I don't know why, but the recent take-down of Aziz Ansari in the press and on social media feels like a turning point. It seems like this is the moment that #MeToo slipped its moorings and ceased being a quest for justice, turning instead into something very different and more frightening.
As one commentator noted that the article on Babe.net was almost like a gift to those who want to derail the #MeToo movement. In The Atlantic another commentator described it as '3000 words of revenge porn.'
What is troubling is that nowhere in 'Grace's' graphic account of her date with Ansari is there anything that actually amounts to a sexual assault. Yet, she has been able to effectively level that accusation against Ansari in front of the entire world whilst hiding behind a pseudonym. Even if you accept her account as entirely true, which is problematic given that it is essentially anonymous and untested, all of the relevant sexual acts were consensual. Ansari may have pestered her in his apartment. He may have been less than a gentleman. He might have been obnoxious, but his behaviour did not veer into criminality.
Unfortunately, not everybody sees it that way. There have been too many people on social media who have been willing to suggest that Ansari committed some form of sexual assault because her consent was not 'enthusiastic' consent.
I know of no jurisdiction in the Western world where that has ever been the standard for consent under the criminal law. It might well be that the legal standard for consent reflects a male-centric viewpoint. It would certainly be problematic if it did. Nevertheless, labels like 'sexual assault' and 'coercion' cannot just be thrown at people without proper evidence.
Sections of the media have been cavalier in their treatment of Ansari.
In the Fairfax press, Natalie Reilly wrote an opinion piece on Ansari that included the line, "the 23-year-old spoke in detail about how, despite her verbal and non-verbal protestations, Ansari forcefully sexually assaulted her." Reilly pointedly failed to use the word 'alleged' in relation to the claim of sexual assault.
Later in her piece, Reilly raised Ansari's refusal to comment on the issue of campus rape in 2015 in order to colour her take on Grace's story. Reilly followed that by suggesting that the recent series of Ansari's Master of None reminded her too much of Woody Allen. Reilly then wrote, "nobody is calling Ansari a paedophile." The taint by association was obvious given the allegations of sexual misconduct that have dogged Allen for over two decades.
Ironically, the next day Reilly published a piece titled, "Has #MeToo gone too far?"
In that piece Reilly endorsed the suggestion that "if there needs to be collateral damage for this moment to become permanent, it's worth it."
However, justice cannot be built upon the back of injustice. Feminism is not incompatible with due process and fairness. If anything, feminism has always been a struggle for fairness and justice.
In The Guardian, Emily Reynolds tacitly suggested that Ansari had committed an assault. In relation to the suggestion that it was simply a bad date, Reynolds wrote, "this assertion implies that women don't know the difference between rape and coercion – which they do."
However, coercion requires obtaining acquiescence through force or threats. Pestering or badgering is not coercion. It is still deeply unacceptable, but it is not coercion. It would appear that Reynolds does not understand the conceptual overlap between coercion and rape.
It took less than 24 hours for Ansari's reputation to be skewered. The speed at which it happened was breathtaking. More worryingly, there is a chilling effect that emerges from this saga. Ansari appears to have been targeted precisely because he described himself as an ally and a feminist. Worse still, the coverage of Ansari almost completely obscured a very serious allegation made by Eliza Dushku about an incident that happened to her while she was a child actress on the set of True Lies.
Whether Ansari's career will recover is debatable.
Yet, Ansari is entitled to his reputation and his version of the truth. Ansari's response suggested that from his perspective everything seemed consensual in his encounter with Grace.
However, that has had little effect on the media maelstrom.
#MeToo is an important moment in Western culture. It is an important step towards justice and true equality. But the last day or so has been ugly and it raises a difficult question. Can we rely upon the press and social media to effectively advance the struggle for social justice?
Too many people on social media have displayed the same type of cold disregard for Ansari's reputation and personhood that Weinstein showed towards the bodies and careers of countless actresses. The context might be different, but the core of contempt and disregard for another person's humanity remains the same. This is not equality.