Trudeau, #MeToo, and a poisoned discussion

For Maclean’s on July 23, 2018 

#MeToo, in most respects, has been an undeniable force for good. This movement of education and empowerment, of courage and justice, has shattered the silence around sexual misconduct across industries, exposed the pervasiveness and severity of predation at the hands of powerful, often respected men, and revealed the machinations that simultaneously enable and protect perpetrators while punishing victims.

There was, however, an unwise preoccupation with anger in the movement’s early days, where “female rage” was celebrated, stoked, and uncritically presented as virtue. Men who voiced sincere, if misguided, reservations about a retroactive application of norms—concerns that past, imperfect conduct would be stripped of context and human error, and reframed as criminal—were as aggressively ridiculed as those forewarning of absurd inevitabilities.

But those calling for nuance, who felt it crucial to meet honest apprehension with meaningful dialogue, were largely dismissed and told this was a time for anger, not discussion. All behaviour was to be viewed through a Manichean lens if women were to make progress. Al Franken and Harvey Weinstein were equally dangerous and irredeemable. That awkward night years ago wasn’t merely a regrettable consensual experience to be learned from, but an event to resurrect, deconstruct, and mine trauma from. Every woman became, to some degree, a “survivor,” and all men were to be viewed with suspicion because all transgressions, in the end, rendered one a monster.

If nothing else, the recent controversy surrounding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a decades-old account of a stray hand served to demonstrate how the resistance to nuance didn’t insulate this important movement from bad-faith actors—but rather, has directly enabled those fuelled by disdain for women and feminism, not to mention a visceral hatred of men who consider themselves allies, to co-opt and weaponize #MeToo’s intent for malicious gain.

In many ways, the question of exactly what happened at British Columbia’s Kokanee Summit festival 18 years ago between Trudeau, then a 28-year-old schoolteacher, and Rose Knight, a reporter for the Creston Valley Advance, matters as much as how each party chose to respond when allegations of his misconduct were thrust back into the spotlight—this time, notably, without the knowledge or consent of the woman involved.

The initial description of the incident, as per the resurfaced, unsigned “Open Eyes” editorial in the Advance, accused Trudeau of “groping” and “inappropriately handling” of the reporter on assignment. And while the publisher has since suggested it was “a very brief touch” on Knight’s backside, her then-supervisors—who both corroborated Knight’s account and vouched for her excellent reputation and solid character—failed to offer any explanation as to why they felt this was the appropriate avenue for handling the situation.

No matter the exact details of the interaction—neither Knight nor Trudeau are willing to clarify—she felt disrespected enough to seek an apology which, as her July 6 press release on the matter reiterates, she received the next day. “I did not pursue the incident at the time and I will not be pursuing the incident further,” she went on. “I will not be providing any further details or information. The debate, if it continues, will continue without my involvement.”

Knight seemed content with having left the matter back in August of 2000. She did not, however, demand all discussion cease, nor did she suggest that probing Trudeau on the details of the incident would violate her request for privacy. She simply and clearly stated she wants no part of what devolved into a partisan charade, one which Trudeau arguably stoked through his evasive, ambiguous, and dismissive lines of response.

It’s a cynical, calculated strategy that backfired—much to the delight of some longtime critics primed for a #MeToo “witch hunt.”

Whether fuelled by personal resentment or partisan vendetta, those eager to take this “feminist” Prime Minister down a notch forced a victim narrative on the woman who had already categorically rejected that frame. In reducing Knight to little more than a means to their own selfish ends, Trudeau’s foes entitled themselves to violate this woman in one way, so as to more effectively chastise him for having done so in another. What’s more, by inflating the severity of Trudeau’s transgression and classifying him a sexual predator, these disingenuous advocates of Knight—many whose histories reveal a pattern of situational belief and concern for survivors—only served to devalue the meaning of sexual predation and diminish the severity of sexual violence.

But it wasn’t just bad-faith partisan actors who poisoned the discourse here. Some feminists authorized themselves to speak for Knight, offering a different grievance narrative to satisfy their own ideological end, saying that reporters had “sent women back decades” and “enabled perpetrators” simply because they sought to confirm the details of alleged prior misconduct at the hands of a now-powerful man. In effect, these individuals chastised and shamed journalists for having dared to “believe women.” And far from doing harm, the press acted precisely how #MeToo demands: they took every allegation of sexual impropriety seriously, especially when it seems out of character for the perpetrator and the instinct is to disbelieve the complainant.

