The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Matt Damon can’t be canceled

Matt Damon signs autographs in Cannes, France, on July 9. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)
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There’s something morbidly amusing about watching Matt Damon — good Hollywood liberal; acolyte of Howard Zinn; regular Democratic supporter — run into a progressive buzzsaw every couple of years. His most recent sin? Saying that he just learned to stop calling gay people the f-word. Yet despite these repeated /controversies, Damon always bounces back. There’s an important lesson here: The best way to avoid the internet’s rage is simply to stay off-line.

How many times in recent years has Matt Damon been “canceled”?

He was accused of whitewashing and indulging in white-savior tropes for appearing in a Chinese film made by a famed Chinese director that was marketed mostly to Chinese audiences. He mansplained to a Black filmmaker about how diversity really works in Hollywood on the reboot of “Project Greenlight.” In the midst of the #MeToo movement, he suggested that alleged serial sexual harassers such as Al Franken shouldn’t be forced to resign because being handsy with women isn’t the same thing as raping them.

Most recently, Damon offered up, for no particular reason at all, that he has stopped making jokes using the “f-slur” in recent months thanks to the riot act his daughter read him. Though Damon would walk his comments back the next day, he’d already done his latest stint as a trending topic on Twitter.

Who knows which story is true? I, frankly, find it relatively hard to believe that the Boston-bred bro Matt Damon is a complete and utter stranger to the word in question. Besides, the story about his daughter, as he told it, makes no real sense if he had never used the slur before.

But that matters less than how it’s perceived. To someone who spends no time on social media, it probably looks as though Damon is demonstrating growth. He’s revealing a misstep in order to prove that he knows better now, that he’s a good ally, that he’s working toward a more inclusive future for all of us.

If only Damon weren’t so Twitter-averse, he’d have remembered that a couple of years ago Liam Neeson nearly had his career ended because he said he’d wanted to kill a Black man — any would do — after a friend had been raped. It didn’t matter that Neeson’s point was, explicitly, that this was wrong, horrible. It didn’t matter that it had taken place years ago or that Neeson said as he was telling the story that he was ashamed for what he’d felt and hoped to do. Twitter users aren’t interested in rewarding growth. They’re interested in punishing sin.

So yes, Damon keeps stepping in it in part because he’s famously social media-averse. His “own social media presence is basically nonexistent,” the New York Times noted in a recent profile, part of his effort to exist “in the last of that line of people who want to maintain privacy.” That bargain means being excluded from the world of Twitter, where so many nontroversies turn into news stories because so many journalists have amassed so much of their power from the big blue bird app and anger equals clicks. If you remain purposefully ignorant of the landmines that might blow up promotional efforts for your movie, you can’t be surprised when you step on one.

The flip side of this, though, is that Damon’s complete lack of online presence means he doesn’t feel the constant need to respond to every slight or every provocation. He’s not refreshing his mentions, seeing who’s taking him to task now. He’s not experiencing the soul-crushing dogpile everyone who has ever been the focus of Twitter angst has experienced. And as such — by simply refusing to feed the trolls and get sucked into an endless cycle of clarification and apology — every cancellation attempt just fizzles out.

And sure, part of this fizzling is simple progressive privilege: Precisely because he’s a good liberal, most will just forgive his missteps and move on. But Damon helps himself a great deal by trying not to help himself at all. More artists should keep that in mind the next time they’re tempted to get into the muck and mire of social media.