Bullshit, Belief, and Binaries
A brief history of concepts of self-deception would have to include concepts such as false consciousness, bad faith, and cognitive dissonance, but if these sound too complicated, try bullshit. What worries me is that bullshitting has gone viral, in a sense—becoming an diarrheal epidemic that can’t be stopped by any political wall, such as the walls around the right or the left. I’m worried that the bullshit is seeping through. I’m worried about what social work professor Brené Brown calls “the bullshit-incivility cycle,” like when someone spouts total nonsense and, exasperated, we respond with anger if we respond at all.
An alternative that I’ve been discussing lately comes from the poet and novelist Sina Queyras, who once wrote, “I don’t argue any more, I just take up space.” If the right/wrong structure of an argument or debate isn’t appropriate, then you might be able to avoid the argument—not to be evasive but to create a positive alternative.
(I worry sometimes that a blog is an attention-seeker that "take[s] up space" in the sense of squeezing out other voices that should be listened to more than mine is, but this "space" on the internet is theoretically infinite, and I know from the analytics of my modest site traffic that I'm not, at present, at risk of stealing a spotlight.)
Queyras goes on to criticize an us/them binary, and elsewhere Brown criticizes an all guns/no guns binary, and so I have to admit that I’ve started with a binary, right and left, an idea of something divided by a wall—but it’s not how I’ll conclude. I think bullshit damages binaries but has a dangerously totalizing effect nonetheless.
Jeet Heer’s most recent article in The New Republic turns attention back to the philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s 2005 book, On Bullshit, which Heer uses to understand the American president Donald Trump and the destabilization of truth.
(Brown has been reading Frankfurt’s book, too, which has become an unexpected touchstone for understanding the Trump era. I bought On Bullshit for my dad on his 60th birthday in the year it came out, and we were thinking of the American president George W. Bush, whose misunderstandings seem so quaint now. Heer reports that the fact-checkers at PolitiFact calculate that 70% of Trump’s assertions are false, mostly false, or total “pants on fire” lies.)
I am more interested in thinking about bullshit in the context of the #MeToo and #IBelieve movement, one that has supported women in the difficult work of making an allegation of sexual harassment or assault against men in powerful positions. This work is difficult partly because, in the legal system, very few of the accused men are convicted despite the likelihood and widespread belief that they have committed the alleged act; and because, in the court of public opinion, the backlash has included death threats and public ridicule amounting sometimes to defamation.
Leaning to the right of the false binary that I set up earlier, we have pundit Christie Blatchford cautioning against the over-extension of #MeToo and #IBelieve, though I can’t see how we could (except in rare cases) do too much to resist sexism and patriarchy when both seem so clear and present and problematic. With customary snark directed at bleeding-heart liberals, Blatchford writes: “one of the guiding principles of #MeToo and #IBelieve is that every person who makes such an allegation is a noble truth-teller, and that what matters most is how the self-proclaimed victim feels.” The language here is absolutist: “every person,” “what matters most.” In reality, the nuance “matters” too, but here the language implies or idealizes a simple distinction between truth and falsehood: a binary.
Leaning left, writer Erika Thorkelson objects to Margaret Atwood’s support for the accused (if I may borrow the legal term even though the case is not a criminal one), and she criticizes Atwood’s insistence in using her reputation to shape the discourse around #MeToo: “Really listening requires… you to soften and let go of the fear, the urge to argue, and the instinct to control the narrative. It takes a comfort with silence and a willingness to accept that your turn to talk may never come, that what’s happening might not be about you at all.” In other words, some people have to shut up (Margaret Atwood). But those other words are my words, possibly in the voice of Blatchford, not one I really want to imitate, and Thorkelson's desire for better listeners is one that I share deeply; it's an ideal of teaching and learning.
Still, these examples from the loosely defined right and left share a lack of faith in people with different opinions. Blatchford implies that the “noble truth-teller” may well be a liar, and Thorkelson suggests that others have no “turn,” no valid opinion, no credibility— really, no reason to be believed.
