Jian Ghomeshi and the bystander effect

| November 6, 2014
Photo: flickr/Pablo

With the news that Jian Ghomeshi was booted from the CBC, everyone I knew had feelings. I've spent the last week fielding questions and comments from people, ranging from "What exactly is BDSM?" to "How could someone so beloved have done this?"

But for me, there was only one burning question: How did he get away with it for so long?

Countless times over the past week, I've been asked whether I was shocked to hear that such an "icon" could have been accused of such heinous acts and the truth is that I wasn't the least bit surprised.

Last year, I read the thinly veiled call-out of Jian's lecherous behaviour on XoJane and saw the intense backlash the author received. She hadn't even dared to call him out by name and she endured harassment and threats from Ghomeshi supporters. To see so many "progressive" and even, dare I say, feminist-identified folks disbelieving her account of her date with Ghomeshi was devastating, but not surprising.

Sadly, it is not our disbelief that has haunted me this week. Disbelieving women is the status quo in this country.

Rather, it is the myriad of women who've responded to the allegations against Ghomeshi with "Finally!"

The rumour mill has been churning out stories about Ghomeshi's indiscretions for years, even decades.

As the news broke, people came forward to tell their own horror stories of being assaulted on dates, witnessing harassing behaviour in the workplace and being actively discouraged from taking internships at "Q" because of Ghomeshi's behaviour. In fact, CBC management is now under the microscope for having supposedly ignored many, many warning signs.

As a public educator, I've facilitated countless workshops on sexual violence, consent and engaging bystanders. When I ask people why they fail to speak out when they hear about an abuser in their midst, the number one response I hear is "I didn't want to start a rumour."

When people heard that Jerry Sandusky, coach at Penn State, was at the very least, acting inappropriately with young boys, people kept their mouths shut because they "didn't want to start a rumour" and besides, he was a great coach!

Even though rumours had swirled for years that Dominique Strauss-Kahn was "pushy" with women, we were quick to condemn a maid of colour who went public with having been sexually assaulted by him.

When a young woman was sexually assaulted at a party in Steubenville, Ohio, four adults who found out actively covered it up.

If doing this work for over a decade has taught me anything, it's that one person's "rumour" is another person's whispered warning.

How many women's lives would have been dramatically improved if we'd acted on the things we've heard and seen over time, rather than defaulting to silence?

How many women would still be with us if we'd had the courage to investigate "rumours" and stop the abuser from continuing to harm others?

Although there is an important conversation happening about the justice system and the reasons why women don't report, the reality is that abusers don't even face societal consequences, let alone legal ones. Men who are "rumoured" to be abusers are still invited to our parties, followed on social media and treated as comrades. Women who speak out against them are silenced and ostracized.

What this country needs right now is fewer "But I loved 'Q'!" editorials and more concrete resources for community support. We need to equip bystanders with safe, practical and effective tools for intervening.

We need to speak up when we hear people making flippant remarks about sexual violence. We need to have the courage to call out our friends, family members or coworkers.

Rather than telling women "not to party with that guy," let's stop inviting that guy to party with us. Period. When a colleague divulges that she's being harassed, support her. When you see a guy making someone else uncomfortable at a bus stop, don't look away. Check in with them. Ask them if they need help. Someone sends you a naked picture of a girl you know? Don't forward it; delete it.

The tools to make a difference are at our disposal. We just need to pick them up.

If you have a platform, have the courage to use it. I want to see more powerful statements from equally famous men calling out Ghomeshi and others like him. I want to see us standing in solidarity with survivors using whatever platform we have to make gender-based violence abnormal rather than the norm.

A guy who has made his career as a trash talking sock puppet had the courage to call out the environment that allowed Ghomeshi to flourish. If he can do it, you can do it, too.


Julie S. Lalonde is an award winning social justice advocate based out of Ottawa. She works with various women's organizations on the issues of sexual violence, reproductive justice and feminist gerontology. You can follow her rants about rape culture, Canadian politics and VW Beetles @JulieSLalonde

Photo: flickr/Pablo




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