When I mentioned a couple of posts ago that I dealt with countless sexual harassment and assault lawsuits against the University of California, Berkeley, the intent was to credential myself: I’ve had more firsthand experience with #MeToo-related cases than most people. But that doesn’t make me an expert. Over my last few years as UC Berkeley’s risk manager, I sought to identify common characteristics of sexual harassment/assault cases and how they affected the parties involved. I didn’t entirely succeed, so even now, as a retiree, I welcome opportunities for further insight.
That’s the spirit in which I read Jian Ghomeshi’s article “Reflections from a Hashtag” in the October 11, 2018 New York Review of Books. In brief: radio personality Ghomeshi was fired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in October 2014 after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct. Eventually more than 20 (plus one man) came forward. Ghomeshi was charged with five criminal counts. He stood trial in February 2016 and was acquitted of four charges. He struck a deal to dismiss the fifth. In the article he talks about his life since.
Ghomeshi and the New York Review’s new editor, Ian Buruma, were excoriated for failing to mention all the accusations against Ghomeshi. (The NYR has since added a contextualizing preface to the electronic version of the article.) It cost Buruma his job. According to critics, he shouldn’t have published Ghomeshi’s piece—or professed indifference to Ghomeshi’s behavior. That set off a secondary tempest, this time over freedom of speech. More than a hundred contributors to the NYR, including Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis, who I believe has the clearest perspective on the nexus of sexual assault/harassment, feminism, and freedom of expression, issued a letter of support for Buruma.
The critics have a point. Ghomeshi does minimize the extent of his abuse, and Buruma should have been more concerned about how that would affect readers. But all of us need to better understand the common characteristics of these conflicts. That means hearing viewpoints different from ours — including those we might find repugnant.
So in that regard I feel Ghomeshi and Buruma did us a service. As I noted in my September 28 post, not even wrongful death suits evoke as much raw, ugly emotion as sexual assault/harassment litigation. Why? I think much of it has to do with the parties’ starting points. The complainant feels violated to the core of her being, so nothing less than an admission of guilt from the respondent will suffice. Meanwhile, the respondent feels violated because he cannot grasp, much less admit, that he did anything unlawful, so nothing less than complete exoneration will suffice.
That leaves almost no room for dialogue and resolution — and plenty for recrimination and self-righteousness. What do we do about that? I’m not sure. But I do think it’s a question to focus on, because until these matters stop being clashes of absolutes they will remain cultural A-bombs.
That requires us to have a better understanding of each party’s mindset. Ghomeshi’s article helped me understand the emotional progression respondents go through. I had a dim sense of it before, but appreciated his putting it into words:
But what you truly feel in the first days after being publicly accused is fear and anger, in that order. The fear is easy to explain: your whole future hangs in the balance. But you’re furious, too, at being made fearful by everyone who’s trying to bring you down. You’re confounded at how tales of your alleged behavior from years past are now used as a sledgehammer to destroy the career you’ve built and determine the way you will forever be seen. Even if your lips are speaking words of contrition, your mind is a ferment of petty, selfish fury.
That explains Brett Kavanaugh, doesn’t it? Except he skipped the speaking-words-of-contrition part. Some respondents never get beyond their anger, which is to their disadvantage in many ways, even if they’re completely innocent (hardly ever the case).
So deep down Ghomeshi remains in denial, a common trait among respondents. But even at its weakest — in some regards thanks to its weakness — his New York Review article has increased my understanding of respondent psychology, and I imagine it could be useful to those seeking strategies for breaking through such denial.
In the meantime, hey New York Review! Could you please give Ian Buruma his job back? I like how he was opening things up.