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.