Monday, December 1, 2014

Forgetting, Silence, and Being at the Ghomeshi Bail Hearing

Today's post is the second from our several-times-a-semester blogger Lily Cho
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I cut about a third of this blog post about an hour after I wrote it. I was reminded that there was a publication ban on the Ghomeshi bail hearing. I looked at the relevant section of the Criminal Code. It’s pretty broad. Just to err on the side of being safe, I’ve decided to edit out a few things. But that in itself seems significant in a blog post that is about silence, its uses, and its power. Recently, Denise Balkissoon argued that publication bans might not be such a good idea after all. She’s got a point, but maybe we need to find a way for silence, and anonymity, to have more power.

But let me start again by going back a few days. Last Wednesday I was supposed to have lunch with my friend Emma. I texted her in the morning to see if she still wanted to meet up. She did. But then she suggested that maybe we should drop into Jian Ghomeshi’s bail hearing instead. Because Emma is a brilliant criminal lawyer and seems to know every one at various courthouses around town, this shouldn’t such a surprising suggestion. At that point, I didn’t even know he had been arrested. Of course, by the end of the day, we had all heard the news, seen the courtroom drawings, and read multiple versions of the hearings.

Lunch? Or celebrity bail hearing? Happily, I didn’t have to choose.

The rumour seemed to be that the hearing would happen around 2pm. But then it was moved up. I got out of the subway station and noticed I had missed a string of texts from Emma.


Don’t worry. I happened to be nearby. I had planned to spend the morning marking papers at one of my secret downtown hangouts (a place with excellent free wifi, perfect level of ambient noise, terrific public washrooms and no, I’m sorry, I’m not sharing). As I walked over to the courthouse, I was passed by news vans and a handful of very well-coiffed folks running past me. I haven’t watched tv news in years, but if I had to randomly pick people who looked like tv news reporters, I think they would have looked like all those people scrambling past me.   

By the time I cleared security at the courthouse, there was a long line outside the door of the courtroom and various news crews were busy setting up. I couldn’t help but think that one’s place in line signaled one’s level of access to information. Emma had saved me a premium place in line.

And then we waited for a while. The atmosphere was a little giddy and festive but I think a lot of us felt a bit badly about it. It didn’t seem quite right. And we waited some more.

When the doors opened, one’s place in line really did matter. The courtroom is small. There were three rows of seating for the public on either side of the room. Each bench could hold ten or twelve people. When there was no more room, the police closed the doors. I’m pretty sure there were quite a few people outside who were disappointed. For a brief moment, I felt a bit bad about taking up a seat since I was really there for no good reason at all. And then I just stayed put.

I’m sure you have all read the news reports about the hearing so you know about all the newsworthy things that went down – what he was charged with, the amount that bail was set for, that he has to live with his mom.

It’s been a few days since that event and I keep waiting for someone to report on the other things that happened that in the hearing. It seemed as though almost every person around me on those benches was a journalist of some kind. Everyone seemed to be taking notes. Many people were typing into their phones. Some of them were obviously live blogging the whole thing. So I just assumed that everything there was to say about the hearing has been said.

But let me tell you about one thing that hasn’t come up. When the Justice Rutherford turned to address Ghomeshi, his lawyer got up from behind the defense attorney’s table, walked past several Toronto police officers, and stood next to him. Much has been said about Marie Henien. She is striking. But that moment really struck me. The courtroom is a really static place. Everyone stays put. When Henien crossed the floor, she made clear that she literally stood by her client. It was not dramatic. It was not like tv law. But it stayed with me. Maybe brilliant defense lawyers are sometimes brilliant in their silences.

This hearing was only the first, very brief, foray into what will be a long, long judicial process. And in the midst of all this, a lot of details will emerge and a lot of them will be forgotten.

As a literary critic, I work in a field where words and voices are essential. But how do you write silence? How do you analyze that which cannot be heard? My work tends to focus a lot on gaps and absences, omissions and counter-narratives. But that only gets to part of the problem. There are a lot of important silences that we will never hear. I don’t know what to do with that except to think long and hard about it.

We are coming close to the end of what feels like watershed year in terms of public and private conversations about sexual harassment. There are the celebrities who have been accused. There are public institutions that have to start thinking hard about their failures here: the CBC, the House of Commons, our colleges and universities. There is a lot of talking.

