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Public Discourse on Sexual and Gender-based Violence

Did the Survivor Vote Swing the Election for Trump?

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his wife Melania Trump vote at PS 59 in New York, New York, U.S. November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX2SKKG

There has been a lot of talk about how Donald Trump won over so many white women in his campaign. The general narrative is, and I am not saying it is untrue, that, for American women, white supremacy trumped female solidarity. I am sure that is the case. But it is useful to think about the other things that might also be true, truths that function synergistically with this one.

A terrifyingly large proportion of people in America have had sex to which they did not consent by the time they turn eighteen. It is just shy of a majority of women and as many as one in six men. And the Trump campaign telegraphed their candidate’s propensity—perhaps even preference for—non-consensual sex, especially given that his main rebuttal of the “grab them by the pussy” tape was to suggest his accusers were too ugly to have been the women he actually assaulted. Similarly, the campaign did the opposite of disabusing the public of the notion that at least one of his daughters grew up having sex with him, something to which he has alluded in multiple interviews over the decades.

What is, as I suggested in my piece on Trump’s preference for incestuous relations, this was an intelligent and rational piece of campaigning.

As we learn—but never accept—in countless failed rape prosecutions, people who have been sexually violated, especially people who have been sexually violated by adults as children do not reliably say “no.” They do not reliably ostracize their accuser or reject his future overtures. They do not reliably resist further infringements on their bodies, dignity and sense of self. That is because one of the most powerful lessons a survivor of sexual abuse learns is this: their abuser is all-powerful and nobody will help them. Even if unlikely help eventually arrives in the person of the state or a concerned relative, it is often too late to unlearn that fundamental lesson about what it means to survive: one’s only hope for safety is to curry favour with one’s abuser. In this way, Trump is the epitome of the abuser: no matter what happens, he is too rich, too powerful, too dangerous, a man totally above the law and impervious to shame or social disapproval.

What survivors have also learned from the failed rape prosecutions in our media is that a survivor needs to fashion a public image of themselves that either denies their past experience or portrays them as a Lifetime Network TV movie hero-victim, for whom sexual violence and abuse has been a crucible, forging them into an implacable warrior against their abuser and the system supporting him. The majority of survivors who have become more vulnerable, more involuntarily compliant, more calculating, dissembling and fearful are viewed as reprehensible beings to be derided or attacked for currying favour with past abusers or consenting to further abuse.

What if the Trump campaign activated this? What if this is what undergirds his decisive victory among white women is this? What if the more his violent, predatory monstrosity was displayed, the more it began being refracted through the emboldened misogyny of men in their own space, America’s survivors intensified their performance of divided selfhood. Trump, in a way, became the biggest, most inescapable sexual assailant imaginable. In all the ways that a child sees a sexually predatory adult as omnipresent and omnipotent, Trump actually was, his face on every TV screen, his words coming out of the mouths of so many proximate men, like the eponymous priests of ancient Egypt, embodying America’s fascist, rapist god-man.

For most survivors, the way forward would be clear: dissemble and comply. Somehow your abuser will know if you tried to thwart him. In all likelihood, your abuser wants you to generate a narrative that you have consented, that he has done nothing wrong. Ultimately, the greatest performances of domination are the ones that inspire feigned consent. What if the moment, America’s survivors placed their hands on that lever, they felt their omnipresent, omnipotent abuser leaning over the flimsy cardboard privacy partition, their eyes full of malice, and knew what they must do to survive another day?

Being Godlike in America: Incest, Impunity and the Presentation of Trump’s Autocratic Credentials

At the height of the gulag, purges, death squads and Ukrainian famine, Joseph Stalin’s underlings approached him about a deeply worrying concern that might imperil the regime. Reports were coming in from everywhere that most Russians believed that the vast majority of people who were being executed or sent to Siberia were innocent of any crimes against the USSR.

But Stalin reassured them. It was not merely inevitable that most Russians would realize that those being murdered, imprisoned, tortured and shamed were innocent. It was necessary. For totalitarianism to succeed, it was necessary for citizens to fundamentally alter their understanding of the state and its leader. Whereas every Russian emperor from 1454 to 1917 had been heir to the title of Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor, “equal to the Apostles and God’s vice-gerent on earth,” Stalin had to do better, to exceed this status in his project of remaking Russian society in his image. It was not enough to be God’s agent; he had to be a god himself.

God, Stalin reasoned, based on a clear understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy theology and scripture, could be clearly recognized as distinct from mortals because his mortal servants were sent to punish the guilty and the unjust. God, as revealed in the Book of Job and countless other scriptural narratives, was the sole moral agent who possessed the right to punish the innocent and just. And only being god-like could Stalin, with a tiny fraction of the resources, population and allies of the capitalist empires he stared down, possibly prevail.

Whereas liberal capitalism was advancing a political theory in which any adult person might be entitled to govern a state and mete out its laws in a fair and moral fashion, Stalin offered an opposing theory, one rooted in the origins of the Russian state and its antecedents, the Byzantine Empire and the Khanate of the Golden Horde. Whereas the rulers of the capitalist, liberal West were to be understood as “first among equals,” men entitled to no more and no less than their fellow citizens, Stalin would present himself and his deceased predecessor, Lenin, as ontologically distinct from mere human beings.

And so Stalin set about doing god-like things: persecuting his children, terrorizing his allies, engaging in unspeakable atrocities, carelessly and pointlessly murdering millions as though they were straw dogs. It is in this light that we must understand actions that appear to have hobbled the Russian economy, political system and even Russia’s physical environment. No mere man could conduct himself in such a terrifying, incomprehensible, unspeakable fashion. Stalin, people concluded, must be something more.

It is in this light that we must approach the Donald Trump campaign.

Donald Trump is a man uninterested in serving as America’s president, engaged in a constant, endless process of technocratic compromise, negotiation and brokerage, the very thing craved by his opponent. Trump is not running for that job and has no interest in it. Trump is running for Stalin’s job, Mao’s job, Hitler’s job: absolute and supreme leader of a vast, world-spanning imperium. There is nothing irrational about his election strategy. He wishes to be elected with a clear mandate to serve as America’s god-king; anything less is of no interest to him.

And it is in this light that we must understand the programmatic, intentional and strategic marketing of parent-child incest by Donald Trump. Trump chose to give the convention address, reserved for generations for the spouse of a presidential candidate, to his daughter Ivanka. This choice was intentional and premeditated, as was his unambiguously libidinous kissing and ass-grabbing of his daughter on national TV before the address, the daughter about whom he has been making sexualized comments in the media since before her tenth birthday. Trump is direct, clear and unflinching in notifying America that he owns that girl’s ass and has since she was conceived.

And that is because he has been contemplating a run, not for the American presidency but for the role of American Emperor since before she was conceived. From her conception, she has been a prop, a means by which Trump can demonstrate his god-like status. A mere man, you see, couldn’t fuck his daughter and brag about it on national television; only a superhuman being could do that and walk away unscathed. Like taxes and contracts, the bedrock of the liberal social contract, prohibitions against the most monstrous form of sexual abuse do not apply to Trump because he is a god-being who can demonstrate this status by showing himself to transcend not merely our laws but our most fundamental social mores and taboos.

In writing this piece I was as reminded of the father of a friend of mine who killed himself this year (the son, not the father, sadly), a monster who began raping him when he was eighteen months old. That man was a charter member of the New Age movement, whose lifelong hustle has been photographing people’s auras for money. He begins each day with this affirmation: “I am a god-being, limitless beyond human comprehension,” like Ivan the Terrible, Russia’s most god-like emperor who is remembered best for beating his own son and heir to death – for no reason.

Like most survivors of programmatic and flagrant sexual abuse, my dear old friend was as powerless to retaliate against his abuser as is Ivanka Trump, a woman who has received the message loud and clear from over three hundred million Americans that they will not lift a finger to protect her. Her only hope of relative safety, like most survivors of sexual violence, is convincing her abuser that she is a willing, nay enthusiastic, participant in her own abuse. Victims of lifelong sexual abuse are at once ventriloquist and dummy, normalizing their abuser’s discourse while performing their accord with it as voluntary and enthusiastic, offering hagiographic descriptions of their abuser.

What we must understand is that, for Trump’s followers, their leader’s ongoing sexual violation of his daughter is what Slavoj Zizek terms an “unknown known,” in his tribute to the epistemology of Donald Rumsfeld, something we all know but refuse to permit our consciousness to see, a belief we concurrently deny and use as a premise undergirding our reasoning. Open secrets, unknown knowns, are the most powerful form of knowledge in a society because they represent the inchoate substructure of a social order. State-sanctioned torture, race- and gender-based violence, massive inequalities of wealth and opportunity structure our every interaction and so they must exist at the periphery of our consciousness.

