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. 

  • ’17

    Also, what makes you think civil suits are the “least emotionally traumatizing and legally expedient route?” If anything, civil suits might more traumatizing. The plaintiff is still going to be deposed under oath, have to answer every question you can think of, relive the encounter, have every medical record and therapy note for the last several years subject to discovery requests and READ BY THE DEFENDANT, and the lawsuit and filings will all be public record. You really think this is less traumatizing than a criminal case? And yes, anyone can sue anyone for anything, and lawsuits are often frivolous. If you had literally any sort of knowledge of how the system works, you would realize this.

    It seems like there’s the chance that you have very little idea as to what you’re talking about.

  • ’17

    This is idiotic. I’m getting sick of reading it. It’s stunning how an accusation is not sufficient proof in the court of public opinion for any type of offense unless that offense has the word “sexual” in it. The mental gymnastics you and others on the campus use to lump different offenses together and equate accusations with guilt is nothing short of extraordinary. Please, spare us any more of these diatribes and start thinking critically

  • Ralphiec88

    At first glance, I thought you have a promising future as a political propagandist ahead of you. But I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and suggest that your article is evidence the Wesleyan “bubble” is real, and that it would be wise to try to escape that bubble before graduation forces you to. For example:
    – An article is not a “hissy fit”, “unhinged”, or “bluster” just because it contradicts your viewpoint. Mr. Lonergan’s letter is well reasoned, crisp, and on point, all qualities that are rare on these pages.
    – It’s generally easier to respond to a made-up version of your opponent’s position than your opponent’s actual position. However that is what’s known as a “straw man” argument.
    – If you need 1200 words to respond to a 400 word letter, you probably don’t have much of substance to say.
    – Making compassionate statements about victims of sexual misconduct does not add weight or evidence to an argument.
    – Attempting to discredit someone by pointing out their skin color discredits you.
    – Use of “he doth protest too much” as evidence was great during the witch hunts, but really has fallen out of favor along with the word “doth”

  • Phineas T. Prune

    Your premise is ” I am a young man child and so is Connor and we wrote our opinion and this guy who is closer to the facts had the nerve to challenge us how dare he?” Get Bent. Seriously Bent.

  • Hannah

    So, because sexual misconduct is wrong, we should eviscerate anyone who has ever been accused of such?

    I would say Lonergan’s piece was more strongly about clearing his own name than it was defending Affleck, since the piece Lonergan responded to was asserting wrongdoing by Mr Lonergan.

    Your piece however seems to me an attempt to take the moral high ground and to suggest that because (as it truly is) it is difficult for a person to come forward claiming sexual misconduct of someone else towards them, it means every person who makes such accusations is telling the truth. This leads to an entirely different ethical view than the justice system works upon. And it my view, it doesn’t imply a morally sound system! No right thinking individual wishes to begin from a place of disbelieving potential victims, but this does not mean every case is exactly (or, potentially, at all) as an accuser states.

    You also clearly refer to victims who have suffered abuse and rape in the way you discuss the difficulties of dealing with life following such situations. While, though you don’t explicitly accuse Affleck of such, it is a way of making it seem as though his alleged actions are worse than even the allegations were. No sexual misconduct is OK but when you clearly refer to how hard it is for a person to face severe physical abuse or trauma you’re addressing an important issue, but I personally feel it has strayed beyond the specific issue with Affleck.

    In the end: this was a civil case. Both parties agreed to settle. The accusers presumably got a considerable amount of money. Neither party is now free to discuss the matter. I personally find it difficult to imagine how in either situation I could agree to settle a case rather than see it through, but I can at the same time easily understand reasons both parties could have for doing so.

    Outsiders can talk about it until the end of time, but it will not change the fact that none of us will ever be able to say for certain Affleck is 100% innocent or 100% guilty.

    You think it is so terrible a thing for Lonergan to respond to a piece defaming him and in some small way an infinity of material at the moment slandering his coworker and friend, Casey Affleck: a man Lonergan has known since Casey was probably a not dissimilar age to those in college here.

    Should Casey Affleck not get work as an actor any more (or be awarded for good work already done) because he *might* have been verbally sexually inappropriate with someone nearly a decade ago? Might being the operative word.

    If he did it, he has paid money & hopefully the accusations have been a part of making him think and change since the event.* If not, you’re taking down an innocent man under the guise of supporting women. But these sensationalist pieces do nothing to actually support women.

    * I have to wonder where Joaquin Phoenix fits into all this: present the whole time on this same set, still best friends with Casey Affleck and the brother of Casey’s then wife. Would he not have had a problem if Casey, the husband of his sister were really behaving awfully? I mean, they’re questions I cannot answer. Speculation is merely that.

    But anyway: I feel like this article tries to take the moral high ground, but do you think it is morally right to try to take down a potentially innocent man? Life is not so simple as this article seems to imagine, and the truth is that mostly: neither are people, I think.

    ” 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.”

    Couldn’t you also apply this to yourself and your writing of this article?

    • Maurice Duruflé

      You state the issues well. But there is no basis in fact to guess that any money passed between the parties in settlement. The terms of the settlement are generally not disclosed. In speculating on various settlement scenarios, its certainly possible that the accusers were presented with proof that they would lose if the case went to trial. Or, in the alternative, money was passed in an amount less than the cost of a defense. It’s called a nuisance settlement.

      In neither scenario can liability be assumed just because the matter settled.

      – Krumhorn

      • Hannah

        Hi Krumhorn, thank you for this information. It didn’t even occur to me/I didn’t know that a settlement might be made without any money changing hands. It makes sense of course that this could be the case, but I have now learned my new thing of the day, so thank you! I know I have much I could learn in this area. I cannot claim to have any real knowledge in such matters.

  • Maurice Durufle

    You, like your fellow idiot student, continue to proceed upon the premise that an accusation is the same as proof of the charge, and that opinions and actions should be directed by the fact that the accusation was made. Do you have any idea how perniciousness that is?

    I take it then that the more serious the charge, the less seriously you should take your responsibility to respect fundamental fairness to those accused.

    And let’s be clear. At no point did Lonergan “seemingly discredit” the accusers. He merely asserted the central truth that neither you nor Aberle have any facts upon which to base your sliming of two Oscar winners other than the fact that accusations were made. In that regard, “opinion journalists” are indistinguishable from those who write on bathroom stalls, “for a good time, call Aberle”. Does it matter if there is any truth to that?

    – Krumhorn

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