Much Ado About Nothing
The CBC has released a report about the Ghomeshi debacle today. It seems senior executives were determined to be at fault and were let go. A difficult work culture has also been cited as a contributing factor.
While I appreciate that this story sheds light on the working lives of those at the CBC, I question the amount of resources that are going into Ghomeshigate. There is widespread coverage by all Canadian media outlets and yet the truth is that Ghomeshi’s behaviour probably affected less than 50 people in total. I think we need to reassess what counts as news in this country.
In an entirely predictable way, I’ve been criticized for my stance on Jian Ghomeshi. He’s the Canadian radio host whose taste for bedroom violence has transformed his life: he’s gone from beloved music guru to pariah in about five minutes. I would call his fall from grace hubris, but that’s not entirely fair. Kathryn Borel, the young CBC producer allegedly harassed by Ghomeshi, has just published her account in the U.K.’s Guardian. What her revelations make clear is this: the public’s wish to deify celebrities played a significant role in events.
The fallout from revelations of Ghomeshi’s sexual tastes has been fearsome and grotesque. Twitter accounts with handles like Ghomeshigate and TeddyBigEars – a nod to a stuffed toy that figures in some women’s accounts of abuse – are springing up in a manner that suggests even the worst trolls can be out-trolled when an opportunity for hipsterish irony arises. It’s a messy old media out there, even in Canada, as Ghomeshi and uneasy onlookers are discovering.
The problem I have with the feminist stance on Ghomeshi is the same problem I have with much of feminism generally – there’s an assumption about the movement’s coherence and goals, an assumption that says all women are on board if it means improving or demonizing men.
As a young woman, I once struggled earnestly with the movement’s contradictions. However, I’ve since given up. I didn’t graduate from an excellent institution, with grades I could be proud of, just to fall into the binary thinking that characterizes much of passes for feminism today.
Ghomeshi: How do I know what I’m seeing?
Conventional feminists are fairly consistent when it comes to difficulties with men: many forego preventative measures. Borel’s account typifies this:
By the time a friend convinced me to go to the union in early 2010, I was 25 pounds heavier, I was binge-drinking on the weekends, and I was missing days of work to stay home and lie in bed. Reporting what was going on to someone outside of the chain of command – someone who had perspective outside the hermetic environment of the show’s increasingly twisted culture – felt like my last hope.
No doubt Borel is sincere and I won’t argue with her self-appraisal. However, she also says she “wasn’t keen to be called a slut and a liar and a fabulist” when apparently that wasn’t the case – it seems she was believed by CBC management, but told to work it out with Ghomeshi. Her experience is unfortunate, but notable in that she took on the emotional freight of Ghomeshi’s bad behaviour. She made it about herself, even when doing so brought on terrible suffering.
That’s because when conflicts like Borel’s arise, a standard pathway inculcated by the feminist movement is one of victimization: from what I’m seeing, too many women choose feeling persecuted over practicing resilience, even when resilience, used in a pre-emptive way, would serve them better.
As a young woman working in the airline industry in the early 80s, I experienced a lot of bad male behaviour, just like that of Ghomeshi’s. That’s not to say all flight deck crew – pilots, first officers and flight engineers — were predatory. Many were not. However, with the sexual mores of the 60s still informing the pre-AIDS 70s and 80s, there were a lot of men like Ghomeshi around. The airline industry, in those days, was a hyper-sexualized environment too.
How did I manage?
Pilots were deified in the airline world (much like surgeons are in hospitals today) and so the culture, and how we all agreed to our roles in it, was part of the problem. With Ghomeshi, the CBC plastered images of him on the CBC building and on billboards around Toronto. They promoted him and because of his prodigious talent the promotion worked: his fan base grew to be quite large apparently, even south of the border.
If we see Ghomeshi as merely one player in a deifying culture, he fits into a social configuration some of us older folks recognize; that is, we understand that cults of celebrity, and the hazards they create, are more complex than one evil player and a string of victims. My attitude may sound confoundingly neutral, but having it allowed a younger version of myself to navigate a promiscuous environment without coming to harm: I simply chose not to take sex, and all its social accoutrements, so seriously.