By signaling that he is the incarnation of those very forces, Trump offers his followers what marginalized, desperate people in America desire, a literal deus ex machina. The invisible forces that are so terrifying that we cannot speak of them by name are incarnate in a man. Perhaps, they reason, this god-man might be more easily propitiated than the implacable invisible-handed deity that has laid waste their families, towns and workplaces.

What if #ElbowGate Isn’t About Canadian Politics At All?

In January 2013, I wrote a blog post on Tom Mulcair and the politics of Canadian masculinity. My basic thesis, premised on the seemingly reasonable, yet ultimately discredited, assumption that Mulcair would run for Prime Minister as “Angry Tom” from Question Period, was that the NDP had a real chance of winning the 2015 election because of the way English Canadians think about the masculinity of French Canadian politicians.

Anglos, and especially Anglo men, have accorded a special cultural role for prominent Quebecois politicians in our bicultural national political dynamic: they are permitted to express more aggression, physical violence and rage than Anglo politicians. Because middle and upper-middle class English Canadian masculinity remains entangled with Victorian ideals of reserve, continence and restraint, Anglo expressions of aggressive masculine behaviour has ambivalent, self-limiting effects on the national stage. The kind of physical aggression displayed by Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chretien or, most recently, by Justin Trudeau would be far more problematic and elicit far more criticism and concern if expressed by a politician of an equivalent class position coming from English Canada.

The roots of this double-standard are complex and multifaceted but it is worth noting that until half a century ago, Quebecois and Acadian Canadians were underserviced, unequal, racialized populations in this country, over-represented in unskilled, seasonal and migrant work, dominated by Anglo elites, and ruled by despotic, violent, theocratic regimes like Maurice Duplessis’ Union Nationale. (Indeed, one might want to rethink the politics of the niqab in Quebec in 2015 in the context of the province’s own experience of secularization and the role that religious dress played in that process.) In the US, a consolation prize for such historical wrongs is cultural permission to enact a more aggressive or macho performance of one’s male gender, including over-representation on the teams of the nation’s preferred professional gladiatorial sport.

Anyway, whether in Pierre Trudeau’s actions during the FLQ Crisis or his actions at the St. Jean-Baptiste Parade of 1968, Jean Chretien’s “Shawinigan Handshake” or pepper-spray remark, or in Justin Trudeau’s successful boxing match against Patrick Brazeau or his recent parliamentary gaffe, part of the appeal our French Canadian leaders have for English Canadians is that they are authorized, culturally, to participate in a more violent, macho, unproblematically aggressive masculinity than their English counterparts. In this way, one of the functions such leaders have is as people through whom voters, but especially male voters, get to vicariously participate in kinds of masculine behaviour, in which barriers of culture or power prevent them from engaging in daily life. And we need to place this understanding uppermost in our minds to understand the bizarre national debate that has been engendered by the events in parliament last week.

Last week, the Liberal government was attempting to rush some progressive legislation on end-of-life medical care through parliament. Whereas only the Conservative Party actually opposed the substance of the legislation, all opposition parties were upset that it was being rushed through the house without normal opportunities for MPs’ input. In response to this, NDP and Tory MPs used some venerable delaying tactics to slow the passage of the bill. In fact, these parties were so united in their concern over process issues around the legislation that they collaborated to effect this delay.

Visibly angered by these antics, the Prime Minister physically intervened, first by shouting at the NDP MPs who were failing to take their seats and then pushing his way through them to physically grab the Tory whip and drag him to his seat so that voting could commence. During the tussle, a small female NDP MP was elbowed in the chest, in an incident very similar to Toronto mayor Rob Ford knocking councillor Pam McConnell to the ground in 2013. Like McConnell, Ruth Ellen Brosseau had not been the intended target of the physical altercation but, as my friend Jeremy says, “accidents happen when people throw things.”

Almost immediately, the Speaker of the House and, to his credit, the Prime Minister himself, recognized that charging across the floor and inadvertently striking an MP in an effort to coercively manhandle another who protested “take your hands off me,” was all-out wrong. And so, the Speaker ruled that the PM had fucked-up and the PM apologized. To many of us, it seemed that the sorry, tawdry story of the most powerful man in Canada losing his shit was over.

But then, about a day and a half after the incident, it became clear that the story had entered a second, and far more unpleasant phase. My Liberal MP and several others began to suggest that Trudeau had been wrong to apologize, that he had been “set up” to elbow Brosseau in the chest and drag Gordon Brown to his seat because they were deliberately delaying a process. In this re-narration, Trudeau was understood to be a frustrated boss at a workplace with recalcitrant, attention-seeking employees who had provoked him, unjustly, into justly putting them in their place. It soon came to be suggested by many on social media that MPs moving slowly or standing still when a vote was being called was, itself, a form of violence and probably a criminal act. Soon a “defense of necessity” argument was being put forward that Trudeau was engaged in something like a citizens’ arrest in which we was heroically using his body to fight against “violent” opposition MPs engaged in an illegal act. And in all the social media posts and mainstream media comments pages I have read, this latter view comprises the overwhelming majority of opinion.

Now, many people are suggesting that this consensus around the fundamental rightness of the PM’s actions arises from high levels of support for the Liberal Party and a willingness to excuse any action by its very popular leader. In the minds of many of my long-time NDP friends, this is just the cynical old Liberals ginning-up public opinion in their favour, or people so attached to the idea of the PM being a “progressive” or “feminist” that they will justify anything he does. But this interpretation is inadequate and fails to answer some obvious questions:

  1. Why are so many NDP and Tory supporters still siding with Trudeau and against their own parties’ narratives of events?
  2. Why are Trudeau’s supporters not agreeing with Trudeau’s own interpretation of what took place and talking about what a big, generous, dignified man he is for apologizing so readily?
  3. Why are Trudeau’s supporters disbelieving the account of events offered by the Liberal Speaker of the House which is in accord, not just with that of the opposition parties, but with that of the Prime Minister himself?
  4. Why are Trudeau’s supporters not touting how progressive the legislation was whose vote was being delayed?
  5. And, most bizarrely, why are so many pushing a conspiracy theory in which the Tory whip was not colluding with the NDP to delay the vote but was secretly betraying his own party and begging Trudeau to help him to his seat, even though this entails disbelieving everything Gordon Brown has said both during and since the incident about what happened?

Perhaps we need to consider the possibility that this debate is no longer about partisan politics at all. Perhaps we should consider the possibility that this is about something bigger, more universal and more disturbing than the gong show that went on in parliament this week.

What if what matters here is not Trudeau’s function as Prime Minister but rather his function as a means of experiencing vicarious masculinity for English Canadians? Haven’t we all, white collar, blue collar, service sector, all of us been in some meeting at work where we wanted to get something important done and it has been stymied by attention-seeking asshats who want to slow everything down for their own stupid, self-serving purposes? Haven’t we all been working on a project that ends up being late because some asshole is deliberately dragging their feet for some bullshit reason? And haven’t we all wanted to shout at those attention-seeking, self-serving little shits to get out of our way?

Haven’t we all been at work and seen a co-worker standing next to their desk or their tools instead of getting on with the job? And haven’t we all wanted to shove them down into their chair or push their tools into their hands and just fucking make them get to work?

Aren’t we all too sick of bullshit, meaningless process at our jobs, slowing everything down and rewarding shitty, lazy people at the expense of good industrious people? And haven’t we all wanted to grab those lazy people and drag them along with us whether they like it or not?

On top of that, there are some less universal experiences that insecure young and middle-aged men have, like frustration at how they have to accommodate the sensitivities and bodies of young women, especially young women they feel were accidentally and unfairly promoted into their jobs? Is Ruth-Ellen Brosseau, the paper candidate who made good not the epitome of that, one of only two NDP MPs who increased their margin of victory in 2015 due to good constituency work but who continues to be dismissed as “Vegas Girl”?

At this point, what Trudeau and the other politicians in Ottawa say about this issue is now irrelevant. Our Prime Minister is not part of this debate as an interlocutor; he is part of this debate as a symbol, whose words are now irrelevant. Our national #ElbowGate conversation is about the expression of universal and widespread frustration with our workplaces, homes and civil society organizations, and our flirtation with increased physical force as a solution to what ails us.

Like most people reading this, I too have come home from meetings and privately expressed to my close friends or romantic partner about how much easier some meeting would have been if only people were allowed to hit one another more. But let’s remember why we have those no-hitting rules, no matter how much they inconvenience us.

