Toward Rehabilitation (Aziz Ansari)

All right, so let’s talk about Aziz.

As of today, he’s finally responded to the allegations published Saturday regarding a 2017 incident, and his statement appears conciliatory on the surface. Given his outspoken support of women and his understanding of social justice, I want his statement to be conciliatory.

However, the statement does a couple things we’ve seen before.

First, without contesting any of the facts as written in the original article, it sums Ansari’s position up neatly (emphasis added): “afterwards we ended up engaging in sexual activity, which by all indications was completely consensual.” There is no universe in which the facts, stated as they were in the original article, could have given unambiguous indications that everything was consensual. Grace (a given pseudonym) states that she noted her discomfort early and often—even apart from what sound like overwhelming non-verbal cues, I count five separate instances in the article of Grace verbalizing her concerns. I will note that this is a very similar tactic that we’ve seen from others accused in recent months, and in particular Al Franken in his apology to Leeann Tweeden about the forcible kiss at the core of her allegations. (Note, too, that this is Franken’s second apology after the first was widely panned as being woefully insufficient.)

In this vein, the statement also moves the goalposts subtly regarding the correspondence Ansari had with Grace afterward. The statement frames Grace’s text as saying “although ‘it may have seemed okay,’ upon further reflection, she felt uncomfortable.” This is designed, whether intentionally or not, to give the impression that Grace’s feelings about the night changed in between the events in question and the text that was sent. The text is reproduced in full here, and the “it may have seemed okay” phrase appears at the beginning of paragraph 4 of 4. It is very clear in context that this phrase is not discussing Grace’s reflection on her own feelings of the incident, but is referring to Aziz’s understanding of the night in his initial follow-up text. At best, this is inadvertently misleading, and at worst…

Finally, the statement, while it does mention that he did respond privately after further reflection, does not discuss at all any kind of personal viewpoint on what has happened. No apology, no discussion of personal growth, nothing, outside of “I took her words to heart”. Now, there could be a number of reasons for this. Perhaps Ansari believes that the subsequent discussion resolved things privately and that it’s not the business of anybody outside that sphere. (It’s unclear if there was subsequent discussion past the texts that are included in the above tweet.) Perhaps Ansari believes that his apology to Grace over text, reproduced in the same tweet, is sufficient.

But perhaps Ansari really doesn’t believe he did anything wrong. Or maybe he believes he has the goodwill to receive the benefit of the doubt and cut his losses without too much trouble. He provides only a broad overture to “the movement that is happening”, without more. And even though I think the situation in question might be a grayer area than some we’ve seen, even for some who believe themselves advocates and allies in this fight, this illustrates why having this conversation is of paramount importance.

An article from The Atlantic dropped yesterday, trying to place the blame back on Grace for this series of events. The narrative is framed first by the author’s age, one that notes that she is coming at this from the framing of an older generation. (This framing is bludgeoned into the reader in the back half of the article, through a series of highly questionable illustrations about how it used to be the woman’s burden to provide affirmative non-consent.) She then briefly runs through Grace’s narrative, calling out Grace’s recalled quote as she is leaving Ansari’s place: “You guys are all the fucking same.” To the author, this invalidates the rest of the narrative (which she characterizes later on as “3000 words of revenge porn”)—as she states: “[T]his has happened to her many times before. What led her to believe that this time would be different?”

The logic of this line still astounds me. Regardless of whether you consider Ansari’s actions sexual assault, regardless of whether you want to take the distraught utterances of a woman who has good reason to feel traumatized as an opening for a petard hoist, consider it from this perspective: If Grace happens to be one of the 17.6% of American women who has been a victim of an attempted or completed rape, could you imagine telling her that she should not have expected an attempt at romance, or sex, or anything similar, to have gone any differently? If we are serious about creating a world where men and women have equal power and agency over their sexual encounters, how can you blame, really, anything on the mere fact of a woman trying to seek out her own romantic and sexual experiences?

That does not mean that the other side is necessarily to blame. Plenty of situations exist where a miscommunication without any blameworthy conduct may lead to hurt feelings. But, as I mentioned, there were five distinct instances where Grace registered her discomfort. What if instead, she had left or Ansari had stopped after one, or two, or three, or eight, or twenty—where is the point at which we should (or must) assign blame to the party that should be paying attention?

To be clear: What Ansari did, at least as laid out in the original article and insofar as it was left uncontested by his statement (regardless of the dodges outlined above), was blameworthy. It was less bad than things that he could have done, and it was more bad than other things he could have done. And those hypotheticals don’t change the fact that it, on its own terms, was bad. I think this merits labeling it some form of sexual misconduct. There are many degrees of sexual misconduct, but denying that this counts on some level is to erase an entire category of sexual misconduct.

