November 13, 2014

Ghomeshi-gate: Our Dialogue Around Jian Ghomeshi, Masculinity & Power.


“With,” my partner corrected, “You mean make love ‘with’ someone. It’s something between two people; something consensual, a sharing of the deepest kind.”

We had been discussing esoterics around sex and relationships, and I had asserted my thoughts by using a term I had become accustomed to using: “making love ‘to’ someone.”

I realized my partner was in fact correct: my verbiage, while the norm, did somehow imply objectification and possibly that the act may not be mutually participatory.

He had reminded me to be careful with my word choice, as even that can imply subtle imbalances of power. Words and thoughts are intimately linked, and both precede the actions we choose, even if that action is manifested as dialogue between two people, a nation or our world.

That conversation was several weeks before Toronto, Canada, when the world erupted over the allegations uncovered by the Toronto Star, with what has since been dubbed “Ghomeshi-gate.”

Jian Ghomeshi himself has issued little in the way of a defense so far, other than alluding to acts he refers to as a “mild form” of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” acts that he believes were consensual.

As ironic as it was bewildering, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, unaware of these allegations, soon after published his story of being raised in an Iranian immigrant family, a story in which Ghomeshi refers to Iran as an “evil place”—one we might acknowledge with a historically poor gender [and human] rights record where the prevalence of both domestic and political violence runs high.

In the days since (it has, strangely, only been 16 days since the Star article), traditional and social media has spilled over with further allegations and commentaries from “experts” in sex crimes, victims of said crimes, and former allies of Ghomeshi.

We have also seen a plethora of editorials and op-eds from seemingly anyone and everyone who felt they had something to add to the undebatable debate on the salience of addressing intimate-partner violence, or the debatable discussion on Ghomeshi’s innocence.

Perhaps this article places me in one of those categories as well. Yet, there are some of us who have engaged in Schadenfreude—something in us that, while empathizing for the alleged victims, and desiring retribution (which arguably began on October 29th) for the alleged perpetrator, if found guilty, might experience guilty pleasure in witnessing the breaking of such a popular public figure. One who, with a torn façade, and ruined career prospects, appears to have since resorted to hermitage.

These sentiments can be dangerous, and makes us as a nation and community no better morally: Schadenfreude is a close cousin of the Bully and at worst can color a justice system that we have, as a nation, worked so hard to build.

Indeed it has given me pause to remind myself of the etymology of the word “opinion,” a derivation from the old French, referring to “a judgment founded on probabilities.” At this point while the situation is highly suspicious, with probabilities pointing in favor of one possibility, there may in fact be many. As such, it disturbs me to read that “experts” and some of Ghomeshi’s former friends and colleagues say in their commentaries with immense conviction that he committed the crimes he was accused of.

Those allegations should rightfully remain at this time with the alleged victims, witnesses and Ghomeshi himself, to be responded to lawfully and justly by those bodies we trust to seek the truth. The involvement of a third-party investigations unit, in addition to the Toronto Police sex crimes unit, is a step in the right direction and a nod to the importance of due procedure and protocol.

Allegations, though highly suspicious, remain allegations until reviewed and analyzed in our criminal justice system. That said, let me be absolutely clear that my position in no way undermines the salience of victims speaking out as they have. The medical literature and my own limited experience with patients who have experienced such violence has taught me that to disclose this experience, either openly or in trust, is a vital part of a long process of healing for themselves and sometimes even for the perpetrator. Their courage has been imperative not only in this investigation, but in creating a larger discussion around a topic that we often hesitate to discuss so liberally.

It is crucial, I think, when asserting an opinion on an issue as serious as these allegations, that one discloses their own background and possible bias. I am, as one might gather, a woman, one who like many others, may have been referred to by myriad of subordinative conjectures or viewed with a number of lenses not dissimilar as those of the alleged victims. I am also a pediatrics physician, albeit one in training, who has had multiple first-hand encounters with young victims of sexual and physical abuse—both directly through a specialty service that dealt with child protection, and more subtly through adolescent health clinics where the topic of sexuality, and what constitutes “normal” sexual behavior was often brought up by curious and confused developing minds—male and female alike.

On a more personal note, I have, in the past, dated someone in the entertainment industry who held very disparate public and private lives. This relationship was not one where I was disempowered; I still hold an enormous amount of respect for him. It was however a relationship in which I was made very aware of his power, his ego’s struggle, and oftentimes the cognitive dissonance associated with maintaining integrity in both his public and private spheres. The inability to attend to the latter fielded a number of personal causalities of which I was but one.