The Perfect Safety of Young White Men: Part II

In the heat of the federal election, I dashed off a blog post about what I termed “the perfect safety of young men,” when Liberal strategists took to the airwaves to let us know that nobody should saying anything bad about their leader’s dad because doing so might hurt his feelings. It has been my intention to link this piece back to my series on how sexual and gender-based violence is debated in the public square.

So, I am going to wade back in by writing about another political event, on a much smaller scale, many years ago.

In March 2000, I attended a meeting that still stands out as one of the worst political meetings ever to take place in British Columbia: the BC Green Party provincial convention at which Adriane Carr seized control of the party through antics that still shock. The signature moment of this horror show was when candidates for the party’s provincial council were making election speeches and, in the middle of one candidate’s remarks, a party member rose on a point of order and accused him of rape. Once he had lost the internal election, she rose later in the meeting and retracted her allegations of sexual assault because they had done their job; his days as a Green Party organizer and strategist were over.

Generally, when people tell stories like this, they are offered in support of some kind of nonsense about how we should avoid talking about our belief or suspicion that a man has committed a sexual assault unless he has, himself, confessed to it, about how, given the existence of false and malicious allegations like the one I just described, it is irresponsible to speak about one’s suspicion that someone may be a rapist. That is not why I am telling this story. I am telling this story in order to get our discussion of sexual violence in the public square past an unhealthy impasse that favours sexual and social predators. I am trying to grab the opposite kind of cred: to throw down the gauntlet and say “so what?”

When we debate sexual violence in the public square, we are quickly stampeded into taking one of two unhelpful positions: (1) that the damage done by allegations of sexual violence is so damaging and women and children who claim to have suffered this violence are such unreliable witnesses that we must contain and silence their claims so they do not damage the reputation of potentially innocent men; or, (2) that no one, or, statistically, almost no one ever falsely claims to be a victim of sexual violence and that, therefore, the probability of a false allegation is so vanishingly small that silencing and containing these claims is unnecessary because they are only made about the guilty.

What underpins, what frames both of these positions is the sinister assumption that protecting the reputation of men is more important than protecting the physical safety of women and children. If we silence a rumour, a suspicion, an accusation and someone else is raped or beaten or abused because of our silence, because someone who could have been warned was not, this is a less grievous offense than if a man loses a job, a relationship or a political position because we did nothing to silence the rumours and accusations.

I can say from experience that it is obscene to draw an equivalence between the crippling, lifelong effects of abuse and the transitory damage of a personal or political smear. But what is clear from public discourse around sexual assault, a discourse that feminists, survivors and their allies must shoehorn themselves into, is that, according to our society’s values, a man’s reputation is worth more than physical body of a woman or child.

These values are, of course, constitutive of any patriarchal society, values that link genteel Canada to the violence of Russian homophobia, to the honour killings of Pakistan, the conversion rapes and child rapes of South Africa. That is not to say that there is no difference between our society and those that are more violently misogynistic. Rather it is to remind us that there exist in the world a spectrum of patriarchies, each of which offers different kinds of relative privilege to different men and different kinds and degrees of safety and liberty to non-men.

While it is true that all patriarchies prize male honour above female bodies, where ours is exceptional is in prizing the physical safety of men, especially young men, as well. And not just a physically achievable safety but an idealized, unattainable safety.

When it comes to understanding patriarchal societies, it is useful to remember that the main power dynamic that shapes such a society is the contest for power between old, rich men and young, violent men. A patriarchy is a society in which young, violent men are subordinated to old, rich men. While women, children and non-humans may bear the brunt of the violence and oppression generated by a male-dominated society, they are typically conceptualized as minor constituencies in this contest of power, resources to be exploited, prizes to be gained, minor players in a social contest among men.

For this reason, most patriarchal societies have, as I discussed in the previous article, sought to reduce the social power of young men while grooming a portion of them for eventual leadership through processes of winnowing, encouraging high-risk, high-mortality activities both recreationally and professionally, and deploying young men against one another in wars. The nineteenth century conscripted young men into wars on an unprecedented scale; it sent young men into mining, logging and whaling in new versions of these professions that maximized risk and encouraged a recreational culture of high-risk stunts, drinking, drug use and bar fights.

But, in the second half of the twentieth century, things changed for young, white men of a certain class. As the Vietnam deferments piled up, the new plan for young white men became to infantilize and warehouse them until such time as there is a space for them in patriarchal authority. Gone is the collective social hazing and its staggering body count. In its place is a seemingly interminable, infantilized, pathologized, basement-dwelling unpaid internship accompanied by a series of useless degrees and certificates. And with this new reality of an endless minority, one that even the Affordable Care Act has now legally extended to age twenty-six, is an unprecedented expectation of young male safety.

But there is a problem, a deeply gendered problem that now besets the society of these infantilized men: a safe man is an unattractive man.

Today, many misguided individuals, of whom I was one until an embarrassingly short time ago, bemoan the ways in which young men on university campuses seem to be set up for violating university rules around sexual consent. Posters at nearly every university at which I have taught warn young men that if they have sex with a young woman who has been drinking or is otherwise impaired by substances, they have committed a sexual assault and could, at any time, face discipline by the university or even by law enforcement and the justice system. Similarly, they are warned that ambiguity in communication, enough unclear responses from their sexual partner, too many “no’s” mixed in with “yes’s” and this may, at any time after the event, trigger accusations, discipline and expulsion. And given the popularity of agency effacement as a sexual fetish, this appears to transfer the risks associated with one party’s sexual satisfaction onto the other.

To which I say, “so fucking what?”

What kind of insane society do we live in where a young man trying to sleep with a young woman should not expect himself to be risking genuine harm in order to do so? Every time women contemplate a sexual activity with a man, we expect them to take on a burden of physical risk, to know that this activity might result in them being beaten, raped or killed. And, in most patriarchal societies, men are expected to know and voluntarily assume real physical and reputational risk in order to meet their sexual and romantic needs. It is only in this society where risk to women is normative and risk to men, unacceptable.

In most traditional patriarchies, the current or former sexual partner of the woman in question is the main purveyor of risk, well, he and his friends are. And it is expected that, even if the woman has rejected and dissociated herself from this former partner that he still enjoys the right to assault and defame her next sexual partner, a right important enough for law enforcement and other authorities to look the other way. And then, of course, there are the male blood relatives of the woman who present a physical risk; premarital sex is packaged, in your average patriarchy, with the real chance of being assaulted or murdered by your future in-laws, again important enough, that law enforcement might actually give those in-laws a hand.

And then, in the absence of ex-lovers and honour-driven family members, there is the law itself. In most patriarchies, law enforcement officials can usually do something about young people having, in their minds, too much fun. Not to mention a suitor’s competitors who might be trying to best him at the assumption of risk or the enactment of violence, often through direct violent confrontation, through that society’s version of a duel.

In every other patriarchal society, young men have been expected to take physical risks in order to court women. While this society offers a form of patriarchy that is more benign to non-men than most others’, it underwrites this with a steeper inequality in the valuation and expectation of safety depending on one’s gender. And this is, I think, where our hand-wringing over men’s reputations and silly, puritanical university policies come into play: we must talk up minor and improbable risks as though they are as life-threatening as dodging musket-fire while fleeing your sweetheart’s parents’ house. Irrespective of their creators’ intent, the real function of the posters is not to warn young men of real consequences but rather to create the false impression that young men are experiencing danger they are actually not.

Suddenly, we act as though sexual assault allegations that never appear on a police docket, much less a court registry cripple a man beyond all repair and make him lose all his friends and maybe even his job. Hell, overwhelming evidence, even a criminal conviction on the basis of such allegations doesn’t even rid a celebrity of most of his fans, never mind friends. “I know that guy. He didn’t do it,” remains the default position of any social group sufficiently proximate to an alleged abuser or rapist.

But we talk those risks up in order to make it look like men are still braving real danger in order to gain sexual access to women. So we wring our hands and tut about how hard it is to be a young man these days, what with all these rules. As though being safe and obeying the rules is what being a young man has ever been about.

The world is a dangerous place and having sex and creating romantic relationships is one of the many dangerous and worthwhile things in it. And it is time that men stopped shirking our share of that danger and grousing about minor hypothetical dangers as though they are real threats; because continuing to do so is not only unjust. It is unmanly.

Doctor Who: Man, Monster and Minor – Part II: The Silence, the Rise of the Trauma Monster and the Inward Turn of the Home Front

This article is the second of two on gender dynamics in Doctor Who. The first appears here.

