Jian is only the tip of the iceberg

The tumultuous events of the past week have opened the door for a national public discussion that needs to happen

A week has passed since the stunning revelation of allegations of assault and violence levelled against Jian Ghomeshi. A lot has happened in that week. Last Sunday, following his initial Facebook statement, we witnessed a wave of support for him in the face of CBC’s firing.

That support quickly withered. While the facts of the case are still coming out—and will continue to do so over the next months, as the police investigation and court processes play out—there has been a dramatic shift in public dialogue on the issue.

Feminist media sites, women’s advocates, victims of sexual assault and harassment, CBC and media personalities, journalists and bloggers both in the commercial and independent press, and many more came forward to challenge the victim-blaming and dismissal that the women’s allegations had been receiving from the wider public. Many stirring and powerful statements circulated — from well known media personalities, but also from average everyday people. The dialogue rapidly shifted to focus on exposing the serious problem of victim-blaming, the myths that still permeate our society when it comes to sexual assault, harassment and consent, and the difficulties and barriers that victims of harassment and assault face when deciding whether or not to pursue formal complaints (and the profound and traumatic consequences that either decision—remaining silent, or pursuing a complaint—can and often does lead to).

There has been what might easily be described as a national smartening up. It is fundamentally tragic that these things happen, but one outcome we might look to is that it has had a profoundly eye-opening impact. While activists and advocates are all too familiar with the cycle of violence, myths, and victim-blaming, for many across the country this was a first, visceral revelation of the scale and nature of the problem. No one should have to be victimized for change to happen. But after the events of this past week, many people will think through their responses to these situations a lot more thoroughly, and will not be so quick to take sides or dismiss women’s stories of harassment and assault. That, at least, is progress.

But it’s not enough

This ought not to become a story only about Jian Ghomeshi. While the court case will undoubtedly be followed closely in the media, the case has tapped into a much broader issue and a much deeper problem in our society. It has opened a national dialogue on sexual assault, harassment and violence, and that dialogue offers an opportunity to produce some real change in our society that can help lead us toward a society where these terrible things do not happen.

Last week, Toronto police chief Bill Blair spoke to the media to explain why the police were not pursuing charges and that they could not until and unless complainants came forward (since then, complainants have come forward and an active police investigation has been launched). But there is nothing stopping the police from launching other proactive initiatives. At a moment where the attention of the country is focused on sexual violence, this would be an ideal opportunity for police forces—not just in Toronto, but across the country—to take a lead in educating and mobilizing for change. They could strike joint working groups with shelters and women’s advocates to discuss how police respond to these situations, what barriers deter people from filing complaints, what myths might be woven into police practice and what needs to change.

The allegations also suggest CBC did not take seriously the complaints of its own staff, and suggest there may have been deficiencies in their own harassment policies (or the implementation of those policies). CBC needs to take a really introspective look at their own actions and what went wrong and what went right. They did eventually move to fire Ghomeshi, but it should not have taken so many years for something like this to come out, especially if complaints were being made.

I’ve worked in a variety of workplaces and I know there are often pressures not to challenge management, and not to challenge the superstars in your workplace. If CBC mid-level producers were afraid to do that when complaints were brought to them, I understand where that hesitation comes from. Workplaces are hierarchies. But that is precisely why we need strong policies, that are enforced and taken seriously. If a complaint is made, it doesn’t matter who it’s against, how successful they are or how integral they are to the success of the workplace: all complaints need to be taken seriously. So CBC needs to reflect on its own handling of the situation.

 [The case of Jian Ghomeshi] has opened a national dialogue on sexual assault, harassment and violence, and that dialogue offers an opportunity to produce some real change in our society that can help lead us toward a society where these terrible things do not happen.

But more broadly, this is an opportunity for all of us—no matter where we work—to have those same reflections. There’s probably not a workplace in the country where this is not being talked about, over lunch, during coffee breaks, around water coolers, and so on. Part of that discussion needs to be about how well each of our workplaces is prepared if something like that were to happen there. Does the workplace have good policies to support and treat respectfully complaints about harassment? Do workers know what harassment and assault are, and what policies and procedures are there to support them? What if a co-worker confided to you that her manager, or another co-worker, was harassing her? What would we do? How is our workplace equipped to deal with that?

And not just harassment that occurs in the workplace. How well is our workplace prepared to support people who have experienced harassment or assault outside the workplace? When someone is considering making a complaint these are some of the things they think about – what if they need time off from work to meet with lawyers, to handle the case, or simply for personal mental health (because these kinds of cases are emotionally traumatic and psychologically intense)? What if a partner or a close relative is going through that process – will the workplace be flexible and supportive? We need to make sure that some of our discussions are going in that direction.

Ghomeshi’s public relations agencies have severed their relationship with him, but the fact there was a relationship at all raises very legitimate concerns about the risks of powerful PR firms deterring complaints by their very presence. Most of us do not have the time, money or resources to wage a PR battle — especially while simultaneously going through a traumatic personal and legal struggle. There is no reason PR agencies should be permitted involvement in such cases. Most professions have codes of conduct that govern their behaviour. There ought to be a clear standard that they will not become involved in legal or potentially legal cases – or at the very least cases involving sexual assault and harassment.

Legal reform needs to be on the agenda as well. The federal and provincial governments, like the country’s political parties, have been unacceptably quiet as this matter has played out. The constructive role they can play lies in acknowledging the scale of the problem and committing themselves to devoting the time and resources to improving the country’s legislative, educational and justice frameworks to address the gaps that exist when it comes to sexual harassment and assault.

This will be no easy task. We live in a country where the justice system is built around protecting the rights of the accused, and presuming people innocent until proven guilty. That’s a good thing. But the basic premise of this system—that of two equals laying out their respective stories before an objective judge or jury—fails when it comes to sexual violence. Cases involving sexual violence involve deep, emotional and psychological trauma. They involve power, and the manipulation of power relationships. They invoke stereotypes and fears about sexuality and gender roles. They presume objective equals, when in fact we live in a world that was shaped and designed not by equals but predominantly by men, whose influence and perspective still lingers powerfully and disproportionately. How do we overcome these problems and barriers? How do we reform the system to make it more equal? I don’t have the answers, but what we can do is start looking for them. This is an opportunity to engage in a national discussion—in our provinces, in our political parties, in our federal politics—around what we can do to change and improve the system to make it work, if not perfectly then at least less imperfectly.

We are rightfully shocked and distraught at what we have seen and learned this past week. But we can use this as an impetus to drive change. The case of Jian Ghomeshi is only the tip of the iceberg. The current public discussion began with him, but it must not end with him.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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