The fact is that I have heard other women – veteran journalists Joan Bakewell and Anne Robinson – say similar things. They managed to coexist with men in the 70’s world of British journalism, which I imagine was far more masculine, far more of a boy’s club than it is today. My perspective tends to align with theirs, and so I find it curious that media critic Jesse Brown so eagerly pitched Borel’s story as a standard victim narrative. There is something of a magician’s trick about that choice, a misdirection of sorts. For example, I wonder why the experiences of previous generations of women aren’t being calculated into the broader feminist context, especially since those experiences are so seminal and informative. How did women like Bakewell, Robinson and myself manage the same difficulties?
I’ll speak for myself
I won’t win kudos by today’s standards of transparency, but the fact is I learned to be artful. Men who treated me with inappropriate intimacy were easy to fend off with a report of a boyfriend, real or imagined. I had a wedding band I kept handy for when I was down-route and mentioned the love of my life when I sensed a man’s attitude toward me changing. Did this involve prevarication? Yes, but it was an easy solution, worked almost all the time, and took about as much white-lying as most of us engage in.
Other women I knew, especially those that were conventionally beautiful, perfected heavy sighs that said “Oh great, not this again,” when they ran up against those too-sexy men. That cooled ardour too. The bottom line is that women of older generations needed a bit of ingenuity and sass to survive in the working world. That sass was a measure of our confidence, a strength that seems to have gone AWOL today.
My observations aren’t intended to be patronizing. I’m writing because women who choose victimization, when more proactive choices are on the table, genuinely baffle me. It seems to me a capitulation to the authority of others and a rejection of one’s power, rather than an adult attempt to manage emotional challenges. It also points to a significant gulf between men and women, a gulf that seems a lot wider now than when I was younger.
One reason for that gulf boils down to how women deal with workplace conflict: they will often ask an authority, like a boss or union, to intervene. As a first line of defence, this strategy creates a natural imbalance. A conflict becomes a two-against-one affair and that choice creates atmospheres of distrust and distance. This is important because women like myself, who have a desire to maintain healthy relationships with men, are more inclined to resolve conflicts with honesty, yes, but also finesse and subtlety. This isn’t game playing or capitulation, but rather a desire to play on an appropriate rather than level playing field, especially where feelings and egos are concerned.
Why the difference? My innate sympathy for men is important. It allows me to extend sympathy to both genders equally and makes understanding and forgiving sexism easier. And like a lot of things in life, it’s paradoxical: forgiving sexism allows me to deal with it more effectively. Getting angry might feel good – being indignant does offer deep satisfactions — but as a tool for social change, it’s limited. Those limits are evident in how Borel handled Ghomeshi’s sexualized behaviour. She turned her anger inward, became an emotional wreck and felt she had no choice except to quit. While poor outcomes like hers are important to understand, it might be more useful to look at prevention. Appreciating that men suffer from forms of sexism too would be one place to start.
A Personal Anecdote
An important experience from my youth is illustrative. In the 70s, when many anti-discrimination laws came into being, there were women who took advantage of those laws in unintended ways. I saw this firsthand when a family friend met a divorced woman with children. He moved in with her, happily took on a parenting role, and yet one day, without warning, found himself locked outside of his own home. He was an amateur but good handyman and he’d just finished several thousand dollar’s worth of renovations. The week previously, he’d paid for and installed an array of new, major appliances.
The problem? This woman had found a new boyfriend whom she’d moved in that day. In a reaction I submit is reasonable, the family friend tried to get back into the house. As a consequence, he was charged with breaking and entering and several other domestic violence charges, even though he wanted nothing more than to talk to his girlfriend and get his belongings out. However, a heightened awareness of women’s social disadvantages meant he was arrested and the arrest cost him his job. That triggered a long, slow decline. His mother suffered the anguish of witnessing it, as did several other women in his life. The punishment – such as it was – did not end with him.
An Extended Analogy
How can we understand current problems with feminism in a more analytical way? Let’s say we have been tasked with increasing the pharmaceutical industry’s profits. So we create a patient zero, a 100-pound, 13 year old girl, and she becomes the dosing model for a medications like those that treat high blood pressure, even though typical users average 190 pounds. So now the dose has shrunk to suit the much smaller and more sensitive body of a 13 year old. What repercussions would follow?
