Sometimes I can be wrong.
I don’t admit that easily, but it’s true. I can be rash, opinionated, and vocal without truly having all the facts. I will support the good cause, champion those who are persecuted or downtrodden, and fight for action and social justice, and a big part of that is because I’ve seen so much injustice through the years. I want this world we live in to be a better place, and I truly believe it can be. So when news broke about Jian Ghomeshi and his firing from the CBC, I was angry, frustrated, and quick to rush to judgment.
And I was wrong.
Now I can’t say I’ve been an avid follower of Jian like so many others. But as a creative type, I’ve admired his creativity, and how he managed to parlay that into such an incredible career trajectory: from his indie pop beginnings with “Moxy Fruvous”, his sophisticated and hip presence as a host of “Q” on CBC radio, and the debut of his bestselling memoir 1982, there was nothing Jian couldn’t do. Like some shining star in the northern constellation, he seemed like some magnetic unstoppable force, perhaps now poised for international stardom. When I first learned of the allegations, my mind IMMEDIATELY went to thoughts of racism: a case of that bastion of white, upper class patriarchy known as the CBC attempting to marginalize this man of colour. Then, I thought, here this same elite guard of conservative blowhards ready to dismiss him as a “pervert” and pass judgment on his “unusual bedroom antics”. It’s like the way homophobia “works” in this country. We are ready to describe what we don’t understand as disgusting or perverse or immoral. And then finally, when more people started to come forward with stories about Jian and his wicked ways, I thought, perhaps desperately, that these were people jealous of his success, looking to undermine, discredit, and somehow harm him.
No. I was wrong. And as more and more brave women come forward with their stories, forced to now share to their world some secret hidden shame, I’m angry again, this time for very different reasons. My reality check came first from another Facebook post, a column by author Chad Pelley in the Newfoundland arts and culture paper The Overcast. In it, Chad talked about “the real take away message” from this whole ordeal, and that is that women who are assaulted by men – by powerful men in particular – are now afraid to come forward due to the public persecution and shaming that THEY would most assuredly endure. He noted that while comments about the story were mostly supportive or added to the conversation, over 20% were decidedly NOT, with many of those blaming the women, minimizing the story’s impact, or excusing it by way of the BDSM lifestyle (something I admittedly don’t know much about, but what I do know tells me that bondage and discipline is more about a role play of power inequalities between equals who are players in a game involving consent. Something this clearly was not).
There exists in this country a rape culture, and its pervasiveness seems to grow year after year. We tell our young women “if you dress a certain way, if you act a certain way…you’ll draw unwanted attention”. We lecture them to “never leave your drink unattended at your party…you don’t know what might get slipped into it”. We tell them to lock their doors at night, and walk with a buddy, carry a phone for emergencies…and if they don’t do all that, well, I guess at least they have been warned. But I wonder does it ever occur to us to teach our young men what it means to treat another human being with dignity and respect? I’ve worked for many years with aggressive youth, the vast majority of them young males, and often when they are emotionally dysregulated these same youth will act out verbally. They might threaten me, or scream at me to “fuck off”, but for more female colleague the focus and intensity of their aggression is that much worse, and I’ve literally heard hundreds of variations of how to viciously belittle and degrade a woman: bitch, whore, cunt, slut…and the list, sadly, goes on and on. But little boys weren’t born with this vocabulary. This is learned behaviour. As a society, what are we teaching our little boys? What are we showing and modeling for them everyday that seems to tell them this is some accepted norm? That this is somehow OK?
Here in Nova Scotia, we need look no further than the case of Rehteah Parsons, a young woman bullied to DEATH, and failed miserably by both our justice and mental health systems. Local police and RCMP decided, after much public pressure, to seriously follow up on her allegations of rape only after her death by suicide after months and months of cyber bullying over her assault claims, and even then chose to prosecute the accused not for rape but for making and distributing child pornography. Recently we have learned of the “always on stalker case”, a story detailed in The Coast by Hilary Beaumont of two women relentlessly harassed by a jilted ex who, among other things such as making harassing phone calls, showing up at places of work unannounced and distributing private nude photos, went as far as to actually place ads as his former girlfriend online seeking a “rape fantasy”, and sending those who responded to her door. When these women sought help, they encountered roadblocks and barriers through the police and mental health, to the degree they have no faith there even is help for women like them today. And finally, there’s the fine example of Saint Mary’s University, where a chant about rape was used (and had been used for years) as a bonding exercise during frosh week. When someone finally pointed out this is wrong, student leaders stood like deer in the media headlights glare, seemingly unaware why there was uproar over the chant and why we might expect someone to be held accountable. And all the while as this unfolded, the country’s media seemed to shake its head and do a collective “tsk tsk” about the “inappropriateness” of it all. You know, boys will be boys and all that. But rape chants aren’t “inappropriate”. Swearing in front of your grandma, talking on a cellphone in a theatre, wearing high heels on a mountain hike, and most guys in Speedos (I don’t care if you THINK you look like Channing Tatum or not – you don’t) are inappropriate. To be clear, distributing pictures of drunk girls being assaulted at parties, placing ads seeking rape fantasies on your ex’s behalf, and rape chants of ANY kind are taking inappropriate to a whole new disturbing level, and therefore requires a swift and appropriately measured response.
There are no winners in this story, only losers. The women who suffered at Ghomeshi hands get to relive their trauma all over again, some privately and others very publicly. Other victims of similar circumstances who felt they couldn’t come forward get to vicariously live through someone else’s pain, and feel those familiar stirrings of their own self-doubt. A media giant in this country perhaps failed to protect its employees from a known predator in its mix, perhaps afraid to lose their very own “goose that laid golden eggs” as some have speculated, while writers and journalists and music industry types snickered and gossiped about rumours and innuendos for years, and yet did nothing to stop it. And young women in the media…reporters and editors, interns, assistants, and on air personalities – share talk now of their secret code: lists they share with one another, lists of powerful men to be careful around or avoid, to never get to close to or be alone with. And then there’s Ghomeshi himself, an Iranian man, a man of “colour” who for many has served undoubtedly as a symbol of cultural diversity breaking down “white barriers” in this country. It is a sad day that such a symbol is now gone.
So what can we do to make a change, as bystanders in this country, particularly as men? We can call out misogyny and sexism every time we see it…on the streets, in our beer ads, in our music videos. We can stop treating women’s issues as special interest groups in our governments. Women are more then half our country’s population, so by definition they are therefore NOT a special interest group. And with all the time and energy we invest in teaching girls how to be “safe” and “careful”, we appear to spend disproportionately less teaching our boys to be “moral” and “good”, to never violate the rights of others, to never marginalize or oppress. Again, this doesn’t come instinctually. This is learned behaviour, instilled in our young at an early age and reinforced time and time again through the thoughts, beliefs, and actions of our collective society.
Let’s teach the world a simple lesson – right from wrong.
Children need role models. Be THAT role model. Let’s show them a better way, starting today.