Former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi, who was fired after three women accused him of being physically violent toward them. Image via Facebook
Every time some charming famous man is accused of rape or sexual assault—so, let's say on average about two or three times a year—the same chain reaction plays out all over the internet. First, the allegations come out. Next, practically before anyone else can get a word in edgewise, the let's-not-be-hasty-here folks jump out of whatever dark corner they've been hiding in since the last time a nice guy was accused of doing something bad. These people, who apparently don't sleep or have jobs because they seem to be able to spend 24 hours a day on social media arguing with anyone willing to engage them, have two favorite phrases: “You can't try someone in the court of public opinion” and “Innocent until proven guilty.”
The fervor surrounding Jian Ghomeshi's termination from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) as a result of allegations made against him by three women who told the Toronto Star that he "physically attacked" them during dates is a textbook example of everything described above, and I swear to God if one more person says “presumption of innocence” to me, I'm going to flip a table. At this point, the words have ceased to mean anything other than, “Stop talking about this thing that I don't want you to talk about.” And as for the concept of the court of public opinion, I'm side-eyeing the hell out of anyone criticizing folks for preemptively speaking out about the possibility that Ghomeshi might be guilty. Because in my experience, the people crying about this imaginary court (which, by the way, can't actually put anyone on trial or send them to prison) are hypocrites who take no issue with the people publicly supporting Ghomeshi.
None of this is to say that the public's view of an event can't have powerful consequences; studies have shown that popular opinion can influence the outcome of real court cases. However, I've found that the only time the so-called court of public opinion is brought up right now is as a way of silencing those who are critical of Ghomeshi, specifically women.
The fact is that Ghomeshi has spent the last three days doing his utmost to gain the public's sympathy and pity. Posting a long, self-pitying Facebook status was a calculated move on his part; it was no accident that he managed to work in references to his recently deceased father, his grieving mother and, perhaps most absurdly, his talent as a radio host. For the past few days, Ghomeshi has been hard at work trying to foment bias against his as-yet-unnamed accusers—and so far, he seems to be succeeding. Yet very few people seem to be concerned about the effect that publicly accusing women of crying rape for revenge or profit will have on “public opinion.” No one seems to care about how supporting Ghomeshi will influence other women who want to come forward about being raped or assaulted.
Consider this: Before we knew anything about the women accusing Ghomeshi, before we were even aware of what their allegations were, we knew that Ghomeshi was calling at least one of them a manipulative liar. A full 12 hours before the Toronto Star had published the accusations against Ghomeshi, he had already cast himself in the role of a victim. Ghomeshi's public Facebook page has tripled its number of fans since his post about the allegations went up; more than 100,000 people have liked this post, and nearly 50,000 have shared it. A petition to “BAND TOGETHER AND SHOW THE CBC HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE IMPACTED BY THEIR IRRATIONAL DECISION” (whatever that means) has more than 4,000 signatures. This isn't to say that there haven't been any detractors—if you comb through the comments on his post, you'll see people questioning the veracity of his story—but it's safe to say that Ghomeshi has generally enjoyed a fair amount of popular support.
Now tell me who's been trying to sway public opinion here.
Ghomeshi is, in the eyes of the law, innocent until proven guilty. This is an important part of our judicial system, and it should be respected. However—and I can't emphasize this enough—the presumption of innocence should extend to all parties involved. The presumption of innocence does not mean that you should assume that these women are lying about being assaulted until proven otherwise.
Here is the plain truth: Ghomeshi is alleging that a group of women, at least one of whom he describes as a “jilted ex-girlfriend," have fabricated a story specifically to discredit him. Ghomeshi wants us to believe that these women will somehow profit off of this, when in fact it's pretty clear that the opposite is more likely. According to the Toronto Star, the reason that these women have not come forward before now, and the reason they are still withholding their names, is because they're worried about what the public's reaction will be—and considering that in the wake of Gamergate several of the women involved felt threatened enough by the online backlash to leave their homes, these concerns aren't unfounded. Ghomeshi was afraid of losing his job; these women are afraid of losing a great deal more than that.
Ghomeshi will be just fine. I can almost guarantee you that he'll be overwhelmed with offers to host other radio shows at various stations. He'll do a few weepy interviews on a few daytime talk shows. He'll probably get a book deal or two. Whatever happens, he'll land firmly on his feet. Men in his position very rarely suffer any real and lasting consequences for these types of allegations—look at Roman Polanski, or Woody Allen, or Chris Brown. Even when there is plenty of solid evidence, men who abuse and rape manage to come out on top.
So don't worry about how Jian Ghomeshi will fare in the court of public opinion—many people decided that he was innocent before they had any clue what the allegations were. Instead, worry about how women—all women, not just the women accusing Ghomeshi—will be affected by the discourse surrounding this.
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