How to Read the Empty, Meaningless Statements on Harvey Weinstein

Rose McGowan at the premiere of The Overnight.
Rose McGowan at the premiere of The Overnight.

In the past few days, it seems like Hollywood has blown itself up as celebrities with connections to Harvey Weinstein have tripped over themselves on their way to distance themselves from him. Thanks to the journalism of The New York Times and The New Yorker, as well as the fearlessness of actress Rose McGowan and others, an abuse and harassment epidemic of the largest proportions has been exposed in Hollywood.

There’ve been so many statements put out in the past few days that it’s difficult to even know what to make of them. Luckily for you, however, I’ve put together a hand-dandy guide to deciphering these intentionally ambiguous, generic statements.

The Cognizant Innocence Defense

This statement is the most common of all those proliferating throughout the Internet. An example of The Cognizant Innocence Defense (a term which I have coined, thank you very much) is as follows:

In essence, The Cognizant Innocence Defense is a statement built on the idea that bystanders were aware of abuse, either as rumor or reputation, and altered their behavior accordingly, but did not feel that awareness merited disavowal or intervention. It can be broken down into three basic parts, containing statements of the following nature:

1. Rejection: “I in no way tolerate/condone/accept this behavior nor would I ever do something like this.”

2. Distancing: “I have never heard/witnessed/been personally aware of this ever in any encounters.”

3a. The Empty Promise: “...But if I had known, I would have been the first to stop it.”

3b. The Relative Card: “This is important to me because I have a wife/sister/daughter and I must protect them.” (This is almost universally included in statements from male actors with the closest proximity to Weinstein in an attempt to create an authentic emotional connection between them and the victims but instead comes off as patriarchal and condescending.)

The Cognizant Innocence Defense also comes with two corollaries. The first is known as The Jessica Chastain Corollary, which is a statement saying “I know there are lots of bad people in Hollywood, but not this guy, even though he openly associates with bad people in Hollywood.” (In Damon’s case, this is Casey Affleck, who has a well documented history of sexual harassment.)

The second is known as The Kate Winslet Corollary, which includes a statement (explicit or implicit) along the lines of “I very clearly recognize this person is bad, but even though this person has a similar reputation I will continue to work with them.”

The Penn State/Jimmy Saville Defense

The title of this particular line of logic depends on your geographical positioning: for Europeans, it’s the latter, but for Americans the Penn State reference should make sense. An example of this defense strategy is as follows:

The Penn State/Jimmy Saville Defense is a statement where an individual asserts that, in performing the bare minimum required of them upon witnessing or hearing of this behavior - or, in the Eisner case, something entirely unrelated - they are permanently absolved of all responsibility. The name of this strategy comes from the tactic taken both by Joe Paterno’s Penn State coaching staff and executives at the BBC who are on record saying they were aware systematic abuses were taking place, they told their superiors and/or confronted the abuser, and did nothing more. The implication of a statement like this is that they were active enough to do something, but did only what they convinced themselves was the most they could. In reality, this usually just means submitting a formal report and never discussing the issue again.

The reason why understanding these two approaches to celebrity dodges around the issue of Weinstein is that this kind of explaining away of real, pertinent issues is how we got to this point. The bravura, grit, and consistent assertion of Rose McGowan, Asia Argento, Mira Sorvino, Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and others to wave their right to anonymity in coming forward with their stories of harassment and rape is a kind of bravery that surpasses language. To know, as many of Weinstein’s targets have discussed, that rebuffing his advances and speaking openly about his abuse meant damaging their prospects in an industry based largely on personal connections and to still speak up anyway is an act of real grit.

Perhaps it is good that celebrities associated with Weinstein are speaking up - I suppose it’s better than them saying nothing at all. But the words they have issued are by and large empty, because they are ignoring the fact that they were complicit in the abuse. By suspecting, by turning a blind eye, and by ignoring what was going on around them, they allowed this to continue. What would be even more powerful to hear from these celebrities is a very simple sort of statement: “I’m sorry.”

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