Matt Damon, stop #damonsplaining. You don’t understand sexual harassment | Hannah Jane Parkinson

If youre from a group that has never been oppressed for reasons of identity you dont know what it feels like. The actor should know when to shut up, writes Guardian contributor Hannah Jane Parkinson

Oh, Matt Damon. Where did it all go wrong? Well, almost everywhere.

Damon is currently the focus of a mixture of derision, anger and disbelief after he made, in the space of three days, multiple boneheaded comments on sexual harassment. At some point between these tone-deaf interventions his Good Will Hunting co-star (and a former girlfriend), Minnie Driver, helpfully pointed out where he was going wrong. And yet, instead of taking a seat to reflect on her critique, Damon came splashing back into a lake of ignorance like a dog which repeatedly forgets it is not good at swimming.

First, Damon waded in to say that sexual harassment exists on a spectrum, and that theres a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape. On the face of it, this is clearly true (and something that women have also said), but Damon is too ignorant (HOW? STILL?) to realise that being patted on the butt a thousand times by bosses, male friends, colleagues, and strangers, is an insidious invasion of personal space and an exhausting erasure of individuality. Death by a thousand cuts. As Driver put it, [men] cannot understand what abuse is like on a daily level.

He also doesnt seem to realise that literally nobody is crying out for Matt Damons Opinion On This. As Driver also said, its galling when a powerful man steps up and starts dictating the terms. In total, he has spoken about this topic no fewer than three times. Forgive me, Matt, but I think not being harassed should be a baseline expectation, and not something to be deified for. I dont offer a round of applause to the man at the bus stop who doesnt comment on my ass. And I am not about to start.

Damon is also guilty of the trope of men declaring themselves feminists after having daughters, as if the wellbeing of human women otherwise didnt matter. Good one, guys. Super grateful. Its good to know that someone being called a whore doesnt raise hackles if it isnt your mother, daughter, aunt or sister who is the target.

When Damon came on to the scene in the late 90s, he was part of a gang of up-and-comers, including the Affleck brothers. If he doubts the widespread issue of male toxicity, then he could do well to remember that Ben Affleck has since had to apologise for groping a presenter, and his brother Casey Affleck has been accused of multiple sexual assaults (which he denies). Meanwhile, Damon has been the epitome of East Coast Liberal. He made much of his background and upbringing (his mother was a college professor and his father a stockbroker); he attended Harvard, and has sold himself as A Good Egg, even establishing a non-profit to provide clean drinking water. His outspoken liberalness even had Michael Moore suggesting a presidential run.

Since then, Damon has become the perfect example of a phrase I coined last month, when right-on men were being unearthed as rats at the rate of one tail a minute: no woke without fire. Its the kind of un-wokeness in plain sight that was illuminated in Jordan Peeles Get Out. Damons past indiscretions include: suggesting that the Bush twins be forced to enlist in the military; downplaying the importance of diversity behind the camera, and carefully explaining this to a black producer, Effie T Brown; the time in response to a question about sexuality, he implied that actors should remain closeted; and when he declared I didnt take a role away from a Chinese actor when the subject of whitewashing was raised, rather than engaging.

This leads me to a simple truth: if one is from a group that has never been oppressed for reasons of identity, it is almost impossible to understand what that feels like. This often isnt their individual fault, which is where defensiveness comes in, but it is true. Women know, people of colour know, LGBT+ people know, people with disabilities know, those persecuted for their religion know. To an extent, perhaps straight white men know, if, say, they come from a state school, have a thick northern accent, and attempt to enter the media. Or Oxbridge. But if youve never been on the receiving end of a punching down, then of course it is possible to sympathise but you aint ever gonna feel the blow.

It was Damons character (right) in Good Will Hunting who was chastised by Robin Williams therapist for precisely assuming that secondhand knowledge could replace empirical, lived experience. Did Damon learn nothing? Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Miramaz

Its not that the effort of others to understand is not appreciated. That needs to happen for things to change and improve, and Damon seems to have good intentions. But he is never going to know what it is like to walk home with keys between knuckles. I am never, for instance, going to know what it is like to have a job application sidelined because apparently some people think, as a friend was told recently, African names have too many vowels. I dont know what it is like to have someone talk to me like a child because I use a wheelchair. I do know what it is like to have a male colleague take credit for my ideas, and to be vigilant when kissing a partner in case of abuse.

As someone who holds freedom of speech close to my heart, and who can sometimes be found eye-rolling at some of the more eccentric demands for safe spaces or some of the no-platforming decisions, I dont think though others do that certain people should automatically be banned for speaking on certain subjects. However, I do think certain people should recognise when their voice carries less authority, should know when to shut up, and realise that their voice is not needed, wanted, or helpful at a particular time. As a motormouth, I am sure I have screwed up here before. Damon doesnt seem to care, and continues, relentlessly, to #damonsplain.

Whats particularly ironic in all of this is it was Damons character in Good Will Hunting who was chastised by Robin Williams therapist for precisely assuming that secondhand knowledge, and reading from books, could replace empirical, lived experience. Did Damon learn nothing?

  • Hannah Jane Parkinson writes for the Guardian on pop culture, music, tech, football, politics and mental health

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