This past week I read Carl Wilson’s article in the National Post, “I Knew About Jian Ghomeshi and never said anything. Am I complicit in his alleged abuse?” and I had the creepiest feeling I’ve had since the stories broke last week.
I, too, feel complicit.
The article is written in the infrequently used “second person” voice – the kind of storytelling device you don’t often hear outside of the Twilight Zone introduction or “choose your own adventure” books. The effect is to put the reader in the action. It didn’t take long before it worked on me.
I was concerned by how much I identified with Wilson’s themes of secrecy and discomfort. There are people I know in the legal community who have a reputation for ill against women, and I’ve never thought to do much about it. What am I supposed to do? I’ve never really asked myself that question.
Wilson’s article isn’t about the merits of the allegations. It isn’t about BDSM. It isn’t even directly about consent. Confusing these issues has already driven dialogues off the rails. And while each is important, Wilson’s article focuses on harassment. So does mine.
Wilson and his colleagues in the Canadian arts and media scene had an uncomfortable knowledge of Jian’s reputation for harassive behaviour, but did nothing about it.
As a critic and author, you have been a guest on Q a half-dozen times, most recently in early summer, to discuss a Slate piece you’d written. You enjoy doing it, and you value it professionally: It is by far the highest-profile Canadian broadcast venue that consistently engages with the kind of work you do. You think you and Jian have a good on-air rapport.
Then again, you are a man. You are well-aware that to many of the women you know, Jian is a creep.
It may go without saying, but it is different from a man’s perspective. It is easy for a straight male such as myself to paint all my male friends and colleagues with one brush – “the guys” – and leave it at that, even though I know it isn’t like that. There are some of “the guys” I wouldn’t want around my sister. There are a few of “the guys” I wouldn’t wish upon my enemies. But why?
He does make some people uncomfortable. Female friends often remark that they would never date him, that they’ve “heard things.” You’ve heard things too.
There was chatter at parties, stories of pushed boundaries, of Jian hitting on woman after woman. You’d heard this kind of talk about journalists in town before, but usually about men of an older generation, not your own. The gossip was sometimes kind of funny, sometimes simply gross. On one or two occasions, a little darker, in ways you couldn’t really parse.
Our profession is not wanting for gossip.
Since entering law school, I have met a whole lot of lawyers. Windsor Law itself is famous for being a closely-knit school where everyone knows everyone. I have yet another cohort of peers at UDM. I have worked in a small firm and met lawyers, judges, and court staff. I have been to networking events and conferences in Canada, the US, and even briefly in Europe. In our line of work, you get to meet a lot of colleagues.
But why do I know that _________ lashes out at women who aren’t interested in him with several degrading text messages? Or that _________ has a few domestics on his record? Or that _________ opens conversations with women by speaking about his penis in the third person.
(The sad thing is, if you’re thinking about whose name goes in that blank, it probably isn’t even the same person I’m thinking of – none of those people are from our schools).
I hardly know these men, but I somehow came to know the uncomfortable details of how they have chosen to interact with women. I’ve “heard things.” I’m sure you have, too.
I’ve often joked with both my male and female colleagues about which people from our graduating class will fill the blank in LSUC v _________, or worse R v ________. For some, it isn’t a matter of putting their name in the blank, but simply putting the year in the citation.
After reading Wilson’s article, I don’t feel as comfortable making that joke. In joking about the formal accusation, I’m inadvertently celebrating the victimization. I am wrong to do so.
There was a round of similar allegations against men in the literary world just a few weeks ago. Some of your friends knew the accused parties. Some knew the aggrieved women. Not all of the stories were straightforward. Some friends felt torn about accounts being aired online, in public, destroying reputations—about whether to call certain incidents “rape.” Others had no such hesitations. Tempers flared.
If you’ve ever read the personal accounts of the contributors on Pantyhose and the Penal Code, chances are you can relate.
There have been compelling allegations against men in our faculty. The response from the community has been identical to what Wilson describes above. Some of our responses have been less than stellar. Inevitably, we come to this:
What do you do… about actions that make women feel unsafe, violated, but do not cross the line of criminality? About gray zones? About the creeps in your midst?
There is an overwhelming awkwardness – one that I am feeling even as I type this – about discussing the misdeeds of your colleagues.
We’re lawyers – we know the elements of assault, the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and the concept of “innocent until proven guilty.”
But I have a suggestion for you – outside of the criminal trial context, none of those things are relevant.
The allegations, whether “proven” or “unproven”, are still either true or false at the time that they are made. That is to say, either she was or was not the victim of harassment. It doesn’t become true when a judge says so, and the claim that an event occurred is either true or false regardless of whether there is evidence that tends to prove it or not.
Pretending that we can’t be sure until a judge tells us so is passing the buck to someone else.