In 2013, I suffered a minor psychological breakdown, triggered by, among other things, the new Doctor Who monster, a race of creatures called “the Silence.” The Silence, likely an homage to Joss Whedon’s the Gentlemen, are creatures with one singular power: the ability to make anyone who saw them forget that they had the moment they looked away. The horror of seeing one of the Silence inheres not in witnessing the creature’s hideous visage and diabolical nature but in remembering all the other times you had already seen the Silence and forgotten they were there. Not just “there” but everywhere.

These creatures had been distorting human history since its beginning, silently manipulating the fate of the world for their own diabolical ends. As one explains, “we have ruled your lives since your lives began. You should kill us all on sight but you will never remember we were even here. Your world is ours… we are The Silence.” For how long have they been doing this, someone asks the Doctor, “as long as there’s been something in the corner of your eye, or creaking in your house or breathing under your bed or voices through a wall.”

The Silence are one of the most successful villains of the new Doctor Who, since its resurrection by Russell T. Davies in 2004, an adversary that has sent English children back to their proper viewing perch for the classic series, behind the sofa. While the Daleks, Cybermen and Sontarans, the totalitarianism monsters of the Second World War and Cold War have returned, they mainly offer viewers a sense of nostalgia and continuity, not terror. Nor has there been any great effort to update monsters who are more adaptable to our contemporary fears of inhuman authority, dehumanization and the annihilation of culture and emotion; there are no new, scarier Autons or Axons to speak Matrix-esque fears of the present day.

I would suggest that this is because our modern risk of cybernetic dehumanization inheres, in part, in our loss of any clear sense of implicit threat as our phones and consoles merge with our bodies, the kind of fear that was narrated more easily a generation ago in David Cronenberg’s Existenz. For this reason, such fears are not central to the reinfusion of terror into Doctor Who.

As in the original series, the Doctor must convey a sense of manly heroism relationally and symbolically, by protecting a female companion from danger. Because the main character has been transformed from an asexual being into an ambiguously and ambivalently sexual one, the non-consummated nature of the Doctor’s relationship with his companion is one that, even more strongly, conveys a Victorian restraint-driven manliness. Now, the Doctor is tempted, from time to time to engage romantically or sexually with his younger female companion. And yet, for some important reason, he must restrain himself from doing do.

In trying to understand why this must be, the show’s queer subtext seems a logical explanation; Russell T. Davies’ Doctor feels fleeting moments of attraction to his female human companion but not enough to actually sustain the rich, romantic, sexual relationship she wants and “deserves,” with some more suitable male partner, the Will and Grace “fag hag” dynamic played out episode after episode.

But let us, for a moment, consider how the nature of the Silence and the other popular new monsters in Doctor Who link the unconsummated sexual dynamic to the return of the show’s ability to convey horror. Steven Moffat has struck fear into the heart of a new generation of youngsters (and adults like me!) with the Silence and the Weeping Angels by triggering the fears of contemporary watchers the way the Daleks and Cybermen played on the fear of totalitarianism that existed in audiences of half a century ago.

Like the creature lurking under beds and behind curtains in the current season, the Weeping Angels and the Silence evoke the consciousness of victims of childhood abuse and sexual violence, and the ways in which the resulting trauma plays on the memory of survivors. While the Silence are creatures one forgets every time one looks away, only to recall, with ever-increasing horror all the times one witnessed and forgot, when one sees them again, the Weeping Angels speak to the vigilance that survivors of trauma experience.

Weeping Angels are monstrously strong and lethal creatures that can only move when no one is looking at them. One must never close one’s eyes, never look away, never let the lights go out, never blink or the Angels will set upon you and tear you limb from limb. For so many victims of childhood sexual violence, this fear of the dangerous world that comes into being when the lights are out has left a residual vigilance, that permanent imprint of trauma that remains sleepless and vigilant, hoping to delay the seemingly inevitable reckoning with horror.

Before I met the Silence, I had always found the idea of “repressed” and “recovered” memories hard to understand, hard to believe in. How could something so life-altering and horrifying really be forgotten? How could one go through life never remembering things around which an abused child’s life is organized? But that misses the point of repressed memories—the horror of repressed childhood trauma is not repressed once; it is repressed again and again. And even as the events themselves recede, the horror only grows in power because every time you remember the event again, every time it breaks through repression and localized amnesia, you remember all the other times you saw the monster and repressed it again because you could not bear to gaze upon its visage. The work of repression is constant, repetitive and exhausting; through it, we become unwitting, involuntary accomplices in the conspiracy of silence that surrounds trauma and abuse.

When we hear the voice of the Silence, we hear generations of priests, teachers, parents and relatives whispering those words, “we have ruled your lives since your lives began. You should kill us all on sight. But you will never remember we were even here. Your world is ours… we are The Silence.”

It is in this light that we must understand the unconsummated nature of the Doctor-companion sexual dynamic. The Doctor cannot sleep with his companions—not because he is gay—but because he knows their secret: that they are victims of trauma and abuse, and that he would be exploiting his knowledge of who and what they really are if he did so, much as he might wish to.

It also helps to explain the feature of the series that fans find most aggravating: that nearly every companion, in her childhood, became entangled with the universe-threatening monster the Doctor is fighting. And it is her prior encounter with the trauma-inducing events and creatures that set her on a path that will, inevitably, intersect with the Doctor’s. Here, our modern Dcotor stands in for the charismatic, altruistic future therapist, police officer, social worker, foster parent with whom the traumatized person must confront the foundational evil that has been hanging over her life, a hero bound by ascetic vows never the turn that intimate relationship into a sexual one.

Serial killers, rapists, human traffickers—these are our new demons in popular culture; they have replaced the Nazi war criminals and Soviet agents of half a century ago. They hold that status because they threaten our patriarchy’s minors, our home front; they target “our” women and children, not men. And by interposing oneself between these predators and the women and children of England or America, one becomes a masculine hero, no matter how effete or unmanly one’s body or personality. This gendered, relational position doesn’t just permit the Doctor to be a dandy hero; it gives us Gil Grissom, Spencer Reid and a host of other otherwise-insufficiently masculine men who hunt the monsters who threaten the new home front.

At this point, people who are not me might focus on the ways in which this argument shows Doctor Who to have always been a patriarchal show that subordinates women to men (perhaps aside from the 1979 and 1980 seasons). This can be said of most shows on TV and, frankly, most good ones, not because the film industry is full of misogynists but because we continue to live in a patriarchal society that constantly re-inscribes its gender dynamics in its literary and dramatic production.

What interests me are the ways in which the show operates within these gender dynamics to adumbrate new possibilities for narrating the deeply gendered repression that remains near the heart of our society. I have yet to see any portrayal of repressed memories of abuse more compelling than the Silence, one that engages not just individual trauma but the multigenerational, structural character of abuse and trauma.

When Jack Cram, the radical native sovereigntist lawyer went mad, he spoke—inaccurately—of our society being run by a conspiracy of pedophiles in our courts, churches and legislatures. There is, of course, no such conspiracy. It is just that our society runs as if there were. When I wrote of the lethal silence that powered southern lynchings, the silence that enables predators like Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi to seek out and assault new victims with impunity, the picture in my mind was of the Silence, as depicted by Stephen Moffat, that powerful force, as old as the human race itself that stops us telling others what has happened to us, that chokes cries for help in our throats, that seeps into our houses and places of work, stifling our words.

While there is much to criticize about the new Doctor Who, in particular, the direction of the show since the Davies’ departure, I continue to draw inspiration about how to be an ethical man enmeshed in a patriarchal society. Just as the old series taught me how one could be clumsy, eccentric, hard-to-understand, strangely-dressed and yet mysteriously heroic, I choose to draw inspiration from the possibilities the show lays before us. All that is needed to be a man, Doctor Who continues to tell us, is to fight to protect the home front. As the Doctor says of the Silence, “they’ve been running your lives for a very long time now, so keep this straight in your head. We are not fighting an alien invasion, we’re leading a revolution. And today, the battle begins.”

Cosby’s Wager: Faith, Rape, Race and Respectability

I responded on this blog to the celebrity rape apologetics around the Jian Ghomeshi case in the early days of the story breaking because, at that point, other voices challenging the most pernicious topoi of rape apologetics had yet to emerge. I have been pleased to see actual opinion leaders in this country articulating the things that I would have felt the need to say, were they not being said better, louder elsewhere.