One positive—if belated—shift did occur within this group, however: a contingent of previously uncompromising actors were willing to acknowledge that transgressions indeed exist on a spectrum, and that pretending otherwise is both unreasonable and irresponsible. Without saying the words, they even embraced the notion of due process—another crucial, yet habitually mocked element in #MeToo conversations—warming to the idea that yes, men are redeemable, and that yes, minor transgressions are minor. Even forgivable.

This eminently practical mindset should have long been fundamental to the feminist’s cause. When men have to ask questions privately out of fear of public reprimand, it suggests there’s something wrong with what we’ve allowed to become the norm in these discussions. When women opt to endorse an (assumedly) unconventional view—that a prevailing narrative is infantilizing or that the favoured approach is counterproductive—rather than voice it over fears of the same, it confirms it. Education and awareness cannot lead to behavioural change without room for honest inquiry, reasonable debate, robust disagreement, and the right to safely be wrong.

On matters of feminism, sexuality, relationships, and misconduct, the loudest voices aren’t always the wisest, and keeping to one or two personalities to offer insight or expertise only serves to create a dangerous illusion of consensus—this false agreement even more troubling when fuelled by hyperbole and tribalism.

When the notion of belief demands a blind, uncritical application of it—be it toward the person alleging misconduct or the one who stands accused—the merits of the allegation cannot be fairly assessed. When the mere acknowledgment of facts in a complex situation is presumed to be harmful, and when hypotheticals are presented as certain consequence in an effort to gain control over discussion, activists threaten to create a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy of worst-case scenarios.

Reacting defensively on behalf of every woman to fit a tidy narrative only serves to infantilize all women. This habit will not create a safer future, nor persuade those who instinctively distrust the accuser when allegations are made, nor do much other than offer skeptics reason to wrongly think that women are unable to take fair measure of where responsibility lies. And when men are led to believe that women are so delicate that a perceived violation is, say, inevitable by way of interacting at all, it’s impossible to have any meaningful exchange regarding institutional failures, evolving boundaries, and the complicated conditions women are made to navigate daily.

The matter of Knight and Trudeau was the perfect opportunity to debate the boundaries of media, including when and why—or if—limits can be relaxed. It would have been worth exploring the arguably routine, if still wrong, nature of Trudeau’s conduct, too. And in demanding all discussion be shut down, those who often initiate these sort of conversations only robbed themselves of the chance; indeed, the limits imposed on exchanges thus far have only served to fuel the paranoias of bad-faith actors. That said, for all the sniping between the two opposing camps, a discussion about any sort of boundaries was the target of neither.

With no one willing to admit having mismanaged this debate, there’s reason to believe these mistakes will be repeated, too. This is to be expected, to a point—the movement continues to evolve—but both sides refusing to correct course doesn’t inspire confidence in the movement’s future.

If #MeToo hopes to escape the confines of a hashtag and mature into a stronger, lasting force, those who are strangling the discussion must be willing to release their unyielding grip.

A Word To My Critics:

To those accusing me of seeking to defend Blatchford, as intent to undermine Guthrie/Reilly, or as somehow  actively championing an odious twitter persona I’m on the record as having no sympathy for:

My intention in writing this piece (an incredibly shortened, edited version of my lengthy submission) was to promote an honest discussion about the case itself, because either ruling will only serve to further inflame the matter.

Because all parties involved (and their supporters) are so emotionally-invested in the outcome, it seems my submission has been taken as having some nefarious, ulterior motive.

After having read through the documents made public, I am genuinely concerned about the fallout should a verdict not favour the complainants.

A few things to note:

There were multiple inconsistencies during testimony, incomplete/one-sided Storifys of conversations/dialogue between Elliott and Guthrie/Reilly which misrepresented who initiated the exchange; a “shifting evidentiary foundation” due to the repeated locking/unlocking of the  – until then – fully accessible to the Court, public Twitter accounts of the complainants.

