On Friday, The Argus published an opinion article by my colleague, Assistant Opinion Editor Connor Aberle ’19, in which he argues that Wesleyan must take a hard look at the way it chose to celebrate the Oscar success of semi-alum Kenneth Lonergan ’84 (Lonergan transferred to New York University prior to his graduation). Aberle, uncomfortable with Lonergan’s seemingly tone-deaf praise of Casey Affleck—the star of the film for which the writer/director won Best Original Screenplay in spite of the actor’s history of sexual harassment allegations—suggested that both Lonergan’s praise of Affleck and Wesleyan’s endorsement of the victory constituted both apologism and erasure: the elevation of a man who seems all-too-willing to turn a blind eye to sexual misconduct when it has been allegedly committed by his friend and coworker.
Whether by Google Alert or sheer luck, Lonergan stumbled upon the piece and responded in a Letter to the Editor roughly 24 hours later. In his response, Lonergan slammed Aberle for a “tangle of illogic, misinformation and flat-out slander,” arguing that the original piece failed to address either Affleck’s repeated denials of the allegations or the way in which the cases were settled (in a civil suit, out of court). Furthermore, Lonergan blusters, Aberle’s train of reasoning “exemplifies a disjointed abuse of morals and reason which those of us on the Left like to imagine exists only on the Right.”
It’s tempting to come after Lonergan simply for the strange, unhinged decision to get into a moral kerfuffle with a writer for The Argus, whose arguments were only given more attention by the writer/director/sexual misconduct apologist’s public tantrum, but that would only take attention away from the wrongheadedness of much of what Lonergan is using his Letter to say. Rather, if there were any holes in Aberle’s depiction of Lonergan originally, the filmmaker seems to enhance the argument made against him, line by hissy-fit line.
The issues with Lonergan’s response ultimately have very little to do with Affleck specifically, because Affleck is not the first person to have acted inappropriately toward people he has had power over, and Lonergan is not the first man to try to excuse such behavior by acting as though the court of public opinion in which journalism (opinion journalism, in particular) is held should adhere to the same standards as the legal court system. He argues that “sexual harassment,” “sexual misconduct,” “sexual abuse,” and “sexual violence” all have different legal meanings (which is true, though not all of these are even legal terms) and physical effects (which might be true, but unless Lonergan has sat down with sufferers of these actions, I doubt he is in any position to make that claim). More so than the “illogic”—to crib from Lonergan himself—of including this statement in criticism of a piece that calls for Affleck’s exclusion from a private industry rather than his prosecution in the public courts, this line of reasoning reinforces the dangerous perception that sexual misconduct is simply a legal matter.
Lonergan does not seem dumb, so I would hope he’s aware of how our legal system treats women who come forward with regards to sexual misconduct, ranging from harassment to more obviously violent offenses. If not, he should perhaps do some research into the standards of proof, the way in which consent is viewed legally, and the shaming that often takes place in investigations of such crimes. Interviews with victims and survivors clearly demonstrate that civil suits are often the outcome in such cases, not because there is no evidence against the perpetrator, but because for victims, they are the least emotionally traumatizing and legally expedient route. For those unfamiliar with the process, it might be easy to shrug off the pain of following up a traumatic experience with the prospect of having one’s sex life and sexual morals publicly explored at length by strangers who have been all but trained to blame the victim (especially if it’s a woman) for unwanted advances. For many, though, this procedure is unbearably horrific. There’s also the chance that Lonergan has very little idea as to what he’s talking about.
This funnels neatly (and hideously) into the implication of much of what Lonergan seems to be saying: Casey Affleck is an upstanding man who was exploited by two women hungry for his money, and willing to falsify damning charges in order to get their hands in the honeypot. Perhaps this was not Lonergan’s intention, but his dismissive assertion that anyone can sue anyone else for anything makes it seem as though the director views Affleck’s accusers as shameless opportunists. Regardless of intention, this implication is grotesque, and it feeds into one of the most dangerous narratives about survivors of sexual misconduct, painting them as liars who are chomping at the bit to ruin a famous man’s reputation.
If Lonergan did not mean to make this point, it only drives home how insidiously ingrained in society this narrative has become.
Never mind that Affleck is one of many pieces of evidence that powerful white men accused of heinous misconduct rarely have their reputations ruined by such accusations. Never mind that Lonergan seems so willing to take Affleck at his word, but refuses to imagine a reality in which these women are anything but liars. Never mind that these accusations have been reiterated for months, if not years, without robbing Affleck of an Oscar and a Golden Globe. No matter how fervently Lonergan believes that being held accountable for his associations represents some sort of pseudo-fascist, anti-democratic abuse of public discourse, he should take a moment to wonder who is more frequently silenced by the system he’s endorsing. Here’s a clue: it’s not the prominent white man.
It’s perhaps telling that Lonergan felt the need to respond so ferociously here, in an embarrassing display of “he doth protest too much.” That this previously little-read article convinced Lonergan that Aberle’s arguments (which are, admittedly, flawed in places) might do real substantial damage to the director’s reputation seems to suggest that Lonergan is more uncomfortable with his Affleck association than he might be willing to admit. Certainly, Lonergan might want to complicate what he sees to be an oversimplification of how films are cast. And maybe he does have a sincere and earnest commitment to what is, arguably, a problematic understanding of legal versus social protections. But his need to go so far out of his way to defend Affleck unequivocally and seemingly discredit the actor’s accusers is troubling and frustrating, especially given the experiences of women who have found themselves on the receiving end of varying degrees of sexual misconduct. It seems intellectually dishonest, and morally troubling. So, taking Lonergan at his word, and at his endorsement for “actual as opposed to merely vocalized social justice,” I would urge him to take a hard look at what really angers him so deeply, and whether the righteous indignation he’s poured into this defense would be better served helping the truly vulnerable.
Until then, at least he’ll have an Oscar to soothe his conscience.