I am now wading into the Bill Cosby case with some reluctance and sadness because, in the articles I have read, I feel that certain points are not being made. And following the New Republic’s well-intentioned misinterpretation of the functioning of “black respectability” politics in this debate, I feel that I should say something that might be otherwise missed now that there is no question that Cosby will live out his few remaining days as a pariah, exiled from both the entertainment elite and America’s black elite and it is clear that people, once again, feel bad about not “believing women.”

One of the things that is being missed, here, in my view, is what is actually meant by “belief” here, and how this shakes out when it comes to all those rapists out there whose violence we will continue pretending we do not suspect or have not witnessed. Ever since the reconstruction of the term “faith” during the Protestant Reformation, our society has sought to conflate two things at our peril: (1) proceeding as though a thing were true and (2) believing a thing to be true.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, two allied social processes forced us to begin conflating these things. The first was the Galilean or Scientific Revolution, in which Galileo Galilei changed the disciplinary architecture of the sciences by demanding that the discipline of “Physical Astronomy” (the “true” structure of the universe as described by philosophers and theologians) be subsumed in the discipline of “Mathematical Astronomy” (the mathematical and geometric model of the universe as used by mathematicians do write calendars, predict eclipses, etc.). Whereas key ecclesiastical and imperial authorities of his day agreed that the discipline of Mathematical Astronomy should incorporate a heliocentric redesign based around elliptical planetary orbits, they were unwilling to subordinate their geocentric Physical Astronomy of crystalline spheres and circular orbits to Galileo’s vision.

In a related conflict, anti-corruption crusader, revitalizer and reformer Martin Luther began arguing for something called “justification by faith and faith alone,” arguing that the sole determinant of the salvation of a human soul was that person’s “faith” in God, his commandments and the eternal life he offered. Here Luther was not so much the author of a new understanding of cognition, representation and truth, as was Galileo, but the end of a long thought process reaching back three centuries to the mandating of Confession by the Lateran Council of 1215.

“Faith” or “fidelity” had long been understood and translated as faithfulness to Christian teachings about how to conduct oneself: having a drunken pancake breakfast once a week with friends, giving to beggars, not criticizing people for a sin you’re also committing, etc. Perhaps the greatest work of late medieval alchemy was the transformation of “faith” into the sustaining of magical beliefs within one’s consciousness in contradiction of evidence. In this way, faith was transformed from fidelity to good practices to a sustained lifelong act of self-deception, or at least, as the magical worldview of the Bible’s authors came to be increasingly discredited, that is what it became.

It is not really until the emergence of the Enlightenment consensus in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that these elite-level changes were felt by the majority in the European and Euro-American worlds. Until then, our culture remained one in which public and private selves, moralities and knowledges were understood, if not as a social good then, at least, as a social necessity. But in today’s post-Enlightenment world, such discrepancies are no longer understood as the grease that enables the machine of society to work but as an endless series of moral and epistemological failings and hypocrisies of weak people.

The #ibelievewomen hashtag, laudable as it is, reinforces the “enlightened” worldview made—for very good reasons, at the time—by the likes of Luther and Galileo. And it shows us how stupid its excessive and uncritical embrace has made us. The issue is not whether we believe the women who courageously come forward to denounced celebrity rapists (or the vanishingly small, tiny fraction of one percent who are less than truthful); the issue is whether we act as though we believe them. The issue isn’t really what our private thoughts are; the issue is our social conduct, how we communicate and act when we hear these allegations.

The reality is that we do believe most of these accusations most of the time. It’s just that we would rather pretend we do not. As a long-time electoral reform activist, I’m extra-familiar with this routine. People who oppose democracy i.e. the equal, effective voting power of every citizen, almost always pretend a level of innumeracy they do not, in fact possess. They understand perfectly well that our current voting system is unfair and unrepresentative and that there are a bunch that are fairer and more representative. But it is much more socially acceptable to feign incomprehension and magical belief than to argue against something as universally beloved as democracy.

And that’s just the voting system, a dry, abstract issue.

People are far more committed to feigning stupidity and ignorance if it allows them to keep admiring popular rapists, and to keep socializing with the rapists in their own circle of friends, family and acquaintances. But since the age of Luther, this kind of thinking has become more pathological. No longer is it enough to publicly pretend that the local town councillor, fraternal organization president, racialized community leader or star athlete isn’t a rapist, one must fragment one’s own consciousness to suppress that knowledge, to both know and not know. Social demands to turn our bullies and monsters into admired patriarchs have not changed; what has changed is our ability to admit that our charade is a charade, conducted for social purposes.

In this way, it is not that we believe our rapists; it is that we have faith in our rapists, that we have taken on the lifelong project of subordinating the conclusions of our native intelligence to expedient social truths.

In this way, we can understand that it is not so much that the “Age of Faith” and the “Age of Enlightenment” succeeded one another but that they developed contemporaneously, that “faith,” as an epistemological and social practice not limited to religion, becomes a necessity when public, social truth and private, individual truth must be collapsed into one another. In this way, Reformation and Enlightenment ideas of opposing hypocrisy and questing after truth necessarily turn on themselves. Now, when it comes to the predators in our midst, we do not just have to negotiate a disjuncture between our public claims and private assessment of important men in our community; we have to conduct an ongoing war on our own consciousness to conceal this operation from ourselves, even as we continue performing it. Maintaining two self-consistent yet incompatible stories is hard enough. When one does that work while concealing said work from oneself, it is profoundly mentally taxing and generative of madness. Furthermore, having faith in rapists also generates new kinds of danger because we lose the ability to reliably protect those vulnerable to predators from harm, in that we are only intermittently conscious of the degree to which we, and those around us, are at risk of predation.

Of course, disrupted consciousness and successful self-deception are, at best, incompletely experienced. Most of the time, our native intelligence wins out and we make perfectly accurate assessments of the people and events around us; the problem is that voicing those thoughts is driven so far underground as to be exiled from the realm of conversation.

So, let us consider the case of Bill Cosby in this light, that the great man was not a man we believed but a man in whom we had faith. As at most times and places, the decision to have faith is not a matter of life and death necessity. It is a matter of risk-reward calculation. Whether consciously or semi-consciously, we ask ourselves this: “What is the reward for acting as though what I have just heard is true? And what is the danger or damage to which I might be subjected if we call it out as false?”

You see, the great liars of our day are usually not people who generate belief as much as they generate faith. The great lies of our age, like climate change denial and the Iraq War, are not ingenious, hypnotic deceptions but wagers, structured like Pascal’s Wager (one of the most honest expressions of the true meaning of faith in the modern era). Rather than lies driven by brilliant deception or narrative artistry, the great social lies of our time are those in which the audience is persuaded that something needs to be true, not that it is, in some way, true. The great baroque liar was Baron Munchausen; the great modern liar is Blaise Pascal.

Much as I want to go along with the New Republic’s belief that we refused to believe Cosby was a rapist because white liberals sanctified him as an acceptable representation of black male power, I cannot. White liberal America has Barack Obama now to represent continence, hard work, respectability and sweater-wearing. For white society, Cosby was obsolete a decade ago.

The people for whom the calculus changed were not the white elite but the black elite, with so much to gain and so much to lose.

As bell hooks has eloquently explained, the intertwined projects of “racial uplift” and “black respectability” are inextricable from Jim Crow and the age of racial passing, when all black success in America was necessarily grounded in deception. This deception had two related but distinct aspects. And it is the first aspect with which non-black Americans are more intimately familiar, means by which black Americans hid themselves or hid their blackness to escape persecution. Successful black professionals lived in inner city slums or in run-down or deceptively modest homes to conceal earnings and savings that their white neighbours might confiscate or destroy. Other “success stories” like my aunt Connie “passed,” using their light skin to feign whiteness and mislead their neighbours and friends into thinking that they were not the descendants of slaves.

But the second kind is the more pernicious, the kind to which hooks has spoken so eloquently: the deception of false credentials, the pretense of a harmonious family life, the concealment of substance abuse, and the manufacture of false heroes. Because black Americans were and are so profoundly traumatized by the multi-generational campaign of physical and psychological abuse perpetrated by white society, the thing at which we must most desperately pretend is our mental health.

As discussed in articles about the problem of the “good victim,” in rape apologetics, violence produces trauma; trauma produces madness; madness makes us do things that are not respectable; if we do things that are not respectable, we prove the racists and misogynists right. For this reason, it has long been a collective imperative in the American black elite to conceal how traumatized its members are. Joining the black elite, whether at the town, city or national level has, since the moment America suffered a black elite to exist, entailed the concealment of trauma, illness and madness, especially in places where the black elite subscribes to the politics of respectability that Cosby has long embodied.

