The Me Too movement was always going to get to this point. From its beginning it was an attempt to reckon with the exposure of a singularly evil individual in a position of power in a major industry and an attempt to publicly reconceptualize a lot of common experiences in women’s lives as unacceptable and deserving of protest. The problem was that the vast majority of men responsible for inflicting quotidian experiences of exploitation, discomfort, and violation on women are not Weinsteins. Almost no one is a Weinstein. There are horror movie villains who aren’t Weinsteins. “Canceling” monsters was never going to be enough to actually open up the abscess festering beneath the skin.
And so now with the case of Aziz Ansari the tension between these two impulses — catching bad guys and reforming everyday life — has reached a breaking point. Many critics have jumped on the ordinariness of what Ansari stands accused of having done to discredit the movement. Every man has done something like this, they say. It’s wrong to conflate this kind of thing with the actions of a Weinstein or a Cosby.
The uncomfortable truth is that they’re right. Every man has done something like this. Aggressive, coercive, disrespectful sexual behavior on a date? A tweet that’s gone viral saying that 75% of adult men have acted similarly at some point is probably an underestimate. Ansari’s character Tom Haverford does things like this constantly on Parks and Rec, to affable chuckling. With Ansari, in other words, we have finally reached a point where we have to move from insisting that “this isn’t normal” to insisting that there is a problem with what is normal, that we need, collectively, to do better than normal.
We have to come to terms with the fact that individual values or personality traits can only do so much in the face of structural incentives to be a certain type of man. We can’t just purge the bad ones. Parenting, media creation, friendship, workplace structure, and so on will all have to change, so that men consistently face consequences when their actions venture onto the spectrum that runs from Ansari at one end to Weinstein at the other. This includes but goes well beyond “education.” Ansari is plenty educated about these matters. What is needed is a non-pathologizing explanation of why he would act the way he did anyways, an explanation consistent with the fact that millions of similarly enlightened men do similar things on a daily basis.
An analogy might make this seem like a less daunting task. Labor relations is often reduced, even on the left, to a matter of the qualities of individual employers, in the same way that there is a persistent tendency in this current moment to reduce gender relations to a matter of the qualities of individual men. This has come up recently with respect to various living-wage campaigns in the U.S. and Canada. “If you can’t pay staff a $15/hr minimum wage AND benefits, you shouldn’t be in business,” one tweeter argued about Tim Horton’s. People have similarly expressed bewilderment about the fact that Vox Media, a liberal company, has been reluctant to recognize its employees’ unionization efforts. “It is not the responsibility of your employees to subsidize your shitty business,” another person recently summed up.
But that quite literally is the function of labor under capitalism. Businesses make money by earning more from selling the stuff that people make for them than they pay out to those people. If they paid their employees what they were actually worth to them, they would have no profits, would not be able to expand and diversify or spend money on advertising, and would likely swiftly go out of business. What separates a kind boss from a cruel boss is not the fact of labor exploitation but the enthusiasm with which they pursue it. That is why labor organizations like unions and regulatory laws like the minimum wage are important: they provide an external constraint on the free reign that the logic of capitalism assigns to employers, because trusting in “good” bosses to spontaneously act with integrity is a recipe for getting burned.
The incentives for men to exploit their sexual partners, especially women, are less material or economic and more a matter of culture and ideology. But the logic of masculinity is similarly such that external constraint, ultimately leading to wholesale alteration, is necessary above and beyond the good will of individuals in power. It’s worth noting here that the two structures are, in practical fact, profoundly intertwined. I was struck by the class markers peppered throughout the Ansari article: his “exclusive” address, his pushiness about fine wine, his demand that he “call her a ride,” and so on. More broadly, the locus of Me Too activism has often been the workplace: it is not just men who have been its targets but male bosses. True “accountability” for men, the robust and consequential kind, will require an equalization of economic power. (Though such a change is obviously not sufficient: I’m drawing an analogy, not an equivalency.)
Marx and Engels once famously railed against the “misconception that induces you to transform into eternal laws of nature and of reason, the social forms springing from your present mode of production and form of property.” As ex-Google employee James Damore reminded us recently, gendered exploitation too is so normalized and so ubiquitous that it can come to seem like a law of nature. These seem to be the two poles that we are caught between: male abuse as an evolutionary necessity and male abuse as an aberration of pathological monsters. We need now more than ever to seek out the excluded middle, where we might find the possibility of collective social transformation — a better normal.