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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.