Several years ago, I was advising a client on how to best build a powerful lobby. We were looking for the right “hot button issue” to weave into our narrative. The issue needed to be high profile and perfectly illustrate why our ask (a change to public policy) was necessary.
When it comes to driving social change and winning in the court of public opinion, a hot button issue is known to lobbyists as a “hill to die on.” If you’re going to wade into the fray, you’ve got to choose the right hill.
For a while, it seemed as though the Jian Ghomeshi case was a perfect hill for the growing army of indignant women (and men) who have had enough of high profile men abusing their privilege, breaking the law and getting away with it.
When Ghomeshi was acquitted on all charges in late March, public outrage was swift. Protesters began using the hashtag #WeBelieveTheVictims. Ghomeshi’s lawyer, Marie Henein was publicly excoriated for “betraying” her “sisters.” My Facebook feed lit up with commentary about how it was a “sad day for women in Canada.”
Ghomeshi’s reputation is (rightfully) destroyed. He lost a huge job and will never again occupy the esteemed place he once held in Canadian culture. The complainants’ testimony painted a clear picture of Ghomeshi as creepy, ego-maniacal, sadistic and disturbingly violent. But as details of Justice William B. Horkins’ ruling came to light, something else became very clear: Ghomeshi is no hill for feminists to die on.
When it comes to handling sexual assault, the current justice system is deeply flawed. The legal cards — not to mention our existing social norms that continue to reinforce male privilege when the going gets tough — are often stacked against complainants. This is not fair, but as I tell my clients all the time (and to quote the great Byron Katie) when you fight with reality you only lose 100 per cent of the time. It takes immense courage to hold an accused sex offender accountable for his crimes. But courage isn’t enough. It also takes preparation and respect for the legal system: tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
In this case, Ghomeshi’s accusers were unprepared and flouted basic rules and recommendations of the court, their lawyers and police: don’t talk to the media (they did), don’t communicate with each other (they did, agreeing via text to “sink the prick”), and then of course there was the not insignificant detail of telling the whole truth. These factors undermined the collective credibility of the accusers. And thus Justice Horkins’ ruling in favour of Canada’s most despised metrosexual.
Proponents of “identity politics” (people who look at the continued gender disparity of our world and vow to side with women no matter what) saw this ruling as a huge step back for women. I think they weaken their cause by blinding themselves to fact.
“Ghomeshi’s accusers were unprepared and flouted basic rules and recommendations of the court, their lawyers and police”
When I was in college, I witnessed a sexual assault trial. As I listened to the complainant describe the details of her ordeal and withstand the harsh cross-examination of the defense attorney, I was struck by her courage and preparedness. She brought her A-game. The accuser came off like an oaf. She still lost. But I believed her. Not because she was a “sister” but because she showed up at court 100 per cent ready.
It is right and good that Ghomeshi lost his job, and has been held accountable in the court of public opinion. I appreciate the women who had the courage to accuse him and hold him accountable. We can only hope the complainants in Ghomeshi’s June trial are better prepared to deal with the harshness of a sexual assault trial. It’s a flawed system but it sometimes works. And for now, it’s the best we’ve got.