Growing up among Vancouver’s black community leaders, there are ways in which my experience of the disjuncture between what is true and what needs to be true intensified through forms of double consciousness to which Frantz Fanon and others have spoken.

But, in other ways, our community was more like the baroque world, just before the age of faith. We were allowed to know which great men and women, which community leaders, which black heroes were liars, thieves and abusers more consciously and to discuss their deceptions more openly. That’s because coordinated deception was not just about individual gains and individual good; these deceptions were for the greater Good of the Race. Some of the older people in our community remembered the lynchings, stonings and burnings; for them, these deceptions were a matter of survival. And for younger members, the dream was that, if only the façade could be maintained a little longer, the next generation wouldn’t have to feign health, heroism and credentials; they would truly possess those things and the multi-generation charade finally could end.

What has brought Bill Cosby down are his declining faculties. That loss of mental acuity has caused him to lose track of the fact that his fraud and deception do not belong to him alone but to the leaders of the Race. What has changed is not who Cosby is, nor who other members of America’s black entertainment elite know him to be. What has changed is Cosby’s Wager.

In recent years, Cosby has become more vociferous in attacking the personal virtue, decency and respectability of the newer, younger members of the American entertainment industry’s black elite. Comic Hannibal Buress could finally say “rapists don’t tend to curse on stage” precisely because Cosby was attacking him. Instead of being the aging patriarch who charged with leading the collective charade of health and miraculous recovery from trauma, Cosby forgot himself and began attacking the very consensus that shielded his own predation. New and aspiring members of the black elite had nothing to gain from Cosby’s inclusion in their number and everything to lose. It no longer needed to be true that the grand old man of NBC Thursday night was a good and decent family man. It now needed to be untrue for the exact same reason it had needed to be true in the 80s: for the good of the Race.

The question we need to ask ourselves is not “why did we not believe those women?” It is, instead, “why did we pretend we did not believe those women?” And I can tell you why I did: for the Good of the Race, so that the sacrifices of my mother, uncles, great aunts, grandfather, great-grandfather, all my ancestors, all the way back to the guy we imagine tried to tunnel out of Elmina Castle, would not have sacrificed in vain.

In recent months, I have become more convinced by hooks’ arguments that Jim Crow is over, that black elites and aspiring elites must change culturally, commit ourselves to honesty in new and revolutionary ways. I will do my best and endeavour to live my faith by being faithful and to try, every day, to believe what I know to be true, no matter the reward for acting as though I have been fooled.

My Thoughts on Recent Rape Apologetics – Part III

The best speech I ever heard Svend Robinson give was at the 1990 Stein Valley Festival. He came to the stage wearing an AIDS awareness t-shirt emblazoned with the words “SILENCE=DEATH.” And he spoke with passion and eloquence about how these words had a far-reaching meaning, beyond activism for public health, beyond activism for queer equality, beyond the social context in which they were deployed, to the larger justice-seeking project.

A few years ago, I was talking with a man in his nineties about growing up in the Jim Crow South as a black person. One of the most arresting stories he told was of driving with his father down a country road when the two suddenly spotted a body hanging from a tree, a local black man who had been tortured to death and displayed as a symbol of white supremacy. My friend spoke with a vivid eloquence about how a silence descended on the car that made it impossible for him and his father to speak and how, when they returned home, they brought that silence into the house with them and how it wordlessly enveloped his mother, sisters, grandmother and brother.

Silence and terror are always allies.

One of the features of acts that reinforce and magnify oppressive power dynamics is the field of silence they generate around themselves. In this field, it is impossible for those under attack to form alliances and create solidarity. Even more basically, it is impossible for the injured and terrorized to heal, to receive support and sympathy from family, friends and allies. Lynchings, real lynchings, not the bullshit fake lynchings I talked about in my last two posts, spread an infectious silence through black homes, black businesses and black churches around the South, a silence that choked off words in the throats of terrorized people. To organize against them, to warn potential targets, to challenge the hegemony of the powerful men who privately condoned and enabled them, it was first necessary to speak about the collective horror.

Like sexual violence today, lynchings were never legal. Like sexual violence today, their prevalence, in the context of the explicit legal prohibition, was effected by a pantomime with two key features: (1) a discourse of the weakness and incompetence of the state the handle the social problem with which they were associated and (2) a narration of the individual exceptionality of the specific case being discussed. Lynchings were never condoned, as a systemic phenomenon, by the folks who supported them. And when powerful planters sat around the dinner table and the subject of lynchings came up, the point was to distinguish one’s local lynching as justified, from the no doubt ill-thought-out and excessive lynchings that had happened in the next state, the next county or last year.

The individual lynching under discussion was always the exception and never the rule. In this way, one could concurrently believe that white trash mob violence had got out of hand and that the local black shopkeeper hanging from a nearby tree personally had it coming. And that is what we see in celebrity rape apologetics today. Sure, most testimonies of sexual violence are true, just never the ones that are before us.

That is why it is so upsetting when somebody starts talking about how the violence of a Bill Cosby or a Jian Ghomeshi resembles the violence of another man. By “committing sociology,” to quote the Right-Honourable member for Calgary Southwest, we begin to do what the anti-lynching movement began doing in the late nineteenth century: learning something about how concurrently illicit and elite-condoned social practice was functioning to cause injury and death.

Because, let me be clear: there is no metaphor, no hyperbole here. When it comes to sexual violence, silence does equal death. Sometimes victims are killed in the course of the initial assault. Sometimes it takes days, months or even years for the permanent physical and psychological damage to bring about death. But it is indisputable that sexual violence kills and that, to bring down its body count, we must be able to talk about it openly and without fear.

If silence equals death, then free speech equals life. And we would do well to talk about how arguing, debating, educating and conversing we are affirming human life.

First of all, refusing to remain silent is prophylaxis. When a person talks to those near them about the sexual violence they have suffered, they are not just seeking out support and comfort. They are warning people and letting them know how to protect their bodies from being abducted, choked, beaten, punched, slapped and penetrated against their will. It is rare for sexually violent people to target only one individual in the course of their careers of violence. Sexually violent individuals are no different than lethal pathogens insofar as they endanger the physical health of whole communities when everyone is silent about the risk they pose. In this way, SILENCE=DEATH requires no reframing, no translation to move from the sphere of sexually transmitted disease to the sphere of social violence.

To speak about one’s assailant is to protect potential targets of the individual’s violence. That is why it is so important for predators to conscript those they assault into burnishing their reputations. And that is why the social norms that function to enable this kind of social violence exert such pressure on victims not only to remain silent but to allay the fears of those who begin to suspect that their assailant might be a dangerous individual.

Second, refusing to remain silent is to think aloud, to analyze, to comprehend. Media and popular entertainment constantly reinforce the idea that people who are compulsively driven to perpetrate violence are reclusive, remote, obviously creepy single men with few associates and little family. When we make the conversation about human predation a wider, more comprehensive one, what we often find is not that progressive, charming, erudite, attractive, intelligent men are not the exception but the rule. The fact is that a successful career in sexual violence is one that requires highly complex and sophisticated social action in which whole social circles and discourse communities are manipulated.

Our image, so often, of rapists and violent men are of those who have been caught, either because they never developed the ability to manipulate social realities around them to permit a long-running career of violence or because something has happened that has caused this ability to deteriorate. In this way, our image of the human predator is that of one who is in the process of losing his mojo or who never had it at all. And, unless we commit sociology, our image of these individuals will be those who dementia, cockiness, madness or a loss of self-control has deprived of the ability to silence those around them. And that image serves those who are at the top of their game very well indeed. They are only too happy to make sure that our eyes are trained on dishevelled men in stained clothes, driving dented and dilapidated vehicles.

Indeed, this is how we are meeting Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby, men thrown off their game by cockiness and dementia. If we really overcame the dynamics that silence us, we could ask more frightening and important questions. In particular, we could ask what does a sexually violent person look like when they are at the top of their game, and how is that different from how they look when sloppiness and ill health finally bring them low? What does a successful predator look like and what does such a person hide behind? What tools might they use to maintain a field of silence around them? A public image whose destruction might set back a minority community? An important charitable or political project that might not survive their public humiliation? Unremunerated labour used to provide for the old, the sick, the dying? Financial generosity extended to desperate and damaged people?

Third, refusing to remain silent is to organize and take responsibility and to exhort others to do the same. We cannot organize against social evil unless we can name, understand and debate it.

My Thoughts on Recent Rape Apologetics in Social Media – Part II

Yesterday, I dealt with the discourse of “reasonable doubt” and “presumed innocence” and its insidious effects on our ability to talk sexual violence. Today, I want to begin by dealing with some other old chestnuts that are being brought out by rape apologists.