This juggling of both a private and public life is an issue that has, rightfully so, taken a backseat in the Ghomeshi scandal, but it is still an essential factor that cannot be ignored. Like Ghomeshi, I was also born in England and moved to Canada when I was seven. Like Ghomeshi, I am the daughter of first-generation immigrants.

On the other-hand, I share the demographic of age and gender as the alleged victims, and thus their stories are relatable to me. Like the alleged victims, I also have firsthand experience of what it is like to speak out against injustices, both personally and for my patients, and while I have been armed with equal parts documentation and naiveté, I can relate to feeling unheard and ignored because of where I was placed on the bureaucratic ladder, where the rung I stood on felt more like quicksand in difficult situations.

What I have to say henceforth has surely been colored by all of these experiences and many more that my word-count, and arguably readership interest, prohibits me to discuss here. These collective experiences do not make me unique; they may however make my views understandable to some, while also spawning counterpoints from those with the loudest dissenting opinion. Both sides matter in this difficult discourse, and it has been my experience that we often learn most from those that stand in stark opposition to our own beliefs—they gift us with the tools to re-envision our own thoughts, pre-conceived notions, and our unique vantage point, while at once refining our values and bringing them into question.

Let me start by affirming that I simply cannot imagine what the multiple alleged victims, of Ghomeshi and of any other man or woman for that matter, may have felt during episodes where they were severely disempowered physically, sexually and/or emotionally. I do, however, see this as an opportunity to transform the anger that has erupted in our community into an opportunity to learn and evolve. The time is ripe to participate actively in a revolutionary conversation around power and masculinity.

This has in many ways been a remarkable year for feminist (I use that term as it refers to attempts to shift gender power imbalances) discourse so far. We have had novel discussions related to what it means to be a feminist—we all remember Emma Watson’s speech and this year also marked the election of Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who gave a tangible face to strong yet approachable and compassionate female leadership in a traditionally male-dominated role.

This is contrasted with topical front page stories and media segments reporting on everything from “catcalls” to domestic violence, particularly in professional sports where women were victims of powerful, well-respected men. The Oscar Pistorius trial, with an appeal of his sentence currently underway, birthed dialogue on domestic violence at the extreme, and is also cloaked in immense power discrepancies that surround violent behavior behind closed doors, pun unintended.

Clearly, what happens in the bedroom is not always between two people; when one alleges disempowerment or frank abuse, it becomes everyone’s business, and as my partner innocently asserted, it starts with the words we use.

The Ghomeshi scandal is not unique in this, but is in some ways a canary in the goldmine that tells us as a nation that we desperately need a new narrative on power and masculinity. These views in turn influence our policy on violence of any and all kinds, including what Johan Galtung coined as “structural violence,” a reference to the structural social systems that disadvantage certain individuals; workplace hierarchy is but one example of this.

Indeed, while discourse over the last 16 days has, appropriately, been centered around the silent victims of sexual and physical abuse, and issues around consent in sexual interactions, in my opinion, “Ghomeshi-Gate” should be distilled into a reexamination and subsequent redefinition of the tenets of masculinity and power. This is not an issue of one man’s slightly gauche admission of his sexual preferences, but rather, his tendency towards exercising his power and conception of masculinity in the most dispassionate, sadistic and disempowering of ways. Failing to recognize this is to fail to permit the birth of new stories, to gloss over the more unpalatable of concerns and to ignore the proverbial elephant in the room: because our society, legislation, and leadership rests and is arguably founded on the shoulders of that same elephant.

What does it really mean to be masculine today? What does it mean to be truly powerful? One cannot make assumptions of why Ghomeshi allegedly did what he did, but what interests me, perhaps because of my medical background is, should the allegations prove true, at what point Ghomeshi felt that to be masculine is to be sexually and physically dominant? At what point did he perhaps equate his power to another’s physical submission?

Did his role as a well-liked, charismatic, oft-complimented and genuinely-talented broadcaster translate into a desire to fuel a fragile, insecure and apparently anxious ego through the easiest way he could think of—gaming women with sexual and physical violence? The topic of “consent,” I feel, is merely simplifying the debate. Of course such behavior is non-consensual. Implicit in such behavior, where one degrades another’s dignity through violence of any kind, is that it is non-consensual at least at some level. A violation cannot be consensual by definition.

