One might dream that the Ghomeshi affair will prove to be a tipping-point for women. We are used to victims of sexual harassment—or worse—feeling alone, unable to act, confronted by institutions that too often victimize them again, either with a wall of disbelief, or with public procedures that expose their lives to the world and to the misogyny that remains so much a part of it. Post-Ghomeshi we see women, encouraged by other women, coming forward, even if, at this juncture, several of them possess their share of cultural capital, which never hurts.
We can hope, anyway. It was a welcome relief, after the Colin Kenny mess, that two female MPs felt able to complain about as-yet unspecified poor treatment by two male Liberal MPs, and—one might have thought—that Liberal leader Justin Trudeau took swift action.
But here’s where things suddenly got complicated. By taking the action he did—sidelining the two MPs pending an investigation—Trudeau is now being accused, incredibly, of “re-victimizing” the women—a truly shameful display of partisan politics by the NDP.
Suppose Trudeau had simply sat on the information. When this became common knowledge, as such things almost inevitably do, you can imagine the public drubbing he would have received. Instead, in marked contrast to, say, CBC management, he acted quickly and decisively. But in the narrow, stupid, debased politics on the Hill, this was an opportunity to smear him instead of lauding him for getting it right.
What do we know of these incidents? Not very much, in fact. Trudeau did not provide details of the objectionable conduct alleged against two of his MPs, nor did he identify the women, one of whom approached him directly with her complaint. The other, according to the NDP, went to Tom Mulcair. Neither, we are told, wanted to go public.
Well, no other party is going to out-feminist the NDP, by gum, not after Trudeau daringly staked out his pro-choice territory last year, and so fault had to be found. This was disempowering the victims, it was taking over, they should have been consulted first, etc.
Well…up to a point. If, so goes the refrain, we are going to expect women to come forward, including the majority who are not actresses, lawyers and/or MPs, certain guarantees have to be in place. If they want to stay anonymous, then so be it. If they prefer informal solutions, ditto. If they want to take formal measures, then they should be treated with respect every step of the way, by the institutions involved and by the public as well. The people on the receiving end of this kind of violence, in any case, get to decide how to proceed.
Yet, as with all ideological rulebooks, circumstances overflow the list of do’s and don’ts. Abused women in domestic assault cases have recanted in sufficient numbers that Crown Attorneys now proceed with many investigations regardless. The situation of abused women in the home is now much better understood—somebody must have listened to them—and investigators are expected to work though the terrible household dynamics to get to the truth.
Now, take a workplace. Should the victim (more on this term below) call all the shots? Suppose she disclosed that a co-worker had raped her on the premises, but she didn’t want to pursue this publicly—instead, she asks, could she just be reassigned to another floor. Is it sufficient to do as she requests?
We know that there is seldom if ever just one victim of a sexual predator. Is there not an obligation on the manager, once alerted, to ensure that no new victims are created? The answer is obvious enough that we are forced to agree, at least in principle, that more than an individual’s autonomy is involved.
Yet we both deny and insist upon the agency of a woman who has been abused. On the one hand, she is a “victim,” the passive recipient of violence; on the other, whatever she decides should be entirely dispositive of how her situation is handled.
Yes, it could be argued that Trudeau should have let the two women know that he was going to suspend the two MPs and make a public statement about it. It would have been courteous to do so. Yet as MPs they could not help but be aware that any action on Trudeau’s part was quickly going to be the talk of the Hill. Meghan Leslie, from her privacy high horse, conceded the obvious: Trudeau’s disciplining of his MPs would have inevitably come out. But she says the Liberals “could have dealt with it in a different way.”
The women, at this point, remain anonymous. Any investigation, one hopes, will be done discreetly—although, as it turns out, this is a new one for the House of Commons, so it’s presently up to the Speaker of the House and the Board of Internal Economy to deal with. But what was Trudeau supposed to do, when confronted directly?
I’m no admirer of the man, to put it mildly. But here he not only did the right thing, he did the only thing.
Meanwhile, if anyone has been paying attention, the ruling Conservatives nixed a proposal nine months ago to develop guidelines for dealing with sexual harassment in the Parliamentary workplace. Parliament is now wearing that one good and proper. Perhaps the political energy now being expended on roasting Trudeau could be put to better use. Just saying.