And so, we believe what we want. The Economist, hardly a neutral magazine, nevertheless respects a difference between fact and fiction here: "In 1986 Ronald Reagan insisted that his administration did not trade weapons for hostages with Iran, before having to admit a few months later that: ‘My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.’”
Reagan wasn't bullshitting; he was admitting to a lie but spinning it as a moral lie, a lie told for the right reasons, the reasons in his "heart." Because I’ve been studying the genre of the Western, and because Reagan was “the Cowboy President” (having acted in so many Westerns before he went into politics), I’ve been thinking of how we normally think of the Western as a politically conservative genre, and how the usual plot of a Western culminates in a moment of cathartic violence when the hero makes a snap judgment—supposedly a moment of moral clarity—to confirm that the bad guy is so bad that he should die.
Reagan might have won over some Democrats with his admission about Iran, but Heer claims that “Trump’s bullshitting is integral to his success in fomenting tribalism and polarization." I agree, and I would add that Trump’s twittering is encouraging this “polarization.” I’ve read suggestions that social media today have a conservative bias because short forms such as the tweet encourage snap judgments and discourage reflection.
What if, if we’re all so confident that no one can be right, and if we’re all willing to make the snap judgment and the quick draw of moral assessment, then we’re all on the right?
Although bullshit has, in a way, damaged the binary of right and left, along with the binary of truth and falsehood, in another way it hypes up the binary or wall more and more. Shouting down others, for example, can foment radicalism while, as journalist Neil Macdonald pointed out yesterday, generating celebrity for reprehensible people and their ideas.
But the way we often talk or shout means in theory that the wall between left and right doesn’t even exist; it’s simply snap judgment after snap judgment, because it’s easier and less exhausting, less driving toward burn-out. The challenge we have to meet when dealing with bullshit or a political opponent is always going to be patience (but also determined work), even if it is not fair to ask for patience from people who deserve justice now and 150+ years ago.
Blatchford refers to “the current super-heated temperature of the culture.” Indeed, I want to yell—at least half ironically—like Señor Mister Love Daddy in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing: “Y’all take a chill. You need to cool that shit out”!
There are lots of good reasons to scream, but being the hot shit isn't one of them.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "Bullshit, Belief, and Binaries." Publicly Interested, 21 Mar. 2018, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
Here in sunny San Diego for the PCA-ACA 2017 conference, I reserved an evening to go see Lolita Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet (2012; here and now directed by Stafford Arima) at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park, and I discovered a fascinating study of dramatic irony as a parallel of the insidiousness of racialization. What I mean is that the play is about how race fools us.
Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something that a character doesn’t know. In this case, the character is the historical figure Ira Aldridge, an African American actor. He was the first black man to play Othello on the London stage. In Red Velvet, he’s trying to promote the movement toward naturalistic acting but is himself the over-actor incarnate.
Albert Jones plays Aldridge to the contrary of the fictional and perhaps historical Aldridge’s preference for “domestic” or naturalistic styles of acting. Ben Brantley in The New York Times reports that Adrian Lester played the role similarly in 2014, so that the actor “exudes the scary, outsize presence of the barnstorming stardom of another time.”
Aldridge’s controversial performance in London in 1833 coincided with the final major legal milestone in ending slavery in Britain and its colonies. Until then, white actors played black characters in blackface—and so, in an ironic twist (like that of Patrick Stewart playing Othello in an otherwise all-black cast), Aldridge plays King Lear in whiteface at the conclusion of the play, speaking these colour-sensitive lines from Act V of King Lear:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . They flattered
me like a dog; and told me I had white hairs in my
beard ere the black ones were there. To say “ay”
and “no” to every thing that I said! . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Go to, they are
not men o’ their words: they told me I was every
thing; ’tis a lie, I am not ague-proof.
An ague is an illness, especially a fever, and so Lear is calling attention to various possibilities, including that he is confused—by the lies, by the “madness” (III,iv) that he worries is upon him. A mad character is probably always an instance of dramatic irony, at least in those moments when the character is not aware of the madness. In Red Velvet, I think the madness is the idea of race itself—but I’ll come back to that.
