Before revelations emerged Wednesday evening that eight women have now accused Jian Ghomeshi of nonconsensual sexual violence and sexual harassment, the public had already been quick to take a stand one way or the other.
There was Green Party leader Elizabeth May, who waded in on Twitter with, "I think Jian is wonderful. Likely TMI for an old fogey like me, but his private life is none of our beeswax." May had read the former CBC host's Facebook screed but not the Toronto Star's report detailing allegations against him. "It never occurred to me that there was an accusation of violence," May acknowledged to the Canadian Press, adding that she learned a valuable lesson in tweeting while agitated.
Singer Amanda Palmer, whose book launch in Toronto was to be co-hosted with Ghomeshi next month, also felt compelled to vocalize on social media: "What happens behind closed doors is never knowable," Palmer offered from her Facebook fan page, where she was quickly pilloried.
Many put Ghomeshi in their crosshairs, including artist Owen Pallett. Others still turned their focus to the alleged victims. As with most victim blaming, it's been variation on a theme: Why didn't they contact police? Why didn't they put their names to the allegations? Why didn't they speak up? The quizzical posed their concerns in tweets and Facebook posts. (Toronto Star reporter Kevin Donovan had addressed queries about his sources, saying that, "In cases of allegations like this involving assault and particularly sexual assault, it's not unusual that alleged victims don't put their name to a story.")
Ghomeshi has said through his lawyer that he "does not engage in non-consensual role play or sex and any suggestion of the contrary is defamatory."
Sexuality, privacy, consent, sexual assault, workplace harassment: while the case presents plentiful opportunities to debate important issues, they are also complex and manifold ones. So far, most of what we've seen is a torrent of weighing in pre-emptively, preferably on social media. Here, the human urge to announce where you stand on each controversy-of-the-month has been accelerated, often to no one's benefit.
On Monday, watching friend after friend expound on innocence and guilt, the visceral allegations and Ghomeshi's skills as an interviewer felt somewhat alienating: why the race to state your camp, if only from a Facebook wall? Aside from a handful of folks with personal anecdotes, why the urge to broadcast gut feelings? And if you didn't speak out immediately via Facebook and Twitter, did it telegraph ignorance, or worse, the wrong opinion?
We are too quick, as a colleague of mine succinctly put it, to publicly enshrine our beliefs on social media, which invites this type of immediate "certainty." As Alfred Hermida, author of the recent book Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matter argues, "It's the way that space is designed. You're expected to react right away, not to take a minute to consider, 'Do I really think that?'" Hermida told me in an interview earlier this month. The former BBC journalist says that more than ever before, news is now a social experience. And it's a specific type of conversation: "Immediacy privileges reaction rather than reflection. It fosters ardour rather than nuance," Hermida wrote in his book.
Having your own publishing platform also means you get to craft a narrative that works for you. In the case of the victim blamers, there is a sense that they would have done things differently. To which blogger Steffani Cameron responded, "When's the last time you busted someone at work for stealing supplies? When's the last time you called someone out for a racist comment? When's the last time you put your reputation on the line to fight someone in a position of authority? When's the last time you stood up to anyone about ANYTHING – not to mention in front of police, the media and an entire country? Oh, never?"
In other words, it's easy to advise from a safe perch on social media to an audience of your peers, with little actual experience yourself. For those uninitiated with the legal system, it can be difficult to comprehend not reporting, says Amanda Dale, executive director of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, a Toronto organization for women facing violence. Dale says that for those alleging sexual assault, "From the moment of reporting, they're subject to a lens which assumes, as in no other crime, that they are starting from a place of lying. Women aren't stupid about that."
Dale questions why "all of us in public have to decide whether we believe or disbelieve either party. What we really should be asking is how and why insidious misogyny is a discussion that we find so hard to have. Why do we want everyone to have a white Stetson or a black Stetson?"
Whatever your camp, in staking your claim in Ghomeshi-gate, consider this input from Andrea Zanin, a Toronto BDSM educator who ended up writing what may be the most measured take on the hoopla so far: "I'm going to keep reading, with my critical thinking turned up high," Zanin concluded late Monday night. "I suggest we all do the same."