The Degradation of Reputation: Zadie Smith Satirizes Accusatory Culture


Will the old me ruin me? 

This is the question facing virtually everyone in the #MeToo era. 

2018 will likely be remembered as the year colossally disrupted by the #MeToo Movement. Allegations of abuse have turned up in the least likely places, as the most unsuspecting figures step forward and share their traumatic stories. Careers spanning decades have been torn down in an instant with something as simple as a hashtag, the millennial expression of unity, and more than ever, solidarity. Every day a new face is exposed alongside a headline revealing the latest person to be accused. In a time when technology, namely social media, exists to document our thoughts and actions, nothing is too far back to be brought back to light and judged by 2018's standards. The #MeToo Movement began as a way to expose the abuse of power, and now the movement itself is being abused as anything and everything is dredged up to degrade the reputations of anyone with anything to lose. Accusations have broadened and the line between classifying assault, harassment, and just general assholery has become extremely fine. 

The movement began in 2017 with one accusation against Harvey Weinstein that snowballed as over eighty women have come forward and accused him of misconduct. This was the catalyst as social media exploded with stories of women and men alike sharing their stories. While the exposition of abusers far and wide has allowed for a shift in the paradigm of appropriate conduct both in and outside of the workplace, what began as a campaign to correct sexual misconduct has reached farther than what anyone could have imagined. 

Accusations against Aziz Ansari on Babe in January 2018 served to cause some speculation and debate about the ethics of accusatory culture as he was anonymously admonished in a Babe article. The nameless woman claimed Ansari pressured her with unfair and unjustified expectations on a date. While there was not anything classifiable as rape, "Grace" alleged that Ansari's pressure was an issue of misogyny.  

The article quickly sparked uproar as Ansari is known for being the "nice Indian guy", which is completely in opposition to the #MeToo trend of targeting powerful, privileged white men like Harvey Weinstein. Ansari has been candid concerning his experiences in dating and seeking love. His book, Modern Romance is a collaboration with sociologists concerning the evolution of dating trends in a world dominated by technology. 

His critically acclaimed Netflix show, Master of None, explores the life of a young Indian-American man in search of love and fulfillment in New York City. The Babe article that painted a misogynistic picture of Ansari, who identifies as a feminist, immediately struck fear in men and women alike. Ansari's accuser was able to remain nameless amid the chaos.  

The current climate of the #MeToo Movement allows for anybody to step forward about incidents on an infinite timeline, regardless of how much society or the accused has evolved. The result is a mad dash to delete anything on the Internet that could be toxic. Comedian Sarah Silverman is the most recent star to be called out. In July 2009 she tweeted "Hey is it considered molestation if the child makes the first move? I'm gonna need a quick answer on this". The comedienne is known for her often off-color jokes, but this one from nine years ago has already resulted in significant negative media attention. When users tweeted angrily at her in response to the nearly decade old tweet, Silverman replied, "I thought it was a funny/dumb tweet 8 years ago when I posted it". 

If nine years ago, this tweet did not necessarily land her in hot water, is it truly justifiable to bring it back up and make judgments? This is just one instance in the Twittersphere that is causing users to scramble and purge their social media of material that was acceptable in another time, but not in 2018. The August 1, 2018 episode of the Today Show even featured a segment to this effect as tech expert Katie Linendoll was brought in to give advice on cleaning up past social media posts. Digital maintenance is becoming more and more vital to life in the modern era. 

In the July 23, 2018 issue of The New Yorker, novelist and contributor Zadie Smith offers a very timely and astute short story regarding our accusatory culture. The piece, titled "Now More Than Ever", explores the difficulty and absolute necessity of maintaining political correctness, regardless of past beliefs.  

The satire, told from the perspective of a college professor, predicts the future of people getting in trouble for even sympathizing with the accused. She begins the story with a supposedly well-rounded friend named Scout explaining to the narrator the importance of ensuring that your individual beliefs remain consistent throughout your lifetime, for fear of, "if, after some digging, someone finds evidence that present-you is fatally out of step with past-you". This idea is all too familiar considering the increasing importance of purging of one's past via social media. 

At the narrator's college, onlookers stand at the windows of their towers (a pointed reference to the symbolism of the 'ivory tower') and aim arrows at supposed wrongdoers. By the end of the story, the narrator has fallen prey to the crusade for defending a colleague who sympathized with "the Devil" also known as "he-who-shall-not-be-named" (likely a reference to Trump). The narrator concludes the tale by subtly naming the movement in the final line: "...he said that he was glad that he-who-shall-not-be-named had come to power, because he admired his energy, his inability to distinguish between past, present, and future, and soon after that the poet got cancelled and, soon after that, me, too." 

Smith constructs a world in which you cannot have a past that does not align with your present, and your present self cannot have incorrect opinions, nor can your former self, therefore you must always exist in the present. If this reasoning sounds circuitous and evasive, that's because it is. Smith articulates the absurdity of the society that has somehow regressed into believing and perpetrating the idea that as humans we cannot and should not make mistakes, that we cannot correct ourselves and understand we have been at fault. 

While this trend has exposed corrupt power dynamics and gender inequality, the movement has expanded and stretched to the point where any moment in a person's life can be dug back up, and one single point of a finger can end their career. If our society is attempting to exemplify perfection and purge any and all evidence of being less than that, we are doomed to fail. Zadie Smith warns us of that, and the news reminds us. She also eerily alludes to a fear and truth that as an artist, her work will inevitably be interpreted unfavorably.