Aldridge is also calling attention to the weaknesses of his body in lines that Chakrabarti seems to be repurposing. When Lear compares “white” and “black” hairs, he means age and how it is symbolized—here, that white hair is a symbol of wisdom, I think. When Chakrabarti’s Aldridge’s Lear says these lines, however, he signifies that race, like traits such as wisdom (which Lear did not consistently have), is not essential to anyone. Race is partly a bodily performance, especially as Red Velvet dramatizes Aldridge, and partly an attribution that can be manipulated for reasons good and bad.
(Coincidentally, the San Diego Museum of Man, just steps away from the Old Globe in Balboa Park, is presently curating an exhibit called “Race: Are We So Different?”)
The crisis of Red Velvet is that Aldridge’s critics, the writers who review his play in the newspapers, echo stereotypes of black men as (often sexually) aggressive and thus a threat to white virginity and whiteness-as-property, as in the theme of inheritance suggested by the play’s ailing white father and his son. (For more on the latter, see Cheryl I. Harris’s “Whiteness as Property” essay from the Harvard Law Review.) Aldridge has already seemed to prove his critics right in advance by rehearsing and performing the strangulation of Desdemona too “realistically,” which means according to the commonly held racial stereotype and the reality presumed by the critics. He then attempts to strangle his French manager, an ally and friend, when the Frenchman finally concedes to public pressure to remove Aldridge from the role.
Unlike most of his colleagues, Aldridge is presented as an over-actor whether on stage or behind the scenes in the dressing room, and in the program Jason Sherwood, the set designer, comments that the superimposition of Aldridge’s private life (backstage) and public life (centre stage) is crucial to his character as imagined by Stafford Arima. Indeed, Aldridge is almost entirely “public”: projecting from the top of his voice, preoccupied with gesture, vying always for position and attention. One implication of Jones’s performance is that one’s persona invades one’s private life, a commonplace that informs much of my work on celebrity. As I’ve recently written in the context of racialization in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, it is also that one’s public face can turn an “about face” on the self, allowing social norms to define a person.
So, when the stage’s rotating proscenium (yes, a prop that expensive) sends us back to the present near the end of Aldridge’s life, the play ends with his Lear’s exhortation against the “lie” of the public’s and the court’s (and his family’s) support for him, juxtaposed against the flashback to his manager’s withdrawal of support following the racist reviews of his Othello. The play thereby emphasizes the struggles in the historical Aldridge’s remarkably successful career, set against the backdrop of Britain’s very mixed, ambivalent movement toward abolition from the late 1700s to 1833 when, finally—after about a generation—Britain stopped trading in slaves. If a viewer wonders why Aldridge is presented with something less than total sympathy, it’s because the play appears to be made to dramatize the insidious effect of socialization on one’s private life.
We know something that the fictional Aldridge does not know: that he is unwittingly the exaggerated product of the racism of his critics, while he believes he is being authentic.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "The Dramatic Irony of Race and Red Velvet." Publicly Interested, 16 April 2017.
“Let’s have some decorum,” President Richard Pryor says in a White House press conference just before he jumps into the crowd to attack a journalist for asking a racist rhetorical question about his mother. In this 1977 sketch from the short-lived Richard Pryor Show, Pryor could well have been commenting on recent news about the relationship between the president and the media in the time of Donald Trump.* In the sketch, Pryor imagines himself as the 40th president of the United States—a position that went in fact to Trump’s touchstone, Ronald Reagan, whose so-called Reaganomics started a trend in exacerbating the American racial-economic inequalities that Pryor cited so often in his comedy routines.
