observations and opinion
what courage looks like
Let’s be clear: the victims are not cowards, and this piece doesn’t say they are. They were the brave ones.
People like to be simplistic and focus entirely on the perpetrator, forgetting that it takes the right conditions for a predator to work. Forgetting how their own silences may encourage some other perpetrator somewhere else.
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The Jian Ghomeshi story is about everything: it is about how some men treat women; it is about women swallowing their pain and walking through life afraid to seek justice – because they’re pretty sure there is no justice. It is about the incredible lengths we will go to forgive bad boys who are cute, charming and profitable. It is about how the boss always wins, if he is one of those boys. And in a very real way, it is about cowardice. Deep, thick, stinking cowardice. And it is about courage.
It is about those who let it happen and those who, when they learned the truth, stepped up. Our job now is not to judge them, but to judge ourselves. For are we any more brave, just and righteous than they? Or are we just luckier, this time?
The facts of the Ghomeshi case have fallen out like the entrails of a slit pig: a man beats women for sexual pleasure; many acquiesce, and not because they like it, but because of who he is – the golden boy, the most hip player in our little media pool – charming, vulnerable, brilliant, cute. And they kept quiet because it was in their interests. And others who could see it, who could sense it, did the same thing: they kept quiet. And those who basked in the glow and banked the profits of Jian’s success? If they knew, whatever they guessed or had heard – well, they kept quiet too. As years went by girls and women went “for dinner” with the golden boy and got their lights punched out, their throats crushed, their self-respect pummelled. And then they walked out into the night under a dark sky of shame and rage that may never lift.
And then, one of them tried to talk about it. And then another. In a story, on a twitter feed. And they were verbally attacked and marginalized and reminded of just how risky it would be if they kept talking. But a reporter heard about it and started to ask questions. We read now that “everyone knew” – not necessarily about the violence and the teddy bear, but that this was a dangerous guy. So they did what people do around dangerous guys: they shut up and kept a safe distance. They were a formidable squadron of cowards.
But isn’t that what people almost always do? Yup. We shut up. It’s safer. It’s easier. It’s more profitable. And the person who was victimized, bullied, demeaned, hurt, humiliated, dehumanized? She (it’s usually she), well she gets to know just how goddamned unimportant she is. Or even better, she gets told to “suck it up” – a sentiment often shared by older women who, having endured their own petty or worse agonies, are no longer sympathetic. Suck it up.
Sure, we need to be resilient. We need to learn how to manage difficult encounters. We will have embarrassing and painful moments. People will make us feel shitty. Unwelcome advances will always be made. And we don’t want to live in a world of excruciating political correctness, where a man or a woman has to behave like a robot in the course of work – or on a date. It ought to be possible for someone, moved by ardour or too many drinks, to put their hand on someone’s leg or sneak a kiss, and not get charged with assault. Not everything sexual is rape. Not every touch is a battery. Not every mistake is a crime. We need to know how to be adults, okay?
But we also need to know what consent is, and what consent is not. And we need to know that it is not a woman’s responsibility to manage unwelcome attention – it is every man’s responsibility to learn that his appetites are not, actually, more important than someone else’s feelings. And we need to learn that the things we fear happening to us for speaking up may actually not be worse than the moral cancer we get from staying silent.
We must find the strength not to let fear make decisions for us. In the Ghomeshi case, some people had good reason to be afraid – the ones with hands around their throats, for example; the ones whose very fragile careers and reputations would be even more punched up than their pretty faces. The ones who, ironically, people got so pissed at this week when they started to talk. Those women had some very good reasons to be afraid.
Other people did not have such good reasons. Every single person who could smell the sulfur fumes coming off Jian Ghomeshi, knew something was wrong and let it slide. Whatever they were afraid of – and it might also have been career suicide or defamation charges or social ostracism – those things were real and understandable. It is tempting to call them cowards but who among us, in a moment where we could feel in our guts something was wrong but didn’t act upon it, who among us has not sinned in this way? (The one ray of light in this is that once the story began to unfold and the information became convincing, his employer took him off the air.)
And who among us doesn’t have some thinking to do? What exactly are we afraid of? What is that we dread to lose, that is more important than someone else’s dignity? More important than our own dignity? How weak and fragile are we, how needy that we would rather close our eyes to what we can plainly see, than look and speak? How cowardly must we be, to survive?
We are all afraid of things. Fear can be our friend – that’s why you run from a tiger, after all. When my daughter has been afraid – of a sport or a spotlight or a test or embarrassment (a common risk of adolescence), I have told her this: “You can’t be brave if you’re not afraid.” Unless you know there is a potential loss – unless you see the risk but are prepared to take it, in order to do or be what you want – unless you can feel the fear in your bones but still do what you have to do, you can’t call yourself courageous.
There was a singular absence of courage shown in the Ghomeshi case. And now, as the facts congeal into received wisdom, as we see what a few people endured and many people enabled, there is rage. Rage at Jian Ghomeshi. Rage at those who aided and abetted him. Rage at those who could smell it, but stayed silent. And there is rage at those who tried to shame and crush the women who have come forward.
Many despair that this episode is another example of what will never cease. That’s true – this has always happened and will always happen. But is despair the only feeling appropriate now? The answer to that is “absolutely not.” This is a better day than yesterday, if only because we are talking about it all. If only because another girl is not going to get choked on a date tonight. If only because some other predator may be deterred. If only because someone finally did the right thing.
Yes, it has been a horror show for the women involved and that, I fear, is not over. But it is a better day for them if they know now, they are not alone anymore. Their suffering is real and will remain real; our responsibility is to find some way to redeem their pain, to make something decent out of the indecency they have endured.
One thing we can do is to take a long, hard look at our own cowardice.
In the last week, we have been reminded of how fear – an odorless gas that clouds our rooms and paralyzes us, without our even knowing it – we have been reminded of how that fear can make us lesser men and women. In the last week we have been reminded of how the things we value, so often just our comfort, feel more important than what we say we value.
In the last week, we have been reminded that a free press (a roving reporter and the Toronto Star, in this case) is still the guardian of our wider liberty. That there are people with bright torches shining light into dark corners, who are not prepared to let victims cower in the dark, who are unwilling to let predators roam unchallenged.
In the last week, we have been reminded that people who had much to fear, found a way to be courageous. And if a woman who has been beaten, strangled, shamed, insulted and cloaked in self-hating shame – if that woman can take a deep breath and be brave, well then, why the hell can’t we? It isn’t that we shouldn’t be afraid of things. There’s lots to be afraid of. But if we stop there and play it safe, we will earn and deserve the name “coward.”
Because you know, you can’t be brave if you’re not afraid.