None of this diminishes the complainants’ perceived sense of fear, nor does it excuse Eliiott’s alleged behaviour. What It does, however, is serve to remind of the complexity of this case. Asking questions, discussing the case in its entirety, doesn’t equate disbelieving or blaming the victim.

To the contrary, should the judge rule in Elliott’s favour, it ensures the focus remains on the Crown’s potential shortcomings rather than the validity of the complainants’ experience.

One can believe the allegations, even support the complainants, while recognizing evidentiary weaknesses.

It should be noted the Crown offered no final verbal submission, nor was a written submission made publicly available.

Women already face undue suspicion when alleging intimidation, harassment, or sexual assault. And given the slim chances of a satisfactory legal outcome, when weighed against the emotional investment and inevitable fallout many decide it isn’t worth the trade-off, so violations go unreported.

I worry that an unwelcome verdict will make matters worse, and that’s why a thorough examination of the case, in my view, is crucial.

Given the blowback, in the future, when writing on contentious issues/situations, I’ll post to this blog so I can go on at length and ensure a thorough – and clear – reading on the matter.

UPDATE:

Just published: “Crown lawyer Marnie Goldenberg submitted her closing statement to the court in writing and declined media requests to release copies. She granted Metro permission to read the statement on Tuesday.”

“Mr. Elliot sent copious amounts of obsessive, harassing tweets where he tweeted ‘at’ the complainants, mentioned their handles, mentioned the hashtags created by Ms. Guthrie, sent subtweets at the complainants, monitored their feeds, etc. He did this knowing that they blocked him and that they did not want contact with him,” Goldenberg wrote.

Citing Guthrie’s testimony, Goldenberg took issue with the defence position that Guthrie and Reilly must not have been truly afraid of Elliott because they called him out — even taunted him — on Twitter.

“There is no perfect victim,” Guthrie said at trial. “And there’s no perfect way to respond to being stalked, and I am… You don’t always just hide away. Sometimes you fight back a little bit.”

“Why should the complainants not be allowed to speak out against their harasser and warn others?” Goldenberg wrote. “Why should the complainants be criticized for speaking with their friends about being harassed? … (They) should be allowed to do so without fear that the actions of the harasser will be minimized. Just because they speak out, does not mean that they are not fearful and the harasser’s actions are not aggravating and serious.”

“Respectfully, there is nothing wrong with Ms. Guthrie being proactive. She is a strong articulate woman who wanted to speak out for others. She cared about other women and ‘their right to be on the internet without having their boundaries crossed by a creep,’” Goldenberg continued.

————

My submission as it appeared in the National Post on July 22, 2015:

Regardless of the verdict in the Guthrie case, we’ve already lost

An emotionally-charged criminal harassment case whose outcome, according to National Post columnist Christie Blatchford, risks serious ramifications for freedom of speech online, dates back to 2012; that was the year when Stephanie Guthrie decided to punish Bendilin Spurr.

Spurr, a young man from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., created a disturbing video game entitled “Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian” in which players punch an image of the noted feminist in the face with bloody results. The game delighted a self-styled group of “Men’s Rights Activists” (MRAs) — online commentators on perpetual watch for what they perceive as feminist provocations.

If MRAs are the extreme end of an increasingly savage online culture war, Guthrie and her fellow co-complainant, Heather Reilly, are their natural enemies. Engaged and prominent online feminists, both have been subjected to threats and harassment by MRAs — especially after they targeted Spurr.

Some of the abuse levelled at her from these activists (although not from the defendant in this case) was profoundly horrific. So much so that, in May 2014, Blatchford wrote:

“There isn’t a female writer, in the world probably, who isn’t routinely inundated with this sort of misogynist hate mail … Social media has only made a cruel old world more so, for everyone, but the viciousness of the communications my female colleagues and I receive, particularly when we dare to take a contrarian view of something, is stunning. While I am inured to it, it enrages me that Ms. Guthrie, just 29 and such a bold spirit, should feel it too. I can’t tell you how sad this made me that this truly great young woman is being subjected to this stuff.”