When President Pryor channels generic political spin and defends the neutron bomb as “a neo-pacifist weapon,” I still hear Trump, though Trump would never use the Grecian prefix. Trump is less audible (almost an impossibility today) when Pryor’s critique of race emerges. Responding to a question about funding for the space program, Pryor says, “I feel it’s time that black people went to space. White people have been going to space for years, and spacing out on us as you might say. And I feel with the projects that we have in mind we’re going to send explorer ships to other galaxies, and no longer will they have the same type of music, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky. Now they’ll have the Miles Davis, Charlie Parker....”
If only Pryor were still alive to comment on Trump’s thinly superficial (and faint) praise for the long-dead nineteenth-century abolitionist Fredrick Douglass: “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.”
I bring up Richard Pryor and Donald Trump because we watched the 1985 version of Brewster’s Millions last weekend, or perhaps the previous weekend (a blur in busy times), continuing a series of viewings focused on Reaganomic movies, and I’m compelled by the resonance that this movie has with the current politics of the United States.
Can anyone be elected in the United States—regardless of sex, gender, race, class, age? Americans are not alone among people willing to elect the seemingly unsuitable and unqualified, but the election of Trump is nonetheless remarkable. Brewster’s Millions asks a more specific question: Would Americans elect a black millionaire who is otherwise unqualified for public office?
Brewster’s Millions is only one of many adaptations of a turn of the twentieth century novel by George Barr McCutcheon, which became a play and a series of films before Walter Hill adapted it and found Pryor and John Candy to play the leads. At least in this version, the story involves a black small-time baseball player, Montgomery Brewster (Pryor), whose elderly white relative (surprise!) dies and bequeaths him $300 million—but only if he can spend $30 million in 30 days without accumulating assets, giving more than 5% to charity, or destroying things that are “inherently valuable” such as works of art.
(This unlikely plot recalls Steve Martin’s 1979 movie, The Jerk, when Martin plays a white man who thought he was black, realizes he’s white, becomes a millionaire who squanders his money, and then re-integrates with his adoptive—but now rich—black family.)
The lesson is supposed to teach Brewster to hate spending and become frugal. It’s ironic, of course: the premise that conspicuous consumption might lead away from excess to moderation. Brewster sets to work hiring people—valuing the labour of typically under-paid people, with the exception of a few ritzy interior designers, lawyers, and money managers—but also has two inspired moments of how to spend money without gaining anything material. First, he buys the most expensive collector’s stamp in the world, then uses it as postage on a postcard. Second, and this one is special, he decides that the best way to waste other people’s money is to run for office.
His campaign for mayor is really a campaign against the establishment, so his slogan is “None of the Above,” a far cry from “Make America Great Again.” But in other ways his campaign is a lot like Trump’s was. Spin off your stardom from tabloids / Reality TV to municipal / federal politics. Buy votes shamelessly. Be the third way (as ironic as it is to say that in Canada where the third way is to the left). Have little respect for office and be honest about it, or seem to. Announcing his candidacy for mayor, Brewster says, “What I’m saying is, only an idiot would vote for me!” His follow-up, what he calls “the bottom line,” is that “I’m here to buy your votes.”
Later, at a big rally full of supporters, he declares that he is there “to see to it that neither of my opponents, nor me, win the election! I want to ask the question: Who’s buying the booze? ... And who’s trying to buy your vote? And who are you going to vote for?” The rallying cry is “None of the Above!” But the crowd really means him, and he later drops out of the race to prevent his actual winning. So Americans would elect a black millionaire! At least as mayor. And if he's funny enough.
A few of my friends now have said they plan to weather the Trumpnado by sitting back to be entertained while waiting for him to lose an election. But that's exactly what Trump wants us to do. He hates being criticized, but he loves to entertain.
Pryor’s critique of star politicians and their fans is that the masses don’t really care about the message as long as they are entertained, e.g., with “the booze.” It’s a classic—and class-based, Marxist—view of the public, one to which I will return in a moment when I ask whether the film itself undermine’s Pryor’s critique. First, consider that, because Brewster is entertaining, his public ignores his message of not supporting the establishment. Not supporting the establishment was perhaps the key premise of Trump’s campaign against the much better qualified Hillary Clinton. Pryor's satire here reveals that rich people like Trump are the establishment, just as much as political lineages such as the Clintons, the Bushes, and the Kennedys are. The people who vote for Brewster or Trump are the “idiot[s],” Pryor claims.