But I am worried about how we are going to get to the silences. And I do not mean getting to the silences in terms of bringing more voices to the table or finding more ways for women to speak, to shout, to share, and to say things that have not been said before. I am worried about how to harness the power of silence. For me, what Henien did not say was much more powerful than what she did say. I realize that she is particularly privileged in all kinds of ways and not least because she was in the courtroom in the first place. But how can we find power in silence for the complainants? We acknowledge the courage of the women who have come forward in the Ghomeshi case. In the interest of justice, I can’t help hoping that more will do so. But there are many, many more women who will be silent. How can we make those silences matter.

In Europe, one has the legal right to be forgotten. These laws remind me of one of the many beautiful lessons from Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for a Time Being which closes with the liberation of invisibility. At the end of the novel, the protagonist has engineered her erasure from the online world. She has found the right to be forgotten. Maybe, finding power in anonymity and silence lies in Ozeki’s reminder for us embrace some kinds of forgetting. We do not have to fear being outside of memory. And this is hard because all of my training, and my understanding of social justice, lies in remembering, in thinking about the ways in which the past haunts the present, about transforming grief into grievance. But I’m coming around to the idea of letting go a little bit.
           

Lily Cho
York University

4 comments:

  1. Lily,

    You're posing such important questions here, and bringing up a dilemma that I think many of us struggle to negotiate. With all of the varied discourses that circulate about the value of speech - as a mode of seeking justice, as a mode of healing, as a mode of subjectivity - I constantly wonder about how we have come to devalue silence, especially around issues of trauma. At times like this, when I know and hear and see how institutions and systems of power deliberately silence victims, when I know what the cost of silence is for many, I can't help but acknowledge that yes, speaking up is important. Yes, having these conversations are important. But I want more options than speaking, and I am worried about the ways in which speech has become more of an imperative than an option. I am worried that the imperative to speak is an imperative to erase trauma, or a suggestion that to speak is to move past, to move past that which makes us uncomfortable. I have been thinking a lot lately about how silence asks us, especially those of us who are witnesses to trauma, to simply sit in the presence of that which is unbearable, or to resist the urge to make what is unspeakable speakable. I am reminded, too, about how silence has been seen as a legal right, albeit generally on the part of the accused; what would it mean to flip that around and offer silence as a right to the plaintiff or victim?

    More questions than answers - but I, too, am learning to lean into silence and listen to it more, even though it makes me uncomfortable.

    I'll leave off with Adrienne Rich's words from "Cartographies of Silence":

    "Silence can be a plan
    rigorously executed
    the blueprint to a life
    It is a presence
    it has a history a form
    Do not confuse it
    with any kind of absence."

    - Lucia Lorenzi

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  2. Lucia, thank you. You said much of what I wanted to say and didn't get to. Thank you. I'm going to keep your words close as I continue to think and, as you so beautifully put it, lean into silence. Thank you.

    Lily

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  3. Thank you, Lily and Lucia, for your extremely thoughtful comments on silence, the ways in which it speaks and the ways in which it can also be a powerful refusal of speech. Your posts reminded me of another instance of silence as commentary, and as a kind of action. This was the 2011 UC Davis student response to the pepper spraying of Occupy Now student protesters by campus police. They greeted their Chancellor, Linda P.B. Katehi, with absolute silence in what became known as her "Walk of Shame." Here is a description and video of the event:http://www.sfbg.com/bruce/2011/11/21/dramatic-video-uc-davis-chancellor-linda-p-b-katehi-and-her-walk-shame.

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  4. I read your post a few days ago and have been reflecting on it ever since. My ideas are still only half-baked, but I've been thinking a lot about how we deny victims the right to silence. Just this morning I was reading an article about Janay Rice and how she was being blamed for not speaking up, like so many survivors of abuses of all kinds. Great emphasis is placed on giving a voice to people, especially those we feel have been exploited, but silence can also be empowering. I love Lucia's comment and that last line "Do not confuse it with any kind of absence". As Jo-Ann pointed out, silence can be powerful. Silence is uncomfortable, so by placing silence in opposition to justice and demanding victims surrender their right to silence and then judging them when they don't is that in pursuit of justice or wresting our own comfort back from the inimitable silence that we do not control?

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