A long time ago Miles Davis published an autobiography. One of the more astonishing things about which he chose to reminisce were the times that he beat up his then wife, actress Cicely Tyson.
Soon after there was a lot of discussion, in print and elsewhere, about whether Miles’ actions should affect how we view his music.
Is it possible or appropriate to ignore the ugly side of a performer’s behaviour when judging his artistic output?
I had always been a big fan of Miles, owning most records he had released, plus any number of obscure Japanese imports. In my mind there was no finer musician in the jazz realm.
Today though – actually for the last twenty-five years – I very seldom listen to Miles Davis. Try as I might I simply can’t get the image out of my head of Cicely Tyson cowering in a basement while Miles is upstairs laughing and joking with the police.
I suspect that Jian Ghomeshi is now also someone that I just don’t want to listen to.
And that makes me angry. Ghomeshi is about the best interviewer on radio today, and surely the best at CBC since the late Peter Gzowski.
It makes me angry that I’ve lost that in my life for no other reason than he’s a nasty, brutish, evil man.
I’ve been listening to the arguments being made – especially the one about how we don’t yet know The Truth – and I’m reminded how many times I’ve heard that before.
I have known women who had been battered by their husbands, boyfriends, or lovers, and I know how hard it is to talk about it. Many women carry these stories around for years or decades without telling anyone.
The reasons are anything but complex.
First, they assume that they won’t be believed.
Because the battering of women almost always happens in private there is no record and there are no witnesses. It ultimately becomes a game of “he said” “she said.”
Regardless of the fact that it is almost unheard of for a women to invent a story like this, the assumption too often is that she’s making it up, seeking revenge, trying to damage the reputation of the man.
Second, they assume they’ll be blamed.
Despite half a century of feminism, the default reaction to any story of battering is to start by asking what the woman did to deserve it. Or what she was wearing. Or why she was alone with the guy. Or why she didn’t fight harder. Or whether she was explicit enough in telling him to stop.
The burden of proof lies with the victim, and is so dense and complex that it is largely impossible for any woman to adequately defend herself.
Especially since the next question is invariably “Why didn’t she tell the police?”
The better question is: Why would she?
Things haven’t changed much in the quarter century since Miles’ autobiography. It’s still reasonable to assume that police will do little or nothing when faced with a battered woman.
It’s a sign of how much police don’t understand assaults on women that Ontario’s government actually enacted legislation that forced the police to remove the husband when they were called out to “a domestic dispute.”
The fact that assaults on wives and girlfriends are still referred to as “domestics,” and not just “assaults,” is indicative of the attitude that these assaults are somehow less real, less serious, than other attacks.
Even if the police do move ahead and charge to assailant, there’s a significant chance that he’ll still be on the streets, and may assault the victim again.
The kind of guy who batters his wife or girlfriend is not the sort who will be stopped by a restraining order, and is already known to be the kind of person whose temper and fists are his weapons of choice.
Being afraid of the consequences of a police visit is a perfectly reasonable response when you’ve already been beaten by a husband of boyfriend.
Even if charges are laid, and the case goes to court, the victim can expect to be raked over the coals – especially when the assailant is a celebrity or other prominent person.
This has always been the case, but moreso in the age of the Internet.
The recent “Gamergate” campaign has shown how hostile certain parts of the male population can be when “threatened”. What began as an attack on Zoe Quinn’s professional reputation by a former boyfriend rapidly grew into an international campaign by hundreds of men to discredit and terrorize her.
She has had her on-line accounts hacked, and has been threatened repeatedly with rape and other forms of violence.
Then her home address and other personal information was published on-line.
Other women computer programmers who have stood up for Quinn have had to cancel speaking engagements when bomb threats were directed at event organizers.
Edit for accuracy; Other feminist programmers have had to cancel speaking gigs, and even move out of their homes after threats, including one of a “Montreal Massacre.”
One need only think back to the fundamentalist anti-abortion campaigners who eventually went from name calling, to harassment, to actual murder, to understand why attacks like this can keep women from coming forward.
In any event, the number of women naming Ghomeshi has grown from four to nine, and in response to the people who have tried to discredit them because they chose to stay anonymous, two of those women have gone on the record with names and photographs. That is in addition to CBC employees who had registered complaints about his behaviour at work.
Ghomeshi of course denies assaulting any women.
Which is always the response when men are accused of battering their wives or girlfriends.
“We don’t know the whole story.”
No we don’t, and because the assaults took place behind closed doors it’s unlikely we ever will.
We do though know two things:
– It is incredibly rare for women to make up stories of assault by men. It is unthinkable that multiple women would all make up such stories.
– It is almost certain that the assailant will find ways to excuse his violence, or to claim innocence, or to place the blame on his victim.
Given that history I have to assume that the victims are telling the truth and Ghomeshi is lying.
Finally though there’s one more piece to this puzzle.
Whether you call this an expose, or a witch hunt, or tabloid journalism, there’s one thing that hasn’t happened.
At a time when you would expect friends and colleagues to jump to Ghomeshi’s defence we’ve heard nothing but silence.
I’ve seen this once before, when a friend was arrested and charged with sexual interference with his daughter.
One would have expected cries of “Oh my God – no way! That’s impossible!”
Instead the people closest to the man involved stopped, looked thoughtful, and accepted that yes, it did seem possible, or even likely, that he had done what was claimed.
He was later convicted, all the while claiming that he had been set up by his ex-wife.