When he discovered I was writing this blog, The Distinguished Professor sent me Michelle Goldberg's op-ed on the recent Johnny Depp/Amber Heard decision and demanded that I take the author to task. He named the nervous twitch he gets in his left eyelid on bad days after his second wife, and I believe he took the verdict as a vindication.
The D.P., as I will henceforth refer to him, is a gent of the old school, who can correctly distinguish between strongly held opinions and principles, and remembers a time when men were Real Men and Young People had Manners. I recall the chapter in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which Colonel Sherburn faces down the mob whipped up to lynch him by Buck Harkness, and I have my doubts as to whether such a time existed outside the imagination of Hollywood, but since I do have Manners, I politely told him I’d go get the Chisel of Rhetoric from the toolshed and kept my opinion to myself.
The verdict in Johnny Depp’s defamation lawsuit against his ex-wife Amber Heard is difficult to explain logically.
The only important word in this sentence is “logically.” The tell is that the sentence would work perfectly well (it would arguably work better) without it, and despite the fact that the NYT fired half of its copyeditors in 2017, it is not unreasonable to expect a sensible editor to prioritize pieces that are more likely to generate outrage and ensure those pieces get attention from people whose job it is to make prose sparkle. Mechanically, the sentence is fine without “logically,” so its inclusion indicates that it’s important.
The reason to include that word is that it adds a veneer of objectivity and precision to what is explicitly an opinion column. It should read “I cannot explain the verdict in Johnny Depp’s defamation lawsuit against his ex-wife Amber Heard,” because that accurately represents Michelle Goldberg’s opinion on the matter.
The confounding part isn’t that the jury sided with him over her; this is the country that elected Donald Trump, where the convicted domestic abuser Chris Brown is still a major pop star, and where a man in Indiana recently won a local Republican primary while in jail awaiting trial on charges of murdering his wife. The explosion of defiant, desperate feminist energy that was #MeToo has now been smothered by an even fiercer reaction. #MeToo was a movement of women telling their stories. Now that Heard has been destroyed for identifying as a survivor, other women will think twice.
No she hasn’t. She’s been destroyed for lying with malice in open court.
I should point out here that one of the tells in this article specific to Goldberg is that she tends to save her unambiguous falsehoods for the last sentence of each paragraph, and she makes them punchy. This is because we remember the last thing we read better than the first. The premises of her arguments are much more rhetorically complex, but they’re just as dishonest. Let’s untangle this one.
“The confounding part isn’t that the jury sided with him over her…” as a premise is ludicrous. It isn’t confounding at all. They sided with him over her because his side presented better arguments and succeeded in painting him as a hapless but not constitutionally violent drunk, and her as manipulative, dishonest, and vengeful. And it wasn’t even close. (Her lawyer’s cross-examination of the psychologist hired by Depp was my favorite unintentional comedy sketch from the trial.) The confounding part is that Heard hasn’t sued her legal team for malpractice.
Donald Trump’s election had more to do with his opponent’s utter unlikability than any other single factor, Chris Brown is still a pop star because his album sales are more important to his label than his revolting and abusive behavior towards the women who are drawn to him romantically, and the alleged murderer in Indiana was able to run for office because (for the moment, at least) we prioritize the laws on the books over public outrage, regardless of how justified that outrage may or may not be. The only thing the men Goldberg lumps together in the paragraph above have in common is that they’re assholes who have been accused of committing domestic violence against their female romantic partners. But they have succeeded in spite of the fact that they’re wife-beaters, not because their fans are indifferent to domestic violence. The most Trump and the dude in Indiana winning and Chris Brown's continued relevance as a musician show is that their supporters prioritize different things than Goldberg does.
As to the “explosion of defiant, desperate feminist energy that was #MeToo,” Gott im Himmel.
I could never in a million years do what I do on this blog to someone like Glenn Greenwald, because what I do only works if you make bad arguments, and Glenn doesn’t ever do that. You may not agree with him, you may not like him, but trying to slip a knife blade between the logical cracks in a Glenn Greenwald argument is fucking impossible. There aren’t any. By contrast, breaking down Goldberg’s article is like trying to use a pickaxe to separate a pair of rotten two-by-fours that were spaced ten feet apart when you got there.