Could any idiot be elected in the United States? I reserve judgment on whether Trump would qualify; my point is that any millionaire could be elected. Brewster’s Millions shows us a world in which Americans vote for the money, possibly without realizing how it is the driving force of the corrupted politics that they want to oppose.
At the conclusion of Brewster’s Millions, Brewster does claim to be sick of spending money, but he does everything he can to get the $300 million—raising my question about the coherence of this movie’s satire. It ends with Brewster a millionaire without rules on how to spend his millions. In that sense, it promotes unregulated capitalism of the type that Trump supports. It does not promote the legitimacy of black men and women as entrepreneurs or in politics.
Further, this unregulated capitalism does have one apparent rule: that white men govern the black men’s money. The 1985 version of Brewster’s Millions can be seen as a pedantic, racially condescending film, because the white man has to train the black man in how to handle money. Worse, the film shows only the training, a frantic montage of conspicuous consumption akin to later hip hop videos, afore the bling became satirical too. Brewster’s claim to be sick of spending money is such a passing gesture, such an ambiguity. Is the mereness of the gesture a sign that Brewster has not learned the white man’s lesson, perhaps deliberately? If he had truly learned the lesson, would he have been so desperate in the final minutes to get the $300 million?
It’s a double bind. Either he plays by the rules of a white capitalist economy, or he remains an unemployed baseball player who has humiliated himself as entertainment before the masses. But maybe this is what Prior intended: to show, not only in the film but in its structural relationship with the economy of the culture industry, that black men in the United States are still not taken seriously, even when they are making the most serious of jokes.
* I’ve decided not to call it “the era of Donald Trump,” preferring to allude instead to the title of a Gabriel García Márquez novel.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “Presidents Pryor, Trump, and None of the Above." Publicly Interested, 19 February 2017, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
The day before this long weekend, musician and radio host Jian Ghomeshi was acquitted of four counts of sexual assault and one of overcoming resistance by choking. When the verdict arrived, online criticism transferred visibly offline as feminist protesters converged on the Toronto courthouse to denounce the criminal justice system and express solidarity with survivors of sexual assault. Chatelaine interviewed at least 10 of the women who protested, and some of them echoed the hashtags #WeBelieveSurvivors and #BeenRapedNeverReported that started in response to Ghomeshi, affirming the credibility of those who allege they were sexually assaulted. (In Canada, sexual assault is a category that includes rape, but the charges against Ghomeshi were not of rape; he was charged with having struck and choked women in the context of kissing.) Over 20 women came forward with complaints against Ghomeshi, corroborating suspicions about Ghomeshi and raising questions about his, and their, credibility. With this entry on my blog, I want to suggest that the feminist protest is a public intellectual answer to some of these questions about credibility, but I stop short of disagreeing with the verdict or the presumption of innocence even though the protest against the criminal justice system otherwise seems quite right.
As a privileged white male writer who has never experienced sexual assault and whose father is a judge, I am easily associated with the system under question and am not an ideal commentator; however, I’m curious about these issues and how they are entangled in one area of my expertise: celebrity and popular culture. My book on celebrity led me to further questions and to the design of a university seminar on public intellectuals in the context of Canadian literary and arts cultures. In this context and that of my seminar, I want to look at the discussion of celebrity and credibility in Ghomeshi’s trial through the unexpectedly focusing lens of public intellectualism, which helps to validate some, but not all, claims of the feminist protest.
I should also admit that I once liked Ghomeshi’s band Moxy Früvous and listened appreciatively to a few of his interviews that related to my research. I’m not a fan (in the sense of someone who not only likes but also enthusiastically follows the performances of a band or celebrity), but I know that I am biased, partly because of his celebrity, whatever degree of it he had before the allegations and the related scandal. Right-leaning media such as The National Post labelled Ghomeshi “a minor celebrity,” whereas left-leaning media such as The Guardian called him a “radio star” and “one of the country’s most prominent media personalities.” Meanwhile, Matt Gurney pointed out in The National Post that Ghomeshi’s celebrity was maintained through his associations with other celebrities—the network he gained as a bandleader, interviewer, and CBC spokesperson.
