If you spend any time on the net, you will have encountered clickbait, those tempting photolinks directing you to slideshows like 16 Stars Who Live Modestly, Hollywood Stars Who Are Bi-sexual and Couples You Didn’t Know Were Couples. These sites load slowly and for a reason. Every page is crammed with ads and creators are paid per click.
Most of us understand the strategy behind clickbait. However, the use of it is expanding and infiltrating other spaces, becoming less obvious and more sophisticated. Much of it now assumes the mantle of political activism and is designed to hook us using powerful triggers. What this means is that our emotional life, for much of our online time, is being actively manipulated. Think of it as road rage with a mouse.
I’ve recently expressed concern about the accusations being made against radio host Jian Ghomeshi. I don’t doubt that unpleasant and unexpected things happened to his accusers; what I’m intrigued by is the gap between his and his accusers’ versions of events and our need to draw quick and nasty conclusions. That Ghomeshi is a troubled and immature man, with all the tics that pampering and celebrity create, is clear. What is less clear is how these tics, when mixed with drugs, alcohol and apparently willing partners, have been parlayed into a spectacle worthy of Sophocles. One man’s narcissism, methinks, should not garner this much attention.
Where does the problem originate?
Media outlets like Mic, Bustle and their ilk are news sources for the hip. They form one strand of an information bundle, a strand that delivers news of interest to political progressives. Just like stealth advertising, however, these sites use strategic targeting. Names like Mic and Bustle may sound neutral, but their consistent coverage of sexist outrages is not: it’s safe to say their intended audience is women between 18 and 45, or those most likely to respond viscerally to stories about rape. Call me cynical, but what I’m seeing isn’t politics, it’s clever marketing. If you want to sell to that cohort, sparking their outrage is the way to go.
In sociological terms this process is called priming: an idea is cultivated to predispose individuals to think a certain way and to believe certain narratives, even when those narratives are distorted or false. When it comes to conventional feminism, which is the voice typically used on these sites, the target of the outrage is men and the intended audience women. Given the distribution of men and women on this planet, this ongoing provocation is problematic — it supports the lie that in sex wars and gender skirmishes, anger is a good solution. That’s a lie I rejected about 30 years ago, when I stopped taking courses in Women’s Studies.
Are reports of rape exaggerated?
Jian Ghomeshi’s hubris has triggered a cascade of information about sexual assault, much of it slanted in favour of viewing women as victims. Even Gabor Maté, a physician whose observations on addiction have moved me deeply, has weighed in. Commenting on Ghomeshi in the Toronto Star, he writes:
We live in a society steeped in male narcissism, one in which aggression towards women is deeply entrenched in the collective male psyche. Nor is male sexual predation confined to a few “sick” individuals: that we see it portrayed, relentlessly and voyeuristically, in movies, TV shows, and advertising is beyond obvious, except for those mired in denial.
I understand Maté is trying to be sympathetic: he opines about a world that creates men like Ghomeshi and allows them to flourish. However, what sinks my heart — and it truly does — is his assertion that women have poor odds in the happiness stakes. We will only cheer up at some point in the future, once men learn about feminism and stop making us miserable.
Apart from the fact that this belief does not reflect my reality, nor the reality of my friends, there’s an assumption at the heart of it that undermines my autonomy and my perception of my life as it unfolds. I don’t feel disadvantaged and I don’t think I’m in denial about it. I don’t feel that the faeces sitting in front of my fan, the one that gets switched on on a bad day, are any worse than the faeces sitting in front of the fans of my male peers. As a jolly friend of mine often reminds me: “The shit-fairy visits everyone.”
However, because I am an academic, I know the next phase in this argument will be that the broader sociological foundations of my culture, as liberal as they may appear, are in fact tilted against me, and patriarchal brainwashing has fooled me into thinking I have power when I don’t. Those trinkets of a good job, home ownership and the freedom to do what I want (within legal limits) are just distractions that keep me from seeing the deeper truth about my misery. The problem for me is my pesky pragmatism. It and my gratitude for living in a free country keep getting in the way of that gloomy perspective and keep providing me, inexplicably, with opportunities to fulfill myself.
What does this have to do with Jian Ghomeshi?
A fear of not being believed is often put forth as an explanation for why women do not report sexual assault. It seems a genuine fear and one not helped by discrediting behaviour. And so it’s frustrating that many public intellectuals, feminists and other women who find themselves in the limelight hedge and fudge in ways that reflect badly on all of us. Rene Denfeld is one feminist critic (of many) who takes feminist/activist/professors to task for inflating statistics around sexual assault and domestic abuse. Denfeld examines this shoddy research in her book The New Victorians, and one data set is particularly revealing.
In the 1980s, a study was conducted by Ms. magazine. The focus was on the sexual experiences of young women on university campuses across the U.S. Respondents whose accounts corresponded to the study’s definition of rape reported perceptions of themselves that were unexpected: only 27% said they felt they “had been raped,” 49% said their assault was the result of “miscommunication,” and 11% said they did not feel “victimized.” These findings are important because what is perceived as under-reporting may actually be confusion about how to frame a difficult and unusual experience. This confusion may explain why an astonishing 42% of these women had sex with their assailants again.
Credibility is an issue in the case of Ghomeshi’s accusers too. It’s not because the women are at fault, but rather that date-rape is notoriously difficult to map and that is especially true here. It is misleading, for example, to use the language of forceable rape when describing Ghomeshi’s violence because of his participation in BDSM, a form of sexual play that may not be as controlled as its connoisseurs imagine. Despite the outrage, stories emerging from his accusers support his claims of innocence. He did announce his preference for rough sex, albeit not very effectively at times. He also stopped being rough when asked and showed an appropriate (written) response to the distress of one of his accusers. He was also clear with his boundaries. After a flirty meeting with Ghomeshi, one young woman had this experience with him:
One hour later, she received a text from Ghomeshi asking her to meet up for a “non-work related drink,” she said. He added a winky face — 😉 — to the message, she said.
“I didn’t want to date him, but then I thought this would maybe be a good opportunity to speak to him about the industry,” she said, responding by text and telling him a “friendly meet up” would be OK.
“If you could help me get a job that would be cool, too,” she added.
Ghomeshi texted back saying he wasn’t interested in a personal friendship and didn’t want to be used as “conduit to a job,” she said. The text messages stopped shortly after, she said.
If this anecdote is accurate, it supports Ghomeshi’s claim that he communicated his wishes to his accusers. The problem is the entire narrative being spun about him: journalists are magnifying and minimizing facts at will. The encounter above was intended, ostensibly, to show Ghomeshi’s inappropriate behaviour. That’s curious since it actually illustrates his willingness to be clear about his intentions. So it seems unfair that his violence has been magnified while the more pedestrian matter of his negotiating and arrangement-making has been minimized and used to suggest his cunning.
Given Ghomeshi’s openness about his struggles with anxiety, the last accusation is easily eclipsed by the more pungent whiff of pathos. It also begs the questions: Is it possible? Could Ghomeshi and his accusers be shallower than we think?
Read: l’affaire Ghomeshi