Doses for most users would double, meaning the industry’s income from the widely-used drug would double too. It’s likely that insurers would respond by raising group insurance rates. Patients who were once served well by one pill would resent having to take two and having to deal with the financial burden of that change, whether that meant paying higher insurance premiums or paying out of pocket for the drug itself. Ageism might also become an issue. Younger members of group insurance plans might start agitating for a separate system for those who don’t suffer from age-related illnesses. A black market of illegal blood pressure pills might also pop up, with online pharmacies from foreign countries capturing a share of the market, increasing the stress on our border controls.
Do these sound like real, possible outcomes? Well, the idea of patient zero is a good analogy. It offers us an economic model to chart what a hypersensitivity to sexual misconduct actually means in broad social terms: many individuals and systems are affected. And that’s because patient zero, when it comes to matters sexual, is like an exquisitely sensitive 13 year old: she is easily offended and/or frightened. Instead of marshalling her own resources, she turns to others for help and creates even bigger conflicts, or turns her anxiety on herself and starts to self-destruct. Either way, she bypasses the opportunity for calm resolution and gravitates instead toward dramatic experiences that “prove” women occupy degraded places in society. The social costs for catering to this kind of heightened vulnerability are substantial. As my anecdote about the family friend illustrates, men targeted for punishment are not the only ones who suffer.
The fact is women like myself, who are not exquisitely sensitive, pay a price too. We also tend to stay out of choruses like the one currently eviscerating Ghomeshi and there are several reasons for this. For starters, many of us are not politicized by accusations of sexual misconduct because we consider ourselves competent when dealing with men; secondly, many of us are silenced by other women when we do speak up. When we offer common sense solutions like “Don’t go to a celebrity’s hotel room at midnight, if you don’t want to have sex,” we are labelled insensitive victim-blamers. Thirdly, the women who do the labelling often view us with suspicion, meaning they are likely to punish us alongside the men they target. So speaking up, even to offer solutions, poses risks. It’s a form of silencing feminists almost always dismiss.
What would be best?
I would like broad, institutional responses to sexual misconduct to stop being based on patient zero’s exquisite sensitivity. And I would like less patient attitudes, like the one myself and other competent women possess, to be part of the dialogue too. I believe we should stop teaching learned helplessness and instead urge women to take care of personal conflicts themselves. The whole idea of feminism was to raise women up from powerless positions, so why are we going all retro and volunteering for them now? It’s not news that narcissists of both genders gravitate toward certain careers. Show business, the arts and medicine are just three that come to mind, three that still have deification built into their structures.
To offer another perspective and to clarify my position, I’ve included an excerpt from the Guardian’s account of the Julian Assange rape allegations. It’s Assange’s non-use or reluctant use of a condom that forms the crux of the complaints. That, and the question of whether or not a condom had a tear in it.
Pierre Trudeau, who famously opined that the state had no business in the bedrooms of the nation, would read this and likely be as appalled as I am. The women in these accounts also failed to take proper precautions: they did not know Assange personally and yet invited him into their homes and into their beds. Calling 911 over condom disputes is where we are headed if we do not raise expectations for women too. At a time when taxes are high and resources are stretched, I would resent, profoundly, the use of precious court time over a case like Assange’s. These are disagreements between individuals who want the right to hook-up sex without having to be responsible for it.
Many players in Ghomeshigate bear some responsibility for the length of time Ghomeshi was allowed to continue with his behaviour. The CBC managers who told Borel to find a way to work with Ghomeshi need to own their share of the blame. Ghomeshi was a star, but a well-worded warning, given in a conciliatory way, would have probably stopped him. I’ve certainly seen a few of those warnings happen in my lifetime and rare is the individual who flouts them, especially when a coveted career is on the line. Borel feels victimized, it’s true, but a bit of gumption and well-timed spunk might have allowed her to manage Ghomeshi: she had other choices, although it’s clear she didn’t see them.
Is Borel’s reaction much ado about nothing? I don’t think so, but the fact is the working world is hard on both genders and some hazards just come with certain jobs. I’m guessing that had Ghomeshi known what was coming, and been warned to stop, he would have done so in a heartbeat. It’s too bad he didn’t have that opportunity. The CBC’s roster will be much poorer for it.
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