  1. “This is celebrity news about someone’s private habits. It’s a distraction; real, important things are happening like the Syrian War and the scary new security legislation coming out of Ottawa.”

Again, I would like to suggest that this argument only shows up under one condition: celebrity rapist defense. Canadians leftists and progressives are routinely talking about and engaged in literally dozens of issues. We express our opinions in the public square about a wide diversity of issues all the time. On days when the Harper government introduces new legislation to suppress voter participation or subject more Canadians to warrantless detention, arrest, search and seizure, nobody starts telling off people who are writing blog posts and Facebook updates about how a rental housing block is being torn down and replaced with condos, or how their local bird count statistics show a 30% decline in the eagle population of the Lower Similkameen.

That’s because, when we organize and talk about our organizing, we ordinarily find information about other people’s causes, concerns and activities a source of inspiration and knowledge. There is no other circumstance under which people argue there is a zero sum of analysis, attention or action. This argument is only deployed when people are trying to shut down discussion, to prevent themselves and others from knowing and thinking, to prevent the emergence of a social consensus around an issue that is important. Here, I will suggest that, like the “reasonable doubt” epistemology, it is self-serving, a defense of a cherished belief. But there are other dimensions too that I will get to later in this piece.

But let’s unpack the other part of this problematic position. For much of this year, my activist friends—and I include among that number people who are making the very point I am debunking here—expressed outrage about Stephen Harper’s statement that the epidemic of missing and murdered aboriginal women in this country should not be investigated lest we “commit sociology.” For the extreme right, to “commit sociology” is to refuse to explain systemic violence, inequality and injustice in terms of any discernible pattern but instead to explain all social problems as isolated, individual, unconnected failures of human virtue.

To label this as “celebrity news” or “what one man does in his bedroom” is to make the identical logical and rhetorical move to Harper. It is to explain widespread sexual and social violence against women and children as individual failures of human virtue that have no social dimension, no social solution and, hence, mandate no organizing, no policy changes—no collective response.

The ways in which predators hide behind wealth, privilege, power and charisma to continue patterns of predation unchecked by either the law or social disapproval are, indisputably, problems of a social character meriting social and collective responses, even if we decide the state need not be part of that response. The ways in which predators attack their victims and intimidate them into terror and silence are social issues. There are a lot of things we can do together about endemic social problems that don’t require state participation; terms like “solidarity” and “organizing” were once deployed to describe those responses.

When people mistakenly deploy Pierre Trudeau’s “the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation” to explain why it’s not our business that Jian Ghomeshi knocked a woman to the floor of his living room and punched her in the head until her ears rang, first of all need to remember that Trudeau’s regime stood behind increased punishments for physical and sexual violence and second, need to understand that when acts of criminality and violence cluster, they are no longer private and we must “commit sociology” to address them.

  1. “Bill Cosby is being tried in social media right now! This is a trial and you have set yourself up as judge, jury and executioner… This is really just a high-tech lynching by an angry mob.”

Now, I’m as big a fan of metaphor as the next guy, perhaps an even bigger fan than that. But what you are reading above isn’t metaphor; it’s the collapse of the metaphoric into the literal, the conflation of the abstract with physical reality.

So, first off, let’s get clear on what real rape trials do, if the jury convicts: they attach chains to a person’s body, stick him in the back of a vehicle, drive him to a far-off location, lock him in a tiny concrete box there for several years, confiscate all his possessions, spy on him constantly and subject him to increased risks of sexual violence by other men.

And let’s get clear on what real lynchings do: they abduct a non-white man, take him to a far-off location away from public scrutiny, tie him to a tree, torture him with hot and sharp objects, commonly tearing off his genitals and using them to suffocate him, and then murder him inefficiently and painfully.

All that ever happens to Bill Cosby, Jian Ghomeshi, Woody Allen and Roman Polanski is that people they don’t know type words that, if these men read them, which they likely never will, would hurt their feelings. So, first off, saying “I think that guy is a violent predator” to your friends on Twitter or Facebook isn’t a kind of criminal conviction; it isn’t a kind of lynching; it isn’t even like those things. What is really going on is this: we are saying that the feelings of a rich, powerful, popular man are of the same worth as the physical body of a poor, unpopular, marginalized man.

Worse yet, the damage done to rich, powerful, popular men’s reputations is alleged to either be of comparable value or greater value than the physical bodies of women and children who are raped, drugged, suffocated and beaten. I don’t hold with the broad application of the term “rape culture” because it deprives us of the ability to describe, with specificity, the cultures that exist today that publicly exalt (as opposed to merely tolerating) the rape of women as a social good. But what I will say is that a definitional feature of patriarchy is the core social belief that a man’s honour and reputation are so valuable that they exceed the value not just of one woman’s physical body but that of many. And it is that which underlies the false equivalency that is being drawn between incarceration and lynching and a reduction in a powerful man’s social capital.

We should also take a moment to remember the provenance of the term “high tech lynching.” It referred to a sexual predator, who today is the number one Tea Party ally on the US Supreme Court, being installed in office by the Republican Party. This term was created for Clarence Thomas by his elite white allies, as a rhetorical move to discredit the woman he sexually harassed so that he could assist them in rolling back the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act and the various other laws in the US that have protected poor black men from being lynched.

  1. “It’s so unfair that Jian Ghomeshi cannot face his anonymous attackers. Why is it that their story is being heard when he can’t defend himself or face them?”

Let us begin by saying that the right to face one’s accuser is accorded people when there are real, substantial consequences to accusations. As the plethora of pro-Ghomeshi frothing fanboyism indicates, these scandals don’t even cause celebrities to lose all their fans, never mind their friends. People have the right to face their accusers when the consequences are jail, death or substantial punishments. In no place other than celebrity rapist apologetics is it understood to be a human right to face anyone who has hurt your feelings.

But the real reason I repeated this particular line of logic is this: rape apologetics typically involve time travel. Here’s what actually happened for people who have a conventional handle on the space-time continuum:

Jian Ghomeshi was fired from his post at CBC. Nobody made any public statements about why until two days later when he posted a lengthy, rambling piece to his Facebook fan page in which he characterized accusations of sexual assault and violence by him as a defamatory criminal conspiracy orchestrated by a jilted ex. So let us get clear here: this man was fired and neither he, nor the women he assaulted, nor his employer made any statement as to why until he made a public statement in which he literally added insult to injury.

It was Ghomeshi’s inability to resist yet another chance to attack and vent his rage at the women he had already beaten that forced other victims like Lucy Decoutere to come forward, because they could not abide his additional, unprovoked attacks as he sought to further terrorize into silence the women he had already assaulted.

Beyond fanciful inaccuracy, a deeper injustice lives in the “face your accusers” line of reasoning. What it says is that if one is assaulted by a powerful, popular man, you are now conscripted into the job of keeping his violence a secret, so as to enable him to find more people to beat and rape. When someone beats or rapes you, it creates an obligation in you to make sure that nobody finds out, not his boss, not his friends, not even your friends, lest his reputation be tainted, thereby rendering it harder for him to find new victims, fresh meat.

As anyone who has lived through sexual abuse or violence knows, one is, by virtue of being assaulted, conscripted into a lifelong program of unpaid work to make sure that your assault doesn’t inconvenience your attacker or their admirers by becoming a matter of public conversation. In fact, one is often required to do additional work along the lines of, “well, we don’t hang out anymore and aren’t friends but [so and so] is still a really great person who does lots of good work.” If one gets drunk at a party and tells the story of one’s abuse or rape too loudly, so that strangers might overhear, that’s a problem, for which you, the victim may be drawn up sharply.

Unlike every other opinion one has, the belief that one has been sexually assaulted cannot be freely socially expressed in a society that values an attacker’s reputation more than it values the body or free speech of his victim.

Well, that’s a lot of words. I guess I will write a third part tomorrow in which I talk about the very practical reasons that it is important to discuss social and sexual violence in the public square.

My Thoughts on Recent Rape Apologetics in Social Media – Part I

A number of people have approached me about writing a longer piece on celebrity sexual violence based on my Facebook and Twitter posts about the Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby cases. What follows is an effort based on my controversial social media posts.

Before I begin, I want to make clear that my perspectives on these issues have evolved over time. As I have got older, I have confronted both the phenomenon of false accusations of sexual violence and knee-jerk refusals to believe victims of sexual violence when they come forward. I won’t be discussing those situations in this post but the proximity of both of those phenomena to me, and their relevance to my life, may help to explain my motivation in writing this piece and the evolution of my views.