If you’re uncomfortable with that, then you can look at it another way. In states like New York, the prosecutor represents “The People” – not the Crown or the State, but just plain old people. There is no obligation on The People to remain sober and unbiased – to the contrary, The People actively seek proof and justice. And if anything I said above about how much we know about each other resonated with you, then you’re already in a position to speak up. If The People have a wait-and-see attitude, then the victims are literally on their own with no advocates. What a sad society.
It gets sadder:
The worst thing, you realize, is that you tended to look down on Jian’s conquests. As if anyone who fell for his come-ons was a fool, instead of merely lacking the advantage of inside knowledge.
I’ll be the first to confess that I’ve felt this way. A total lack of sympathy for someone who was hurt by a man’s abuse of power because, well, “how did she not know this was going to happen?” I’m ashamed for having felt this way.
It conveniently relieves us of the burden of speaking out. “It isn’t my responsibility to tell, women should just know.”
Yeah, Peter – you do know, but you’ve never done anything about it.
“A complicity that cannot be explained,” said the Catholic patriarch. That was bold, but too facile. This denial, the church’s in a massive sexual-abuse cover-up, or yours in your cultural circles, was not a fog ordained by God to cloud the mortal mind. It served functions. It was not just something that was broken. It was something that was working all too well. Complicity can be explained. And it must be, because you need to figure out how to break it.
If you’re searching for a definition of Rape Culture, well, voila.
Complicity. It means letting things happen on your watch. There are many amongst the Catholic clergy who are, or should be, ashamed of the role they played in an international cover up spanning untold years of depravity. For every alter boy and parishioner who was taken advantage of, how many secretaries, clients, and counsel are there who have been harassed by a higher-up? Much worse, how many other lawyers knew about it but never spoke up?
Many of us are too comfortable being cogs in the machine “that was working all too well,” and, as Wilson suggests, our complicity is producing more victims.
So what should you have done, back when there were only rumors and snaky vibes? Refused to be a guest on Q? Scowled and been uncivil to Jian in public? Should you have tried to expose him? You didn’t have much to go on, and you are not an investigative reporter. Then again, you used to work as an editor at a Toronto newspaper. You could have urged someone to look into it. It just didn’t seem clear enough.
“What should you have done?” – the past tense for Jian.
“What can you do?” – the very real present for us.
I don’t think the answer is in the paragraph above. In fact, there is one thing that Wilson didn’t touch on that I think may be worth considering – the influence of a responsible community.
Wilson may not have been close enough to Jian to come alongside him and say, “hey, buddy, you know, I heard someone say this about you and I wanted to ask if it was true.” It is an uncomfortable conversation, to be sure, but you can ask Wilson how much worse it is to discuss it only in the aftermath.
There was a time that Canadians talked about drinking and driving like this. There were questions about criminality. There were gray areas of how much drinking was too much for driving. It used to be incredibly awkward to take the keys away from your drunk friend. Our society was more afraid of confronting a person who had had too much to drink than to think of the damage they could cause.
But we’ve overcome that old awkwardness. Courts are increasingly (though not perfectly) consistent in treating drinking and driving with the gravity it deserves. There have been incredibly effective media campaigns by groups like MADD, major alcohol producers, and our provincial retailers that applaud the designated driver and chastise the drunk driver. Ordinary party-goers feel more empowered to take the keys away from a drunk friend. It has permeated our consciousness to the point that even the person who has been drinking is more apt to agree that they are doing something potentially homicidal.
There is a clear and concerted message from courts, the media, and clear thinking people in society that drinking and driving is unacceptable. It isn’t perfect, but there is a marked improvement.
Can we get to that stage with sexual harassment? What are the barriers? How do we demolish the barriers?
Wilson is still thinking about it. I’m still thinking about it. We’re a smart generation. Rather than being complicit in the all too common evil in our midst, let’s make moves towards ending the acquiescence of sexual harassment.
Of course, there is another option:
But maybe you, too, downplayed the problem because facing it might mean making a sacrifice: You liked doing that show. Just as the CBC and the U.S. stations liked having that show. As his publisher liked selling his 1980s memoir. As organizations liked having Jian host. As websites and newspapers liked printing his handsome photos.
And so it went on. And more women ended up hurt. While he allegedly turned his teddy-bear face away.
You can wait until someone else gets hurt. You can act like none of your friends or colleagues are capable of doing such a thing, even though you’re certain they are. You can personalize it and say, “well, as long as they never meet my sister.” You can tell yourself to wait until there is more evidence – i.e. more victims – until you do something to mar his reputation.
No matter how you rationalize it, in the end it comes to this: You can continue to act like the victimizer is more important than the victim. Wilson regrets it. I regret it. Let’s find a solution that fixes this problem.
– Peter Adourian