In conversation with Gurney, Allan Bonner predicted that Ghomeshi’s network will stay away from him now—an increase in the separation from a decreasing number of allies. Ghomeshi’s celebrity is unquestionably significant to his case: his prominence at a public broadcaster, CBC Radio, demands public trust, and having lost the trust he will probably never get a similar job in Canada, whereas other alleged and convicted criminals are rarely well known and even more easily forgotten; they can recapture a low profile and might reintegrate. If Ghomeshi’s celebrity and his nice-guy persona protected him while he worked for CBC Radio, his celebrity did the opposite after the accusations, and he has in effect been punished without being proven guilty. His accusers and their supporters, however, would rather see him behind bars. I have read the complete legal decision and (as an amateur) think it reasonable despite its lack of imagination about why survivors might try to stay in touch with their attackers, especially if the survivor is a fan attacked by a celebrity who encouraged an appealing love interest. The decision also avoids the topics of what Su Holmes and Sean Redmond call “fame damage” (in their book Framing Celebrity) and of the fan’s desire to see the whole arc of the rise-and-fall narrative of stardom—what Anne Kingston in Maclean’s called “Jiandenfreude” in reference to Schadenfreude—that we get from so many biographies and movies: Elvis Presley, Sunset Boulevard, Marilyn Monroe, Birdman, Kurt Cobain, etc. But the decision isn’t a speculative, psychoanalytic, cultural, or celebrity study of the kind that I might write.
So, I wonder how the debates about credibility change if we think of Ghomeshi—not as a star—as a public intellectual whose situation motivates various publics to respond with varying degrees of intellectualism to concerns often ignored in the public sphere. (I write more below about feminist intellectual involvement in this public sphere.) He can be called a public intellectual because of his skill as an interviewer—a skill that involves considerable background preparation, inquisitiveness, verbal mastery, and quick thinking on air. (If these are less impressive because he had help from CBC Radio staffers, remember that many professors have research assistants, editors, and even writers too.) Richard Posner’s book Public Intellectuals is germane to the case. He too is a judge, and his book has been rightly criticized for its laziness and biases by Gertrude Himmelfarb and The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. Nevertheless, his book is sometimes insightful. Posner argues that public intellectuals deliver a “credence good” (49), which is really a service based on applying their expertise to more general situations. That’s how they establish credibility, though in Posner’s view their celebrity can work against their intellectualism so that the associated credibility meets only a low standard, perhaps that of the so-called lowest common denominator. Ghomeshi’s credibility before the accusations was high, at least in the general public that was not yet aware of the reputation whispered into being at the CBC, and in the court of public opinion his credibility (not an issue in the actual trial) argues against the credibility of his accusers.
Without physical proof of an attack—cuts, bruises, DNA, photographic evidence—credibility might be established anyway, through interrogation of the complainant. Credibility is a major factor in any trial, which is why Ghomeshi’s lawyer focused on questioning the credibility of his accusers in the absence of evidence beyond testimony; she and he benefited from media attention that preceded the trial, including his preemptive explanation, quoted in The Globe and Mail, of his sexual preferences. (In the early 1980s, rules of evidence in the Criminal Code changed so that corroboration is no longer required to believe a complainant without evidence beyond testimony. The Code also changed so that credibility isn't scrutinized when people make complaints about events in the past, and it disallowed a complainant’s sexual history from influencing assessments of credibility, i.e., in sections 274, 275, and 276.) The judge in the trial, William B. Horkins, wrote that “the judgment of this Court depends entirely on an assessment of the credibility and the reliability of each complainant as a witness.” In Chatelaine, Lianne George reflected on “how near-impossible it is to be a credible witness.” Here are the unlikely standards of behaviour that a survivor would have to meet after an attack to be credible later: record every detail, possibly while in shock; somehow rationally imagine a future in which you need each of these details in court; and most notably “avoid contacting your abuser under any circumstances, regardless of how desperately you want to appease, understand, rewrite history or ‘normalize’ the situation.”
