Thursday, March 31, 2016

On the Ghomeshi verdict

I've been mostly quiet on the Ghomeshi verdict because my problems with it are more nuanced than a lot of what I've read. It's a lot to think through. But the hard truth is this: we would never want anyone convicted on the evidence in that case.

At this point Occam's Razor suggests that Ghomeshi has assaulted multiple women, and I find it hard to believe that the complainants would have put themselves through the wringer without cause. But given that those complainants corresponded, making it look as though they colluded (against the advice of the crown!), and that they seemed to believe they could control what was released to give a scrubbed version of events, it became impossible to judge if they were telling the truth - even though I think they were, however badly.

Was justice served? It depends, as the very impressive (and unjustly criticized) Marie Henein says, on how you define it.

But I don't think justice was served.

The problem seems to be that the women facing Ghomeshi didn't feel they would be given a fair trial if they presented a messy, nuanced truth, and in confronting a system they saw as too broken to do its job, they made it impossible to tell whether or not they could be believed. That's a really big problem! Justice is not going to be served as long as it persists. As advocates of sexual assault survivors, we are failing them if we terrify them into this response.

Survivors don't need a system that believes everyone who reports sexual assault no matter what, as though their stories will only matter if we put them onto a pedestal. They need to matter because, dammit, they already do. Survivors need a system that recognizes that they wouldn't come forward and subject themselves to an inquiring and exhausting process unless something is wrong, and that treats them with the dignity they would be afforded if they were the subject of any other crime.

This problem is not something that we can fix by tweaking rules in the justice system or by treating sexual assault differently. For heaven's sake - the problem is that it's treated differently! We don't need to withdraw the presumption of innocence from the accused and force them to defend themselves, and we don't need to discount their stories. To do either risks throwing oppressed groups under the bus for the sake of a band-aid solution.

What we need is to make sure that the presumption of innocence in sexual assault cases is extended to both the accused and to survivors. The only way that's going to happen is if we acknowledge what's going wrong, and recognize how it shows that we need to change our attitudes about sex, consent, and very old ideas about women that are improving much too slowly. It's a tough societal issue that we all have to work to change, and as a result it's one that won't change all at once.

That's not satisfying, and it's not fast, and it's not perfect. But it's the only way to meaningful improvement. It is the only way we will make survivors feel safe enough to come forward every time, rather than living with sometimes crippling trauma and stigma. It is the only way that we can be more sure that justice will be served.

And I don't think we should have to settle for anything less just because it seems simpler.

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