In trying to defend his Manchester by the Sea star Casey Affleck, Kenneth Lonergan may have accidentally opened up a whole new can of worms.
The director wrote a letter to the editor of the Wesleyan Argus — a student newspaper at Wesleyan University — in response to an article written by a college sophomore about Affleck and Lonergan. The article, headlined "How Wesleyan is Complicit in Affleck's Sexual Misconduct by Endorsing Lonergan '84," argued that Wesleyan, in its championing of Lonergan as an alumnus, has been an indirect party in supporting Affleck despite allegations of sexual harassment against the actor.
Lonergan's response tears into the writer for penning "such a tangle of illogic, misinformation and flat-out slander that only the author's presumed youth can possibly excuse his deeply offensive display of ignorance and warped PC-fueled sense of indignation."
Some parts of his defense are right on the money — like criticizing the Argus article for its careless "use of the terms 'sexual misconduct,' 'sexual harassment,' 'sexual abuse' and 'sexual violence' as if they were legally or physically interchangeable." But Lonergan's letter ultimately raises a lot of issues about the discourse around Affleck, the allegations against him and why the director wrote this particular response in the first place.
It is somewhat baffling that Lonergan's most high-profile response to the allegations against Affleck was a letter to the editor criticizing a student journalist's piece. Multiple national news outlets wrote about the accusations in the run-up to the Oscars, including the New York Times, New York magazine and, of course, this very website. The Gray Lady's piece wasn't worthy of comment, but the Argus' was?
One commenter on Lonergan's letter, as Jezebel pointed out, asked the obvious question: "Didn't you just win an Oscar, why are you responding to an article a college student wrote about you?"
Multiple explanations for this are possible, including that the sloppy language Lonergan criticized made the Argus an easier target — though it is hardly the only outlet guilty of such terminology confusion. Additionally, the Argus piece, unlike those in the New York Times and New York magazine, takes particular aim at Lonergan. But the whole thing feels a little like Goliath writing a letter to David's editor, frankly.
On top of that, Lonergan hauling out a "PC-fueled sense of indignation" as a defense is groan-worthy. Political correctness is about avoiding exclusion or insult to people of marginalized groups. Connecting the Argus writer's criticisms of Wesleyan for supporting Affleck to political correctness requires several leaps in logic. Instead, Lonergan is using "PC" as a lazy swipe — odd, considering his own disgust with the Argus writer's imprecise language.
If Lonergan had kept his focus trained on the Argus writer's overreach — which is real, although not quite tantamount to the "slander" of which the director accuses him — this letter could probably be written off as an ultimately correct overreaction. But it's in Lonergan's actual defense of Affleck that his letter grows really troubling.
"Anyone can sue anyone for anything in this country; the unsubstantiated details go in the public record and stay there," he wrote. That's a dangerous thing to claim, as technically accurate as it is ungenerous. It makes the two women's claims against Affleck sound like salacious, idle gossip, not weighty allegations against a powerful man. Yes, we live in a litigious society — though it's nowhere near as much as some other countries — but Lonergan saying this contributes to the culture of disbelief around reporting sexual harassment.
In the United States, sexual harassment is a civil claim, not a crime. Even if the cases had been decided in the plaintiffs' favor, nothing would be considered "proven." A civil judgment is not a statement of guilt. Quite frankly, short of recorded evidence, there is no way to legally prove or disprove the allegations against Affleck. If there were evidence, it's now sealed; Affleck settled both suits, making him and his accusers bound to not talk about them or any of the details therein.
This is the difficulty of talking about the allegations against Affleck: It's impossible to state anything with certainty. Lonergan can point out that "Casey denounced the allegations as being totally fabricated," but such a statement is useless. Similarly, belief in the plaintiffs' stories only goes so far. This story reached its ending seven years ago; relitigating the sparse available details doesn't do very much.
Here's the long and the short of it: Affleck won an Oscar despite allegations of sexual harassment against him and his settlement of two harassment suits. For some, considering Hollywood's oft-noted culture of harassment, giving Affleck an Oscar felt like a bridge too far. Definitive innocence or guilt is never coming in this case; to claim clear and confident knowledge either way is a fool's game.
Yes, the Argus writer got sloppy with his language choices, and as he studies in school, he'll learn more about the importance of precision. But Lonergan punched down from a defensive posture — and in the process, he ripped open the entire Affleck debate and exposed just how thorny and frustrating it really is.