(The quotation marks around “normalize” refer to the word chosen by Lucy DeCoutere, Ghomeshi’s only publicly known accuser—the others anonymized by the publication ban—to describe her reason for maintaining contact with Ghomeshi after the alleged assault. Her alleged deception in not revealing her continued contact until presented with evidence of it was one of the main reasons why Horkins had to doubt her credibility in general.)
George explained that “shifting accounts, omissions, memory lapses, confusion and concealed animosity directed at the accused” could all be used against a complainant even though all of these seem to be perfectly normal. Who always tells a story in exactly the same way? Who doesn’t skip one thing one time, and something else the next? Who remembers everything, especially when strong emotions are involved? Who can’t be confused under questioning, and who wouldn’t feel “animosity” toward an attacker?
One answer would be an extraordinary intellectual—a Sherlock Holmes but not necessarily a man—whose memory, rationality, and disinterestedness would enable testimony to be beyond reproach. Most people are not so cognizant under interrogation. I wouldn’t be. Hardly anyone is an ideal witness. The link between presumed intellect and credibility is problematically strong. I would say that it gives Ghomeshi and his credence goods an advantage, except that in the actual trial his credibility was not an issue (because he did not testify) and that in the court of public opinion he seems to have lost, not that I can measure this loss except by my impression after reading comments posted by readers on mainstream websites.
So, what counteracted Ghomeshi’s credibility to the public? What makes public opinion sufficiently informed outside the courts, given that inside the courts his accusers did not meet the court’s standard of the ideal, intellectual testifier?
With an implied reference to public intellectualism, George called the trial “a massive public education” about failures of justice in the system. As reported in the news media, sexual assault is a vastly under-reported crime with low rates of conviction. These facts do not mean that all accusations are true, but in my reasoning outright and intentional lying to accuse others of sexual assault must be very rare, partly because the investigations, laying of charges, protracted trials, associated expenses, and public scrutiny all deter baseless accusations. If people simply want to hurt someone or prefer revenge over justice, there are easier ways than going to the police.
Justice differs from revenge partly because it involves public judgment—not necessarily in the court of public opinion but in a court of law that seeks fairness and demands evidence or credible testimony equal to evidence. For a survivor to accuse someone, I assume that she or he has an idea of fairness in mind, coupled with a desire to publicize a case—in other words, to inform others, possibly to protect them, and to engage in debates about facts and interpretations.
Because of this desire to inform and to engage, can we accept the accusations against Ghomeshi not only as public acts but also as acts of public intellectualism, even what might be called collective intellectualism, assuming that being informed and publicly engaged are aspects of public intellectualism? Daniel Coleman argues that public intellectualism should be conceived "as a set of activities rather than a person, activities that many people already participate in" (205). He names reading as one such activity, but I'm also thinking of activities that people in the plural tend to do more or less in sync, like protest. Mary Eagleton in the Women's History Review notes that, historically, women have been denied powers associated with masculinity, intellectualism, and public authority (206), but the number of women professors and university students who have stood up in public to contribute to the outcry against the verdict (as reported in Chatelaine) is a sign of public intellectualism working against celebrity, a situation I don’t recall that Posner anticipated. Unfortunately, appealing to the popularity of a view—such as the view that Ghomeshi must be guilty because more than 20 women came forward to report him, and many more people believe these 20 to be telling the truth—is a fallacy recognized in philosophy. That the fallacy was probably first recognized by now dead white men does not totally invalidate the concerns it raises.