Anyway. Defiant, desperate feminist energy.
First of all, the only unambiguously valuable thing #MeToo accomplished was the prosecution, conviction, and imprisonment of Harvey Weinstein, one of the worst examples of Hollywood’s approach to masculinity in recent memory. He is a demonic piece of shit and you’ll never hear me say otherwise. Having said that, generalizing the approach you take toward a manipulative rapist who destroyed the careers of women who turned him down and beat up the boyfriend of at least one woman who defended her from his advances is a little like generalizing the take-no-prisoners, pull-out-all-the-stops tactics used to prosecute a prolific serial killer to someone who got in a bar fight when they were drunk, once, in which they gave someone else a black eye. I’d argue that not even a sack of shit who hits women like Chris Brown (who I wouldn’t piss on if he was on fire) is as bad as Harvey Weinstein, because Chris Brown was at least in an intimate relationship with Rhianna, and society judges murderers differently if they committed a crime of passion than if they sadistically selected strangers to hunt for sport.
#MeToo was certainly about women telling their stories. I watched the ones told about Weinstein, and they were sickening. #MeToo was also about the Shitty Media Men case. The lawsuit against Moira Donegan and the other women who shared that spreadsheet full of unsubstantiated allegations, some of which resulted in the firing of men based on what may be nothing but the anonymous word of an ill-advised hook-up, is pending, and repeated attempts to have it dismissed by Donegan have failed. If other women “think twice” about subjecting their co-workers or current or former partners to witch hunts and convictions in the court of public opinion based on secret evidence or the work of the rumor mill that result in the loss of those men’s livelihoods, I don’t have a problem with that. We have a legal system that works the way it does for a reason, and it’s not perfect, but it’s better than the alternative Goldberg seems to be proposing, in which we just sort of take people’s word that other people are violent predators because the accuser has a vagina.
The point is that #MeToo was like WWII in that it was a mustering of allies against a uniquely despicable enemy. There is a subreddit called r/readanotherbook, which is devoted to complaining about people who compare every single news story to some facet of Harry Potter. Same deal. If your only basis for comparison is WWII, every enemy is Adolf Hitler and Hideki Tojo, a pair of unspeakably evil monsters who applied assembly-line techniques to rape, torture, and murder on a global scale. The energy and methods of #MeToo worked to take down Harvey Weinstein, which, as I said above, is unambiguously good. But applying the energy and methods of #MeToo to literally anyone else is the misapplication of a tool, just like applying the entire US productive capacity, a global military alliance, and ultimately a pair of atomic bombs would be in the case of literally any other enemy.
What’s baffling is that the jury ruled the way it did even though, in at least one instance, it appeared to believe Heard. In one of the incidents litigated during the trial, a friend of Heard’s named iO Tillett Wright testified that Heard had called him so he could respond to an angry accusation Depp was making about a soiled bed. While on the phone, Wright said he overheard what sounded like Depp violently attacking Heard, and he called 911. Heard would later claim that Depp threw the phone at her, and another friend photographed a bruise on her cheek.
Some people I know have friends who will swear on a stack of Bibles that those people were drinking with them until six this morning if required. In fact, those people were in bed, asleep, but their friends would be happy to tell you otherwise. It’s good to have friends.
As to the bruise on Heard’s cheek, Depp is supposed to have punched her in the face full force. Neither the sleight blue mouse under her eye in the one photo or the little raised red one on her cheek in the other looked to me like the massive, lumpy, black-and-blue bruises, swollen-shut eye, potentially fractured cheekbone and orbital bone, and maybe missing teeth or broken jaw I’d expect to see. Amber must have boxed Golden Gloves.
Men are bigger than women, our musculature is configured differently, our bones are denser, and we hit way harder. Depp wears chunky rings, and he’s been in enough action movies that I think it’s safe to assume he knows how to correctly throw a punch. The availability of physical evidence like photographs to the court and the capacity of the court to compel its examination by expert witnesses is one of the reasons the legal system is what is used to convict people of abuse in a just world instead of the court of public opinion.
