Social Media, Public Opinion, and Jian Ghomeshi


Star CartoonI doubt anyone in North America is unaware of the furor surrounding CBC’s recent firing of radio show Q’s host, Jian Ghomeshi last week.*

In case you were on the moon when it happened, you can read some of the many stories on the Star and other news sites (just Google it…).

It’s a complex story; about the seesaw between workers’ and employers’ rights; about sex and consent; about abuse and violence against women; about privacy and personal rights; about social media and cyber-bullying; about justice and law; about media and declining reporting standards; about the public forum and the nature of spectacle; about victims and the various shades of truth. And it’s about double standards.

Fascinating, difficult, and troubling. It challenges us to think about our own beliefs and ideas; about how we react eagerly to scandal; how we view the glitterati as both outsiders and those we emulate; how we obsess over stardom; how we view sex and behaviour; how we view male and female sexuality; and how we treat – and judge – both others and ourselves. But little of that actually gets into the news or the commentaries. Mostly what gets into them is sensationalism (such is the level to which most media have fallen; how can modern media maintain its audience without crass sensationalism?). Plus a mixture of salacious gossip, accusations, self-righteous moralizing,and chest beating in the editorials and online.

But not always. Christie Blatchford recently wrote an excellent column (and I don’t often agree with her perspective, although I respect her as a writer) about how these things should be tried in courts, not by the public:

My concern is that the allegations in this story are criminal matters — these are claims of sexual assault and violent physical assault — and they ought not to be tried in the court of public opinion.
There are no safeguards in that court, no testing of the evidence, no rules or boundaries.
As Abe Lincoln famously said, “There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.”
Sorry for the interruption, now back to the lynching.

It’s important to keep in mind that, so far, no one has filed a complaint with the police about Ghomeshi’s actions. Yes, I know a police complaint does not indicate guilt, but it does open a more intensive investigation outside of the forum Facebook and Twitter offer. An objective one, too.**

Having been subject to that lynch-mob mentality in my role as politician, I can appreciate how dangerous the “court of public opinion” can be when fueled by misinformed, angry and often politically-motivated posts on social media. It’s hard to defend yourself when the mob is dragging you to the guillotine in a tumbrel. I can barely imagine how much worse that experience must be for women trying to get justice in a sexual abuse case.

Make no mistake: if Ghomeshi is guilty, then what he did deserves the full legal response. There is simply no excuse for abuse to women. Ever. I have no sympathy for him should he prove guilty, but it’s not up to me to determine his guilt, let alone comment on it without having the evidence. That’s for the courts. I despise the sort of act he is accused of, but I cannot decide whether he did them or not from the haven of my living room.

But one thing Ghomeshi said in his own defence bothers me. On his Facebook page, he wrote:

Sexual preferences are a human right.

Either he was trying to simplify the issue – unsuccessfully – or he is oblivious to the irresponsibility that comment suggests. Consensual or not, sexual preferences are not a human right. They may be a private or personal freedom, allowed by your own interpretations of cultural standards or of a constitution or law, but they are not a human right.

Sex itself isn’t even a human right, something we get at birth and can engage in without restriction or constraint. Simply having the biological parts does not mean we have an unrestricted right to use them. We have to take responsibility for our actions, and that includes sex.

Who is to say what is consensual? Pressure, intimidation, fear, weakness, and force can bring someone to agree to almost anything. Drugs and alcohol can make someone willing to do something when a sober person might balk. Survivors of the USSR’s gulag system, those imprisoned in Iran, North Korea and Guantanamo know all too well how easily they can be brought to agree to anything under psychological and physical pressure. You don’t need torture to be abusive.

Men and women whose views of sex have been manipulated and conditioned by pornography, sensationalist media, the adulterous lifestyles of the glitterati, objectification of women in TV and movies may think a particular behaviour is okay socially, and consent to it, but detest and dread it secretly. And sometimes women may simply be too afraid to say no – afraid of the man’s reaction: afraid of losing affection, afraid of being ridiculed or belittled, afraid of being abandoned or hurt.

Consensual? Can abuse ever really be consensual?

No, it’s not a human right, Jian. Saying it is makes it seem less important in our daily lives than choosing which wine to open for dinner or which winter tires to buy. Sex should be approached by both parties with consideration, respect, expectation of pleasure and reward, and mutual agreement. In order to gain that agreement, the intention has to be communicated beforehand. Rough sex, as has been alleged, requires very clear communication first, and agreement by both parties, for it to be consensual. Only then does it venture outside the realm of abuse.

Still, it is not my place to judge whether or not it was consensual. Whether was consensual or not with Ghomeshi, is outside my ability and knowledge to judge. I have to leave that in the hands of the law. Social media opinions (this one included) are not worth the ether they’re written on.

Ghomeshi also wrote:

But with me bringing it to light, in the coming days you will prospectively hear about how I engage in all kinds of unsavoury aggressive acts in the bedroom. And the implication may be made that this happens non-consensually. And that will be a lie. But it will be salacious gossip in a world driven by a hunger for “scandal”.

Frankly, I don’t think there will be a backlash about “unsavoury” acts in the bedroom – the success of (the poorly-written) novel 50 Shades of Grey and the growing popularity of pornography suggests that we are less judgmental about sexual acts than previous generations. Besides, this is such a narcissistic culture that many people delight in having made public something they may engage (or want to engage) in themselves so it justifies their own actions. See? The radio star does it, so it must be okay….

