difference between... patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, you know?'. He said 'both of these behaviours need to be confronted and eradicated' — so he absolutely isn’t justifying butt-patting — but he says 'they shouldn't be conflated, right?'.

Right. They shouldn’t be. We all know there is a difference, a profound difference, between, say, George HW Bush's wandering hands and the violent and total subversion of a woman's autonomy by a rapist. Many of us would feel it diminishes the experience of rape victims, and the seriousness of rape, to speak of it in the same breath as a clumsy come-on or the office creep who leans too closely at the photocopier.

Maintaining a moral, not to mention legal, distinction between clumsy behaviour on the one hand and acts of assault or violence on the other is central to a civilised society. The former are best dealt with in the moment, with a stern rebuke, while the latter must involve the law, and, where necessary, severe punishment. To conflate unpleasant behaviour with crime is to collapse moral distinction and destroy all perspective. 

And yet for saying this, Damon has been branded a 'mansplainer' who doesn't understand the common thread that binds these behaviours — which is that 'they all hurt', as one of his critics said. But they hurt differently, no? Are we allowed to say that? If I get pushed by someone on the street, that will hurt in a different way to my being stabbed on the street — right? The former is something for me to deal with; the latter is something society must deal with. The former is an inconvenience, part of life in a crowded, sometimes disagreeable society; the latter is an assault on my personhood that hampers my ability to go about daily life.

It seems the fashion for victimhood is now so strong that the 'hurt' of minor incidents must be conflated with the pain of rape, perhaps to make those minor incidents seem worse than they were and thus boost the moral, #MeToo standing of the person complaining about them. I think this does a grave disservice to people who have experienced rape. It comes across almost like an attempt to appropriate their suffering for personal gain; I think that’s dreadful.

Damon's second speechcrime was to stand up for men. That is a colossal no-no these days. '[T]here are a whole shitload of guys — the preponderance of men I’ve worked with — who don’t do this kind of thing’, he said. Cue the ‘culture of outrage’. We’re now so frequently bombarded with the message that men are bad, that men hate women, that men are violent, that anyone who points out that for the majority of men that simply isn’t true can expect to be shot down.

Twitterstorms and media freakouts over off-colour jokes, controversial opinions or dodgy political comments are par for the course these days. But the meltdown over Matt Damon feels worse, like a new low in the suffocating culture of ‘You Can’t Say That’, because Damon is being demonised for saying things which are incontrovertible. Being patted on the bum is not as bad as being raped, and people are generally good. I agree with him. He is right. He is telling the truth. But you can’t tell the truth anymore. That’s become a risky business. The culture of outrage cares not one jot for such trifling matters as truth or freedom.