And yet I want to reflect on occasions when an appeal to popularity (and to a related perception of justice) might be acceptable. Most of the public intellectual arguments about the Ghomeshi trial are not, in fact, about the case in specific but about similar personal experiences and the criminal justice system in general. It is perfectly intellectual and reasonable to compare experience with theory, especially when numerous experiences are also being compared to increase the validity of the sample. These arguments are a kind of metacommentary, a sophisticated way of arguing by contextualizing a problem as systemic. They reminded me of how, in a televised campus debate in 1989, David Suzuki hotly responded to Philippe Rushton’s seemingly meticulous but actually very slippery arguments about genetic causes of meaningful racial difference: Suzuki at first seemed less intellectual but was almost certainly strategically playing to the crowd—an appeal to popularity likely meant to influence public perception that was at risk of becoming more racist—and commenting not on Rushton’s specific science but on the scientific system in general, including the university and knowledge translation in the mass media, that allowed Rushton’s minimally believed views to gain disproportionate attention and credibility. In my view of the Ghomeshi trial, the protestors wanted to increase the credibility of views that are disproportionately ignored but usually valid, just hard to prove. In a way, climate scientists have to do the same: raise awareness of systemic problems that can be hard to prove in isolated cases that should not be considered in isolation.
Indeed, one of the problems in a society with de facto permissiveness toward sexual assault is that survivors are isolated. Possibly to counteract this isolation, two complainants against Ghomeshi wrote thousands of emails to each other before the trial. Anne Kingston in Maclean’s explained, however, that “[t]he charge of possible collusion prevented the Crown from mounting a ‘similar fact’ case, one that would use the similarities of the three situations to contend that Ghomeshi had a propensity to act in the ways described by the complainants.” His credibility was unintentionally assured partly because of the emails exchanged between complainants. I haven’t read their emails except for quotations probably selected for their enthusiastically vengeful tones, but I can imagine that they were not only collusive but, like the protests, also expressions of solidarity and encouragement. More such expressions are needed to enable survivors to come forward. The tragedy of the public interest in my view is not that justice was miscarried in this case but that we do not yet have a sufficiently supportive and protective anti-violence sexual culture. In a conversation on the day of the verdict with one of my students, I heard about Muslim women who have gained agency in private or relatively private situations from feminist encouragement in the wider public culture, and I wish for more such encouragement now.
Some commentators, such as Ashifa Kassam in The Guardian and Jesse Brown at Canadaland.com, argue that Ghomeshi’s acquittal is a terrible discouragement, but I partly disagree. No doubt the verdict will have a chilling effect on communications between complainants against the same person, but it does not seem to have had this effect on the wider public. I would point to public outcry, media attention, and increased solidarity as positive outcomes, along with the potential for collective intellectualism, though the positivity is moderated considerably by the fact that the outcomes were already achieved before the verdict. But this fact, too, is an encouragement, because it suggests that survivors have power independent of the power of the criminal justice system: it’s a power linked to academic freedom and freedoms of association, speech, and the media, and it came largely from people who not only believe, but also believe in, each other.
I’m now curious about different standards related to legal credibility: reasonable doubt, reasonable probability, and especially reasonable belief. Is it reasonable to doubt the complainants in the Ghomeshi trial based on how their actions and statements affected their credibility? I think so. Is it probable that at least one of the many women who came forward had a legitimate allegation against Ghomeshi? Yes. Is it reasonable to believe more survivors? Also, absolutely, yes.
P.S. 3/29/2016: Ghomeshi's next trial is likely to focus on sexual harassment in the workplace, and Laura Fraser observed today that the new complainant has apparently not had anything but a professional relationship with him. The changing context, from intimacy to workplace (a more public space), might provide the prosecution with witnesses and even recordings that would corroborate testimony. These potential advantages do not change the fact that the standard of reasonable doubt is easier to reach than the standard of reasonable belief (an imbalance intended to protect the presumption of innocence), but they improve the odds that a collective credibility will enable a conviction when it is warranted.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “Public Intellectualism, Credibility, and the Ghomeshi Trial.” Publicly Interested. 27 Mar. 2016. Web. [date of access]
Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.