Noam Chomsky is well known for his work as a political commentator, but he is a trained linguist that makes poignant points about the link between language and thought, and how they are mutually reinforcing. John Locke, a well-known 17th century philosopher, has been quoted as saying, “I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts.” The discourse around masculinity and power and its derivatives, of which “Ghomeshi-gate” is but one of many to come, starts with the words we choose to say. These are at once preceded and reinforced by thought, and together these birth actions. It is a choice, after all: the intimidation, the cat-calls, the stares, the suggestions, the touches, the slaps, the punches, the penetration.

Victims do not choose the tears, the fear, the anxiety, the shame, the depression, the bruises, the ignorance, the blame. All of these are clear violations of power and dignity, whether, man-to-man, man-to-woman, or woman-to-woman—in the bedroom, the boardroom, and everywhere in between. These all matter, and it’s all memorable, for better or worse. These all form the basis of how we engage with one another, and how comfortable we feel to speak up; historically the ones with the most clout are heard louder, and thus more easily believed, at least initially.

Social media has tipped the scale of this power slightly; everyone now has the opportunity to speak and be heard, and to be amplified around the world if they desire. This power comes with the responsibility that those who choose to speak will speak in their truth. Alas, to feed one’s truth is different from feeding another’s anger—only one feels liberating and healing.

Yet we still have a way to go in terms of creating a more balanced field in workplaces and industries that rely on professional hierarchy. How do we give fair and just hearing to those lower on the professional ladder? To do so is to acknowledge they too have rights and dignity that equate to those more senior in experience, and sometimes in wisdom. To truly acknowledge this is difficult, and requires a deeper examination of communication structures in the workplace, protections for the most vulnerable, and an acknowledgement of the verbal and nonverbal behaviours that underlie intimidation and power. That is, it requires a real structural renaissance…one that is long overdue.

Ghomeshi rose to fame through his ability to connect with listeners while discussing difficult and controversial topics. Ironically, not unlike a Shakespearean tragedy, if these allegations prove true, he will be remembered in infamy, for falling prey to his fatal flaw: confusing power with domination and masculinity with intimidation, all while inadvertently having led a city, nation and the world into perhaps his most powerful and germane conversation yet.

To the alleged victims of this and similar tragedies: thank you for your bravery. Yet, know there is a reason the story of David and Goliath remains but a story; we know that to truly confront injustices dealt by those in power, we need more than just courage. That’s where champions and real life Giants come in—they allow you to climb onto their shoulders so your whispers can be heard and perhaps considered. Then perhaps respected and addressed.

Investigative reporting is oftentimes this proverbial Giant in industries where Goliath-like hierarchy is ingrained. It is where the status quo of the newbies is to obey, be unseen, and sadly too-often unheard. Never forget your own Power. The right answers and the right next steps are always within you. It’s just that sometimes you might need someone to hoist you up to speak them. Know that all it takes is one Giant to listen. Just one to believe.

To those of us not directly involved in “Ghomeshi-Gate,” let us remain listeners who are compassionate yet critical, active yet non-judgmental, supportive yet engaged while this conversation and investigation continues unfold. Don’t let angry opinions allow it to unravel, thus dividing us and precluding true evolution and healing. Allow the apparent chaos to plant seeds of difficult and necessary conversations with the men and women we care for—both young and old.

Let this be a time to have honest discussions around masculinity and power, which form a requisite prima facie foundation for any bona-fied discourse on sexual, emotional and physical violence. Build bridges of trust and new beginnings for more uplifting and empowering stories. I am hopeful we can refrain from Schadenfreude while seeing all shades of humanity in this tragedy. Surely we can all relate to aspects of the alleged victims and the perpetrator, if we possess the courage and honesty to look hard enough at our own flaws and histories.

I am hopeful that while our predilection towards fear and anger might be reactionary, that we can ultimately choose equipoise and equanimity in our discussions while also allowing for a fair and just investigation. This begins with our words, our thoughts and opinions, and subsequently our actions. Our future stories, and those told by our children, depend on it. Indeed, new stories are waiting—for all of us.


***I would like to thank my partner Christopher for inspiring me everyday and providing me with a compassionate and wise lens through which to view the world.


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Author: Amitha Kalaichandran

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Wikipedia


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