This direct experience with both phenomena has not brought me new knowledge that wasn’t already waiting for me in the wealth of clinical literature about trauma and stigma. But it has validated a foundational element of the analysis I offer here: being a survivor of sexual violence who is disbelieved is a far more traumatic experience than being the target of a false claim of sexual violence. In our hedonic calculus, it is important not to lose sight of that basic fact. Reporting sexual violence is traumatic because, for any genuine survivor, the anticipation of disbelief and dismissal, never mind the actual experience of those things intensifies the trauma already experienced, often to unendurable levels.

To begin, let us begin by clearing out the straw men.

What I am writing about is how we socially construct the truth around disputed claims about sexual violence. That means that there two things I am not doing in this piece

  1. I am not talking about what standard the courts should use to punish alleged perpetrators of sexual violence. I am talking about how we think and talk about whether claims of sexual violence are true in a social context, not in a legal context. I am talking about what is true and what is talked about, not what is legal and what people should be punished or compensated for. I am not taking the position that Jian Ghomeshi or Bill Cosby should be in jail, or that they should pay civil damages to their victims.
  2. I am not talking about whether we should enjoy or value the artistic production of celebrity rapists. I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy the films of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski and do not plan to change my artistic assessment of these men’s work, irrespective of their sexually violent acts.

When I make these points in public discourse, apologists for celebrity rapists push back and demand that I make my standards for deciding whether things are true, and my standard for when I can talk about things being true identical to those that the court system uses to convict people of criminal offenses in the English legal tradition.

Having worked as a law researcher in my twenties, this raises immediate red flags. First of all, the courts, themselves, do not use the “beyond a reasonable doubt” or “innocent until proven guilty” standard as their means of ascertaining what is true. Making findings of fact is something left to civil courts who use, depending on what they are trying to do, the standards of “balance of probabilities” or “simple probability” to make findings of fact. Courts that try to figure out what has happened, to comprehend and narrate events deliberately and explicitly eschew the “reasonable doubt” standard when they do so.

Furthermore, we need to understand the context in which the “reasonable doubt” standard came into being, in medieval England. This was a culture based around villages whose residents were highly unlikely to relocate for any reason, populated by families who had resided there for generations. Not until Enclosure began in the fifteenth century, did people have a word for strangers who lived near them. People lived in a world of close, overlapping connections of kinship, fictive kinship (god-parents and god-siblings), parochial and guild participation. In such close-knit places, having opinions about whether people were guilty of sexual violence, murder, etc. was universal and unavoidable. In this context, the “reasonable doubt” standard was created as a countervailing force.

“Reasonable doubt” was made a legal doctrine to restrain small, close-knit communities from beating, killing and incarcerating people the majority were pretty sure had done something wrong. The point of this key standard in criminal law was that it was non-identical to social truths and widely-held beliefs but was, instead, required to meet a higher standard. This higher standard was well-expressed in the John Mortimer novels, featuring a twentieth-century protagonist who defended people he thought were likely guilty because of this “golden thread that runs through British justice [that] it is better to let a hundred guilty men go free than to hang an innocent man.”

It is therefore absurd to suggest that it is even possible to collapse our standards for forming opinions about what has taken place and how it has taken place into the “reasonable doubt” standard, because the standard was made as a countervailing force to wall off questions of physical punishment from widely-held and likely correct social truths. It has never purported to be an alternative epistemology and is not used as such. Indeed, civil court cases that make findings of fact do not understand exculpation by the criminal courts to be a determination that a person did not commit an offense or cause an injury.

And that doesn’t even cover the constraints on cases reaching the courts at all. The reasonable doubt standard is already an unreasonable basis on which to base one’s epistemology before one even considers the fact that the majority of wrongs that take place in our society are never placed before the courts at all. There are very good reasons that people who have suffered sexual violence do not appear in court. Just to remind folks who forget these things when a beloved celebrity is accused of sexual violence, let’s review:

  1. Many victims of sexual violence fear reprisals from their attacker and his associates if they seek to punish him or make him accountable, even if that is just through telling someone, never mind pressing charges. And it is logical to fear that because perpetrators of sexual violence and dangerous, violent creeps.
  2. Many victims of sexual violence are so damaged by the violence that they have been deprived of the capacity—by their attacker—of successfully seeing a prosecution through to its conclusion.
  3. Many victims of sexual violence know that their reputations will be attacked by their accuser, typically before they even get to court and “rape shield” laws take effect and cannot justify having their attacker heap additional verbal abuse and shame upon them in the public square, as we saw Mr. Ghomeshi do with his former partners on Sunday.
  4. Many victims of sexual violence get no emotional payoff from seeing their obviously troubled, obviously self-hating attacker being additionally punished and shamed and, legitimately, fear that punishing them is as likely to magnify their violence and bad character as it is to correct it.
  5. Many victims of sexual violence have already lost weeks, months or years of their lives to dealing with the trauma of the attacks they have suffered to be able to justify investing additional time, money and emotional energy in grappling with an unwanted experience they never asked to have.
  6. Supposing that these five reasons are not enough to dissuade someone from pressing charges, the next hurdle must be cleared: persuading prosecutors and police officers that this case has a sufficient amount of evidence and a sufficient probability of conviction to even arrest the assailant. Given the dismal rates of conviction for sexual violence and the tendency of sexual assaults to take place in private spaces, even if prosecutors and police believe the victim of the assault, it still may be impossible to prove the case.

This list is, of course, not exhaustive. It just scratches the surface of why, in the overwhelming majority of instances of sexual violence, the courts will never have a chance to make any finding.

And the thing is that we know this. The only time we seek to conflate the judgement of the courts with our judgement of the facts is when we defend celebrity rapists. Lots of other matters come before the courts and face a “reasonable doubt” standard. War crime, crimes against humanity, theft, robbery, common assault, electoral fraud and murder are all also indictable offenses judged by this standard.

And yet, here are some phrases you never hear, from either side in a debate:

  • “Dick Cheney isn’t a war criminal. He’s never even been charged.”
  • “OJ Simpson didn’t kill his ex-wife. He was found not guilty.”
  • “The Conservative Party didn’t cheat in the last election. Nobody in charge of the campaign has been convicted.”
  • “Brian Mulroney wasn’t corrupt. He was never convicted of anything.”
  • “Loubos Vacca didn’t steal the security deposit from you and Geoff. The police never brought him to trial.”
  • “That guy didn’t spit in your face. You didn’t even file a police report.”

That’s because “innocent until proven guilty” and “beyond a reasonable doubt” are standards we use in only two places: in criminal court and when defending celebrity rapists facing public outrage. The rest of the time, we look at situations where wrongdoing has taken place and use our God-given reason to sort out what has probably happened. If we’re unsure, we express that uncertainty even as we assert what probably happened. We don’t pre-emptively silence ourselves because one of the things about wrongdoing in a social context is that our shared opinion matters. And, in order to come up with one that makes sense, it is not just helpful but vitally necessary to discuss our opinions and suspicions in a public forum, to test our reasoning and our values in a wider social context.

These behaviours are often allied with two “slippery slope” arguments: (1) that a lynch mob is forming and (2) that our loose talk, socially, will result in an unjust criminal conviction. The problem is that these things just don’t happen. Lynch mobs aren’t for dealing with famous, white millionaires. They’re for dealing with low-income people of colour. There’s never been a Woody Allen or Roman Polanski lynch mob because that’s not the social reality in which they live. Similarly, the idea that there is some slippery slope between the judgement of the crowd and the judgement of the court is an issue institutionally managed by the “reasonable doubt” standard.

No. The reason celebrity rape apologists are shushing you has nothing to do with the shabby slippery slope argument they are offering up. It is because they are, metaphorically, covering their ears and shouting “na na na na na!” They are not interested in debating the facts of a case, the means by which you reached your opinion, what evidence you used and how your used it. Their interest is in silencing you, because, given that we check our beliefs against society, their concern is to prevent views they want to hold from being checked against information and reason.

The “innocent until proven guilty” standard is only deployed outside the courts for the purpose of silencing people and silencing ideas. If people really had faith in the innocence of the rapist hero they seek to protect, they would welcome a conversation about the facts in a rational discussion. But they’re not interested in that. Their interest is in preventing themselves from having a cherished belief challenged.

Justice, social justice—not criminal punishment—is not data-averse. We do not move towards justice when our conversational intervention is to stop people from reasoning and learning, to stop information from changing hands or to stop that information from being analyzed.

Stay tuned for Part II of this essay tomorrow.