Monday, November 2, 2015

This Changed Me

It has been a year and a handful of days since CBC fired Jian Ghomeshi. Do you remember how the news broke? I do. I remember seeing it on Twitter first and thinking "how strange." And then, later that evening, I recall sitting on the couch with my partner. We were both looking at Facebook -- oh, modern life -- and came across Ghomeshi's long, bizarre, self-defensive post. Remember that? That's the post in which he claimed that the CBC had fired him for his sexual preferences. I recall thinking at the time that there had to be more to the story. But even more that that, I distinctly remember thinking: how shrewd. How insightful. What a smart and deliberately pre-emptive use of social media. Rather than wait for the porous and vague language of preliminary news reports here was someone who knew the power of harnessing public opinion. Further, here was someone who knew how gender plays a powerful role in public opinion. A well-known man confessing and apologizing for his less-than-vanilla proclivities but asking for the public to respect his privacy? Wow, I thought. Very savvy.

And then the real story broke. "More to the story" turned out to be many many women. Women who had experienced varying degrees of assault and harassment in professional, private, and semi-private settings. Women who did not feel safe coming forward, and women who did. I remember listening to Lucy de Coutere be interviewed about her decision to talk publicly about her experience with Ghomeshi. I remember what she said--that she felt she could come forward, and so she did in hopes that it would make other women feel strong--but I mostly remember her voice. Confident. Assured. Strong in her own truth. And controlled. Oh, her voice was so controlled. And I remember thinking wow, this woman. This woman and her bravery. She has brought her experience into the light of the public--not a warm light, that--for the good of other people. How generous, I thought. Thank you, I thought.

And then, of course, there was more. More women, yes. And more public backlash. The women who didn't come forward were asked why. They weren't even recipients of the question, not usually. Rather, there was a general distrust of anonymity and silence. Why wouldn't you come forward and seek justice, the whole country--never mind the comments sections--seemed to ask, while simultaneously failing to make a connection with the myriad risks of doing so in public.

The conversations about Ghomeshi's years of violence were triggering. Talking and hearing about it non-stop was exhausting. And yet, it felt as though it was time for something to change. Would it lead to cities and provinces and universities and colleges taking seriously the rise of rape culture on campus? Would these conversations lead to a public recognition and outcry for an inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada? Would public opinion shift to trusting women when they say they've been abused?

Something else did start to happen. Women reached out to one another. Again, I saw this happen first on social media. In my town a group formed on the internet to talk about how we were dealing with this hyper public, inescapable, necessary-yet-gutting conversation about rape culture. Then, the #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag went viral. Women all over the internet were claiming their experiences of violence and teaching the general public not only why a huge percentage of sexualized violence goes unreported, they were also teaching us what that feels like. They were teaching us how violence that is both individualized and systematic--it happened to me, it happened within patriarchal culture, within racist culture, and so forth -- gets metabolized or internalized. They were teaching us, these women.

I worried, last year, that social media, which can be such a crucial tool for consciousness-raising, would also backfire. I worried that the onslaught of a topic gone viral would just as quickly move out of the public eye.

What I am trying to think through here is, at root, two pronged: 1) How do we as a networked public keep huge issues at the forefront of the public conscience? 2) How do we both honour and continue to grapple with the cost -- both visible and invisible -- of speaking openly about experiences of gendered violence?

The title of my post comes from an article that Chatelaine published last week. In it the magazine notes that

The events of that day hit like a brick to a window — a “where were you when” moment for a great many Canadians. Regardless of how Ghomeshi’s trial plays out in 2016, we’re still feeling this scandal’s repercussions a year later. It led to thousands of conversations about sexual violence, workplace harassment and abuses of power. For those at the core of it — the survivors who came forward, the CBC employees who lost their jobs and Ghomeshi’s family — the fallout is ongoing and severe. But even for many further afield — crisis workers and policymakers, journalists and former colleagues — the scandal has had a powerful, lasting effect. 

The article interviews seven women about the lasting effect of this public discussion of rape culture. They are all worth reading carefully. I'm struck, especially, by Piya Chattopadhyay's recollection of hosting Q the day the news broke, of how she is willing to admit how emotional she was. But I want to draw your attention to the last interview, which is with Sally Armstrong. She writes:

Immediately after the column, I had a phone call from a very well known Canadian man with lots of connections. He said, ‘Pick a Saturday—any Saturday that doesn’t have a Santa Claus Parade on it and I’ll organize a march of the men.’ I said ‘I hope you do. I’d be willing to help.’ But I never heard from him again. It didn’t surprise me because it takes a lot of effort to alter the status quo. The Jian Ghomeshi thing was an incident — that goes on in most offices across Canada today. And who’s going to do something about it? And I don’t believe a single incident has stopped because of the Jian Ghomeshi story.

Armstrong articulates what worries me so deeply about how we remember: as communities, as people. And as much as I am loath to admit it, I think, on a large scale, Armstrong is right. 

But I don't want to end there, because on a smaller scale--and by small I mean geographically smaller scale--things have happened. The public discussions of rape culture and misogyny did change me. It reminded me that I am not just a teacher, I am a feminist professor. I am not just a person at the front of a classroom, I am a gendered body at the front of the room. I have to negotiate power dynamics every day, of course, but this? This incident renewed my resolve to talk about rape culture, gendered and racial inequity, and the function of power dynamics in my classrooms even when it makes me uncomfortable. Even when it might mean my student evaluations are chocked full of comments that "she's too feminist." Even when it is risky. Its my privilege and it is my responsibility to teach with a feminist lens. And so I do. I am. I'm trying.

And you know what? Something else happened, too. About two weeks after my baby was born I went to a brunch held by the founder of that online feminist discussion group. The group, which was full of women in the community who care about feminism and each other, had spent a year navigating the emotional rapids that came about after the news of Ghomeshi's actions. It was a group of women who took the time to build a network of verbal support for one another in a space--the internet--that feels so ephemeral, so risky. And while I was jittery about meeting them in person, and shy and awkward and full of all the weird hormones that come with giving birth, I went. And as I walked up the stairs with my very wee girl to meet a group of women I'd really only talked with online someone said "Oh! A baby! Pass me that baby and get that woman a cup of coffee!" And so, as I passed my daughter to this familiar stranger's arms I whispered in her ear "this is Lucy."   

So thank you, Lucy, for holding my daughter. For making me brave. For being brave. Your bravery changed me. Your bravery makes things happen.

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