When news broke late Saturday that the actor and comedian Aziz Ansari had been accused of sexual misconduct, I had plenty of thoughts but didn't feel compelled to share a single one of them on social media.
I partly blame my naturally cautious personality for that; I like to know exactly what I believe before I put it out into the world. But I also watched my timeline on Facebook and Twitter become a deluge of impassioned comments and hot takes. I didn't want to wade into the churn just yet. I imagine I'm not alone.
The truth is that talking about #MeToo on social media is challenging work. When we move beyond the declarations of empowerment and must instead analyze the particulars of every case, things get messy. That complexity isn't easily captured in 280 characters, and comments on even the most thoughtful Facebook post can be hijacked by one grandstanding person who wants to play devil's advocate.
Meanwhile, the Ansari case may be the most difficult public conversation we've had about sex, power, and consent since Harvey Weinstein's downfall in October. An actor beloved in part for his "woke bae" bona fides, Ansari wasn't revealed by the website Babe as a violent serial predator but a sexually aggressive man who read a young woman's verbal and nonverbal discomfort with his behavior as enthusiasm.
And so we began debating on social media whether this woman's encounter could be categorized as sexual assault, as she suggested, or a terrible date, as many others argued.
I saw someone tweet something like “if what Aziz Ansari did was sexual assault then every woman I know has been sexually assaulted” and like yeah, actually.
— Arnesa (@Rrrrnessa) January 15, 2018
Dudes I wanna clarify something for you here. When a woman gives you a soft no ("I don't think so" "not right now" etc) and you keep going and she doesn't do anything, she's protecting herself from rising violence if she gives a hard no (stop /no).
— illuminati mess (@GeekyLyndsay) January 14, 2018
I can think of no worse place to have this conversation than on social media. Victim-blaming can go viral. Hot takes (ahem, Atlantic and New York Times) consume all the oxygen in the proverbial room until everyone is rage-choking on the fumes. You can end up reflexively refreshing to see the latest tweet but do very little reflection of your own.
Yet I also can't think of a mainstream alternative that allows people to engage in a public reckoning like this, even on a small scale. Some students may discuss the subject in class today, but most adults won't participate in those conversations. I can only imagine the watercooler whispers at many workplaces — this is not the kind of news that employees feel comfortable openly chatting about. Cable news is a one-way format; you often nod your head in agreement or shout at the TV screen, but you never get to speak your piece to the viewers at home.
For better or worse, social media is our best shot at collectively having complex discussions about painful and taboo subjects. The good news is that all hope for enlightened dialogue is not lost. Many of the widely shared comments on Ansari's case hinged on a nuanced perspective, which is not something social media typically rewards.
A lot of men will read that post about Aziz Ansari and see an everyday, reasonable sexual interaction. But part of what women are saying right now is that what the culture considers "normal" sexual encounters are not working for us, and oftentimes harmful.
— Jessica Valenti (@JessicaValenti) January 14, 2018
Feminist author Jessica Valenti kept emphasizing the importance of nuance when thinking about the implications of what happened between "Grace" (the anonymous moniker given to the 23-year-old woman in Babe's story) and Ansari.
"I'm sure we're going to hear lots of stories in the coming months about actions that aren't against the law, or that don’t warrant repercussions," she wrote in one tweet. "That doesn’t mean that women weren’t hurt, or that these stories aren't worth discussing[.]"
Even if the account that was published by Babe contained deeply flawed reporting and writing, as some have persuasively argued, the report itself offered an opportunity to address the cycle of appeasement and shame that women so often find themselves in when trying to turn down a man's sexual advances.
It’s impossible to overstate that what many, many people consider “normal” sexual interactions are informed by decades of pop culture that tells both women and men that men’s job is to take while women’s is to be repeatedly coerced.
— Andi Zeisler (@andizeisler) January 14, 2018
Writer David Klion, whose comments about Ansari went viral, framed the accusations against Ansari as about something more than the Hollywood celebrity — they are instead a chance to come to terms with one's views of #MeToo.
"The Aziz Ansari story is a good litmus test for who sees sexual misconduct as a strictly legal question and who is concerned about improving the overall culture surrounding sex and dating," he wrote.
The surprising key to the success of these tweets isn't outrage for the sake of outrage, but a deep commitment to an interest in how we move forward in the age of #MeToo. And while many bemoaned the change when Twitter increased the character limit from 140 to 280 back in November, the best threads on the Ansari case frequently contained long messages. Brevity may be best when you're sharing breaking news, but those constraints hinder our ability to speak thoughtfully about how to change human behavior.
The Aziz Ansari story is a good litmus test for who sees sexual misconduct as a strictly legal question and who is concerned about improving the overall culture surrounding sex and dating. It's also many times more relevant to the average person's experience than, say, Weinstein.
— David Klion (@DavidKlion) January 15, 2018
There is no right way to talk about #MeToo on social media. But if the debate that's taken place since the news broke about Ansari holds any clues, commentary that invites respectful dialogue can play an essential role in framing the broader conversation. That can also provide a refreshing contrast to lengthy essays and opinion pieces that may in fact further stoke anger rather than deliberation.
We can also surprisingly look to Ansari himself for some guidance. While he didn't comment on social media about the Babe report, his statement about the accusations acknowledged Grace's account, conveyed a sense of regret and concern, and even urged further conversation about #MeToo.
"I continue to support the movement that is happening in our culture," he said. "It is necessary and long overdue."
If Ansari can sit with the discomfort of being the subject of an exposé about his sexual conduct and still encourage a continued discussion about sex and power, the rest of us can find a way to actually have that civil dialogue online.
If you have experienced sexual abuse, call the free, confidential National Sexual Assault hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), or access the 24-7 help online by visiting online.rainn.org.