But does this particular instance merit criminal charges? If you know me, you might be unsurprised that my answer is no. I do not believe that the carceral state is the solution to nearly any problem. Is that a dodge of my own in this case? Perhaps. But I bring up criminal justice here because I think it’s instructive in what we should be expecting when we encounter cases such as this.

Much of my personal disdain for the criminal justice system, aside from its discriminatory enforcement, comes from putting people in cages—it is entirely inconsistent with the idea of rehabilitation. And if you take rehabilitation as the ideal goal of the criminal justice system (as you should, even if we might disagree on who is beyond rehabilitation), the injustice of a system that primarily incapacitates is laid bare.

But what is rehabilitation? To oversimplify, it boils down to personal growth that is both measurable and acknowledged. (This is why parole applications hinge, in many if not most cases, on an applicant admitting to the crime of conviction and noting that it was a wrong thing to do, regardless of whether the applicant claims actual innocence.) And what might that mean in the context of the litany of sexual misconduct claims that are currently coming to light?

Let’s start with the most egregious example. Weinstein, many might say, is beyond rehabilitation, but I would disagree. “What can he do to redeem himself?”, you might be asking. And that’s the balancing act we employ with rehabilitation: the problem for Weinstein is that the gravity of his conduct means that his rehabilitation would have to be massive and probably unprecedented before people start believing that he’s truly changed. But it’s possible: say he gives his entire amassed fortune AND remaining future interests away to community organizations (ground-level ones, not big-ticket visibility organizations) dedicated to helping survivors of gender-based violence (whether sexual violence, DV, etc.—I’m not picky), and he becomes a formal and outspoken critic of workplace discrimination and does so in a way that makes it clear that he’s internalized the problems with both individual power dynamics and the institutions that may make it so. In addition, he eschews the fancy and glamorous dinners and gatherings in order to organize and speak on behalf of, and thus to signal boost, those who have been marginalized by actions like his. Has he been rehabilitated? It’s fine if you say no, but hopefully this at least seems like he’s trying. (Of course, this also works in reverse: we’ve exiled Weinstein in part because it would be highly unlikely for him to take these rehabilitative actions of his own volition.)

This is my problem with Franken’s floor speech upon his resignation from the Senate: he’d been saying, over and over again, that he was reflecting on his past actions and how he could better himself, but in his speech, none of that reflection came through. He used it as a soapbox to proclaim his own perceived innocence and rail on about the injustices that he saw being perpetrated against him.

And this is where I think it’s worth noting that Ansari, like Franken, has a history of aligning with women in the past. His path can be easier, as long as he can put his pride aside. His attempts at rehabilitation, should he choose that path, will be more believable. I, as somebody who hasn’t watched much of either Parks and Rec or Master of None, can still hear it in his voice: “Look guys, I try to be sensitive to these things, and I fucked up this time. And this one’s on me, you know? Working on all of this is a process, and I know there’s a lot I still have to learn. And man, this has been some way to learn it, and I hate that it came at the expense of somebody else.” And honestly, maybe that’s all that’s needed from him in this case. I personally, at least, would take a relatively early statement from Ansari along those lines and feel more confident it was heartfelt than if it were from the average celebrity.

I see people invoking Ansari’s record on these things as a reason to cut him a break. And I think this context is important. The fact that this allegation is in an area where society has previously been slow to define boundaries also provides him with an opportunity to lead and set an example for how to treat non-consent. And I do think it is important to ensure that people are not exiled from our society over a single bad act.

But this, to me, is the break he gets: a greater benefit of the doubt that he understands the path forward. It’s still on him to use that goodwill wisely.

* * *

More broadly, I want to note that starting this movement with Weinstein was probably necessary, given how firmly rooted rape culture is within our society. The Atlantic piece implicitly hints at this truth: if Ansari’s story was the first story to break, before the Weinstein allegations, before the Franken allegations, before the Donald allegations, it wouldn’t even have come close to the mainstream.

Compare: It took ten years after the first article was published about American Apparel founder Dov Charney’s truly appalling behavior with women before the board got its act together to begin the process of removing him.

And yet, I see people (mostly men) using Weinstein now as a shield for more minor breaches of conduct, resisting the drift of the goalposts to a point where men and women are equally empowered to seek out sexual experiences and are not on uneven footing in the moment itself. There are broad appeals to the idea that men will have (or currently have) no idea how to act now that the rules of the game are changing.

But if there is agreement on where those goalposts should not be, why are we delaying conversations about where those goalposts should be?

And I am fairly confident that I, a rando who grew up with no good conception of consent, can pick up on non-verbal cues in my own life and at worst respond with sensitivity to any verbal cues regarding non-consent, as I have done on multiple occasions during my adult life, some while very drunk. Isn’t it insulting to men as well as dangerous to women, then, to simply assume that men shouldn’t be expected to figure out where the line is (or to believe them when their excuses assume that they can’t)?

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