When the police arrived, Heard refused to cooperate with them — she said she wanted to protect Depp — but soon after she got a domestic violence restraining order. Depp’s former lawyer said the police call had been part of “an ambush, a hoax.” The jury ruled that this was defamation, and awarded Heard $2 million for it.
They ruled that one Hollywood actor had petty, vindictive motives toward his ex, a fellow Hollywood actor who they also determined had petty, vindictive motives of her own. Have you met actors? Do they strike you as paragons of mental health?
Generalizing this catastrophe of a relationship to the experience of ordinary people falls into the realm of category mistakes. Most humans are not multimillionaires whose worst behavior is institutionally protected and indulged by everyone because of their celebrity, beloved by millions, with legal teams dedicated to protecting them from the consequences of their actions. I don’t think most women are like Heard, and I don’t think most men are like Depp, if only because most of us could never in a million years get away with behavior like theirs.
Yet that same jury ruled that Heard had defamed Depp when she described herself, in a Washington Post opinion essay, as a “public figure representing domestic abuse,” and awarded Depp more than $10 million.
I believe this refers to Amber Heard’s appointment as an ACLU Ambassador for women's rights, with a focus on gender-based violence. My only response to this is that while I personally wouldn’t appoint Michael Vick to be a PETA Ambasador, it is undeniable that he is an expert on cruelty to dogs.
As a First Amendment issue, the verdict is a travesty. By the time Heard wrote the essay, the restraining order she’d received had been all over the news, and a photo of her with a bruised face and bloody lip had appeared on the cover of People Magazine. Even if Heard lied about everything during the trial — even if she’d never suffered domestic abuse — she still would have represented it. But if the police call wasn’t part of a hoax, then it’s hard to see how Heard hadn’t suffered as well.
Perhaps this contradictory verdict was a result of jury-room horse-trading; the finding for Heard could have been a sop to convince a few holdouts to get on board with a unanimous decision. But its meaning is clear: It might be impossible to dismiss all the evidence against Depp, but he’s still the more sympathetic figure.
I’m not sure Goldberg quite understands what makes someone a sympathetic figure in a dispute in the first place. It isn’t mysterious; it’s just what happens when the overwhelming majority of onlookers see you’re the wronged party based on observable facts and sympathize with you as a result. Wokeness as an ideology is literally correlated with mental illness, so I’m not sure this is a soluble problem for her. I’m not mocking her, here, either. I’m literally not sure she’s biologically capable of feeling empathy for people who don’t share her ideology.
In any case, the overwhelming majority of people, by Goldberg’s own admission, do see Depp as a more sympathetic figure. He and Heard are both train wrecks, but the engineer driving his was merely drunk on duty, whereas the one driving hers was motivated by the desire to derail his. As I pointed out above, motivation matters in murder cases. One would expect it to matter exponentially more in a case everyone who has been through a bad breakup can relate to.
This finding echoes the conventional wisdom of the internet, where Depp is widely viewed as the sensitive prey of a vicious and conniving gold-digger, and of much of the conservative movement, which has cheered Depp, a man who once joked about assassinating Trump, for slaying the #MeToo gorgon. After the verdict was announced, the official Twitter account of Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee tweeted out a GIF of Depp as the pirate Jack Sparrow, looking dashing and determined. If there’s one thing they hate more than decadent Hollywood elites, it’s mouthy women.
Hey Michelle, did any of these 12,000 people who publicly called for Trump’s assassination on social media ever follow you on Twitter? Take your time going through the list—if you start to get tired, just take a deep breath and remember that number is from his first week in office. There may be more by now.
Sorry. That was a cheap shot. I can’t prove any of the tens of thousands of people who publicly called for the assassination of a sitting president read your column in the New York Times.
Let’s talk about the last line. First of all, “mouthy broads” would scan better, drive your point home more effectively, and is the traditional form of the phrase, but that’s detail. The rhetorical device being used is similar in intent to “So, have you stopped beating your wife?” in that it first assumes the worst of the person being addressed, then seemingly offers him an “out” that appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel. In fact, the end of the tunnel is on fire—indignantly insisting that you have stopped beating your wife requires that you first admit you used to beat her, so it isn’t an out at all.