Under attack from the MRAs, Guthrie fought back, suggesting a “doxing” campaign against Spurr — Internet slang for publishing his personal information — and contacted his potential employers to make them aware of his online behaviour. It was this step that would form the crux of the fight between Guthrie and Gregory Allen Elliott.

Elliott is regarded by many as a notorious Twitter “troll” – an online commenter who deliberately, often profanely, seeks to provoke a hostile reaction. Elliott strongly disagreed with Guthrie’s tactics, and said so, crassly, numerous times. Guthrie took steps to block Elliott from accessing her tweets, but he was able to largely circumvent them and continue engaging with her and her online compatriots. It is those online activities that constitute the alleged stalking and harassment. (Elliott has also been charged with breaking a peace bond in relation to his sustained tweeting.)

A verdict in this matter is expected in the fall. Blatchford has been covering the proceedings for the years that they have ground on. In her past writings, while never masking her exasperation for the behaviour of all parties involved, she seemed empathetic to Guthrie.

That was, until last week.

In a column that drew heated online criticism, Blatchford called Guthrie’s perceived vulnerability into question, doubting just how much Guthrie felt she was at risk. Specifically, she wrote, “The criminal harassment charge is rooted in the alleged victim’s perception of the offending conduct … (if) the alleged victims ‘reasonably, in all the circumstances fear for their safety’, that’s good enough.” “Elliott’s chief sin,” Blatchford continues, was that “he dared to disagree with the two young feminists and political activists.”

To suggest, as Blatchford appears to do, that harassment without explicit threats of physical or sexual harm should not qualify as criminal, is troublesome. Further, while much of Blatchford’s earlier writing on this topic had made clear that Guthrie was unquestionably the target of vile abuse from MRA activists, generally (although not Elliott, specifically). But that broader context was largely absent last week. Yes, a columnist only has so many words to cover a topic and content must be sacrificed. But absent a deeper explanation of what Guthrie has sincerely alleged to have endured, it’s easy to conclude that there’s nothing to see here.

And that isn’t so. If nothing else, the fact that the police and Crown pursued charges in the first place suggest the behaviour was beyond simple, even rude, disagreement, doesn’t it?

That being said, some of the backlash against Blatchford was misguided — particularly suggestions that Blatchford was personally responsible for online anger directed at Guthrie. Indeed, Guthrie has, sadly, been the target of that kind of abuse for years.

Guthrie may have been subject to yet another barrage of death threats and harassment at the hands of the MRA crowd in the wake of Blatchford’s column, but to suggest Blatchford intentionally incited this retaliation is unfair. Nor is Blatchford responsible for a campaign by a group of MRAs to cover Elliott’s legal bills — even though the campaign quotes from her writings on the matter.

Though I’m not personally familiar with either complainant, I have admired what I’ve seen of Guthrie’s public persona from afar. However, Guthrie and Reilly do assuredly belong to a subset of feminists who employ tactics that are not only unhelpful, but terribly counterproductive. They perceive themselves to be an online authority of feminism — they play to a virtual audience and engage in a culture of “calling out,” online mobbing, and doxing. They justify these actions by relying on the moral certainty of their personal cause.

Throughout the trial, Blatchford reported on the fact that Guthrie copped to her own bullying tactics. She’s been, arguably, as vindictive online as Elliott himself. It was, after all, with malicious intent that Guthrie sought to “sic the internet” on Spurr, testifying she “would not feel sorry” if his life were ruined, and would feel no sense of responsibility had he been driven to suicide following her call to mob. In her view, he’d have brought it on himself.

Should charges against Elliott be dismissed, Guthrie and Reilly, and their group of vocal public supporters, will be inundated with more misogynistic attacks from angry MRAs, including threats of rape or murder. It’s happened before. It will again. On the other hand, if the judge should rule that Elliott’s behaviour was criminal, thus vindicating Guthrie and Reilly, the response will be … pretty much the same.

As for Elliott, even if he’s acquitted, chances are his life will have been irrevocably damaged.

While we wait for the verdict, it’s worth nothing that this trial has become a proxy war between extremes — a battle between hard-line feminists and MRAs. This brutal online battle will continue to escalate, hardening hearts and coarsening our public debate.

To that end, regardless of the verdict, we’ve already lost.