And yes, we collectively love gossip and scandal, and that drives a lot of media coverage. It’s the old bread-and-circuses approach: the media compete for attention, which drives them to put more effort into covering the shallow issues rather than those of more importance. What concerns me more is there may be women who suffered, but are afraid to stand up.

Many women will not report incidents where they were abused, or didn’t consent to a particular sexual behaviour. It’s not simply our different social standards on how we view men and women having sex, although that’s a big part of it. It’s what happens afterwards when the woman didn’t agree to what happened to her, or agreed to something that turned out to be other than what she expected. The victim can suffer more abuse in our own legal system.

I have enormous respect for the women who have come forward, who know that they are fighting an uphill battle for justice and face significant challenges to get it. However, I cannot judge the truth of their complaints, nor should I attempt to do so.

An article in the HuffPost described how difficult a trial can be for women, how degrading and humiliating such a public event is:

While sexual assault trials are often conducted with professionalism and decorum, there’s no getting around the fact that these trials can be ugly, ugly things.
I have prosecuted trials (more than one) in which an intruder assaulted a woman sleeping in her bed. Even these victims were cross-examined about how much they’d had to drink, or the effect of prescription drugs they’d taken. Even these women faced questions about whether they consented (they each knew their assailant). One had a toddler asleep with her.
In another case a 16-year-old girl (whose identity had been closely guarded for two years) was under cross-examination about intimate and humiliating details when a school group on a field trip trooped into the courtroom to watch the trial. They were from her high school.
I’ve watched an eminent defence lawyer mock the morals of a young sex worker, beaten so mercilessly by his wealthy young client and friends that she had permanent metal plates and pins in the bones they broke. The proposal to the sentencing judge was to order a payment of money to the victim in lieu of jail time for such a promising young man from a good family. After all, it was said, the victim was a woman with a price. It was just a question of amount.
Even the serial killer Robert Pickton had a survivor whose case against him was dropped because the prosecutor didn’t think she was a good witness.
Women know in their bones what the system has in store when they pick up the phone and call 911.

Sometimes it’s easier for a woman to say she consented than to go through the public shame of a trial and having her reputation besmirched. Or having her own morals and behaviour challenged and often turned against her – that old double standard. That speaks volumes about our unequal social and legal standards women have to endure.

The article concludes with a statement on the impact sorry double standards have:

In short, the kind of woman who doesn’t report a sexual attack is almost any normal rational woman.

One of the best pieces showed up in The Independent which raises the spectre of internet bullying that haunts women who come forward:

The reasons given for not coming forward publicly include the fear that they would be sued or would be the object of Internet retaliation. (A woman who wrote an account of an encounter with a Canadian radio host believed to be Ghomeshi was subjected to vicious Internet attacks by online readers who said they were supporters of the host.)

One only need to recall the case of the Nova Scotian teen, Rehteah Parsons, who committed suicide after being raped then humiliated online by cyberbullies.

Social media is a powerful platform for abusers and bullies. Social media can define the landscape of opinion and debate; seldom in an intellectual, objective or even civil manner. Abuse, hostility, personal attacks are all common online. Legacy media is generally better able to frame issues objectively (albeit not when that media is already biased and hostile, as we know locally).

The article continues:

The targeting and bullying of people—and let’s be clear: women—who access the criminal justice system in pursuit of justice is reaching unacceptable levels, and it threatens the ability of the justice system to deliver on its most basic promise: justice…
If people have either the perception or fear that they can expect to face public ridicule, harassment, and potential danger (toward their selves, their reputations or their careers) in order to file complaints of abuse, this reveals a severe defect in our justice system…
Regardless of the outcome, the sanctimonious partisanship of people who are eager to take sides and demean their opponents before the wheels of justice have even begun to turn, will deter many women, and others, from filing complaints against wealthy or high-profile individuals in the future.
And that—not the reputation of any single person involved in this case—is the most tragic outcome of them all.

The video at the top of this piece isn’t about Ghomeshi: it merely underscores how many women get treated in public, by men: objectified, hit on, catcalls, insulted and propositioned: all just another form of abuse. Acceptance of this sort of behaviour by men (and sometimes by women) is what leads us to be casual or even accepting about other forms of abuse. Men need to take the higher ethical ground and speak out.

If anything about the Ghomeshi story has a lasting effect, I hope it is to make us re-evaluate and rebuild our standards for equality. My biggest worry is that we will simply get tired of it and turn to the next spectacle, give our attention to the next glitterati who slips in the muck or the next nipple-slip, ignoring the lessons waiting to be learned here.

* Yes, I believe the CBC has the right to fire anyone whose behaviour – on or off radio – threatens its collective reputation and standing or doesn’t live up to standards they promote. That doesn’t mean he is guilty, although the media suggest there is mounting evidence that he is. A company has the right to protect its reputation, a task that has become increasingly difficult thanks to the pervasive and destructive nature of social media. And an employee has the right to sue if he or she feels it was unwarranted – and it’s again up to the courts to determine the validity of either action.
** That changed on November 1, when apparently two women filed complaints to police. Both sides should welcome the investigation.

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Ian Chadwick
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