In this case, the trap is more subtle. Casting the Republicans of the House Judiciary Committee as the Fun Police, who hate “decadent Hollywood elites” almost as much as they hate “mouthy women,” requires that you start from the premise that those Republicans don’t like rich actors, but they are willing to put aside their distaste for them in order to trample on brave, outspoken, but downtrodden women, a group they hate even more.
The premise is absurd. Politicians love the movies. There are entire departments within every layer of government whose sole purpose is to liaise with film studios and make the process of filming movies in government-managed locations from National Parks to the White House and the Pentagon go smoothly. Hollywood is the source of American soft power and has been for a century. On a personal level, politicians themselves act—I was going to list examples of actor-politicians, but there turned out to be too many, so here’s the Wikipedia page.
The second layer of that venomous little dig is the implication that follows from the premise, which is that the reason politicians hate actors is that actors are “decadent.” Actors are decadent, Michelle. They suffer no consequences for it, either, which is why it perpetuates itself as a phenomenon. Ask 5’10” Chris Rock, who weighs about a buck sixty-five, how he felt after Will Smith, a 6’2”, 200-pound action star, publicly assaulted him. I pay virtually no attention to Hollywood, and by nothing more than cultural osmosis I am aware that Will and Jada are reported to be in some kind of weird sexual power dynamic involving systematic infidelity, and that dynamic (which clearly isn’t making Will happy) is widely theorized online to be the motivation behind the attack. If that’s the kind of thing they do in public, in front of a billion people, it seems entirely reasonable to surmise they’re exponentially worse behind closed doors.
Layer three: Since the premise is false, and the implication that rests on it is in fact true, rather than the hypocritical Republicans being mean to the free-spirited Hollywood types, it follows that Amber Heard is most likely as decadent and insane as the rest of her overgrown adolescent peers (including Johnny Depp). So she’s not a “mouthy woman,” or even what you actually mean, an outspoken feminist icon who has been cruelly used. She’s more likely exactly what she was revealed to be in court—a vindictive, amoral, manipulative abuser.
What follows from that is that the Republicans who tweeted the GIF weren’t motivated by what you’re suggesting. For what it’s worth, I have no idea what their motivation was. But it isn’t what you imply it is, because that would be impossible, because the underlying premise you’ve set forth is false.
During the trial, the jurors heard a recording in which Depp sneered at Heard, using an obscenity, “I head butted you in the forehead. That doesn’t break a nose.” (He claimed it was an accident.) They heard from a makeup artist who testified about covering up Heard’s bruises. They heard a text Depp wrote in which he said, using an obscenity, that he hoped Heard’s “rotting corpse was decomposing in the trunk of a Honda Civic,” and another one in which he fantasized about having sex with her burnt corpse. They saw video of him rampaging around their kitchen, smashing cabinets while she tried to calm him down. They heard a recording of him screaming at her for daring to speak to him in an “authoritative” way, and another in which he threatened to cut himself while she begged him to put the knife down.
I don’t see any variation of the word “intent” in this paragraph. I see the words “hope” and “fantasize,” though. Depp is a messy drunk and I hope he gets help. I wouldn’t want anyone I care about to date him, because I don’t endorse screaming at people or getting into relationships with people who scream at other people. But to suggest that he’s not allowed to fantasize or wish ill on his ex, or that doing either makes him somehow abnormal, is the mark of someone who has never been in a romantic relationship that went down in flames.
But they also heard Heard admitting to hitting Depp and taunting him, saying that no one would take his claims of being a domestic violence victim seriously. (She said she only hit him in self-defense.) They heard Depp’s lawyer grilling Heard about notes in which she falls over herself apologizing for “hurting” Depp, though such behavior would hardly be anomalous for someone being abused. They heard Depp’s claim that he’d lost out on a major movie role after Heard’s essay was published. And they put a price on their respective injuries.
“Such behavior would hardly be anomalous for someone being abused.”
It wouldn’t be out of character for a manipulative psychopath who was doing the abusing, either. But I wasn’t there, so I don’t know.
The repercussions of this case will reach far beyond Heard. All victims of domestic or sexual abuse must now contend with the possibility that, should they decide to tell their story publicly, they could end up bankrupted by their abusers. Depp’s friend Marilyn Manson is already suing the actress Evan Rachel Wood, one of a number of women who have alleged sadistic abuse at his hands. He won’t be the last.
Isn’t Depp the victim of domestic abuse? Didn’t that just get adjudicated?
As the Daily Beast noted, few of the Hollywood figures who spoke up during the height of the #MeToo movement are showing any solidarity with Heard, a stance that would require a modicum of courage given the power of the #MeToo backlash and Depp’s evident popularity. She may well be ruined for good. One of the statements in her Washington Post essay that was deemed defamatory was, “I had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse.” The trial that she lost proved her point.
The assumption that Heard is entitled to the solidarity of her colleagues presumes they think she’s in the right. There was a trial that says she wasn’t—did you catch any of it? There are clips on YouTube.
Heard is no irreplaceable genius like Roman Polanski, who pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a 13-year-old, and she’s no huge moneymaker like Mel Gibson, who pleaded no contest to hitting his former girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva, whom he was on tape threatening to put in a “rose garden.” According to Heard’s countersuit against Depp, in addition to calling her a “pig,” a “whore,” a “junkie hooker” and numerous other slurs, Depp referred to her as “disposable.” About that, at least, he may turn out to be right.
Methodologically speaking, from an NLP perspective, using Roman Polanski’s name is guaranteed to trigger an emotional reaction among rape survivors. The intent of an opinion column is actually to inflame public opinion, not to share the opinion of the author; a talented opinion columnist is by definition a virtuoso at the use of emotional triggers.
Using Mel Gibson’s name is a little more complicated. Gibson was convicted of misdemeanor spousal battery, but the primary emotional target here isn’t people who are sensitive to domestic abuse. It’s people who are sensitive to antisemitism, done up in a “concern for victims of domestic abuse” package.
This is in theory a fairly well-executed one-two punch—Polanski is Jewish, but also a rapist, but also Hollywood royalty, albeit in exile. You can’t just drop his name into conversation and expect unambiguous disgust from an NYT-reading audience, because many NYT-readers love his films. But using Mel Gibson’s name in conjunction with Polanski’s requires people to triangulate the offenses committed by the two men—Gibson’s public Holocaust denial is supposed to cancel out Polanski’s Jewishness and preempt antisemitic comments, leaving only what they have in common.
The problem is that it’s a category mistake. Mel Gibson is not, as far as anyone knows, a child rapist. “Unlawful sex with a 13-year-old” does not cover what Polanski is accused of doing by any stretch of the imagination, and that clinical, distant minimization of his offense (which ought to read “drugging and forcibly sodomizing an eighth-grader”) is the tell. She doesn't want you to think of him as brutal, merely vaguely criminal. And the attempt to link Depp to him is at best halfhearted; there’s too much distance between their names in the paragraph. This may be because Goldberg actually approves of Polanski (she certainly refers to him as a “genius”), so the “whore” and “junkie hooker” lines (which are justifications for victimization commonly leveled at rape survivors, after all) may be associations she intends to stick to his victim.
To The D.P.: thank you for the submission. To everyone else, please continue to send me your dispatches from Wonderland!
An excellent second entry to the newsletter!
This part jumped out at me: "much of the conservative movement, which has cheered Depp, a man who once joked about assassinating Trump, for slaying the #MeToo gorgon."
My first thought was "What, people can't support someone when they think he is right if he said something they disagreed with before?"
My second thought, so close on the heels of the first it almost interrupted itself, was "Oh... right, that is exactly how the woke left thinks and acts."
No wonder they can't be friends with people they disagree with, one error makes you always and forever wrong.
Here’s a cheeky ask.
Bullet point the moves or tools in play at the beginning or end of these pieces. That would be helpful, to me at least.
Intuition. I suspect that as well as inflaming public opinion the (possibly unaware) intention of this kind of polemic is to encourage the worst reactions from the enemy. It looks to me as if the Republican gif thing *was* intended as a misogynistic flourish. The author & their fans can then gesture to those responses with a ‘see? 🤷♂️’.