Neutral Evil: The Problem With Refusing To Decide
Some ideas are powerful in human history, and keep coming up from people with very different belief systems in very different times and places:
“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
Elie Wiesel, Night
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.
John Stuart Mill, but typically paraphrased and attributed to Edmund Burke
A great deal has been written in recent days about Jian Ghomeshi. I’ve already written one post and I won’t link-farm here, but the story broke the public surface with his attempt to get his story out — that he was being suspended by CBC for his consensual sexual practices, because a vindictive ex and a cabal of liars were conspiring against him. It is fair to say that story has fallen apart. The count of accusers stands at nine now, two named (a lawyer and a prominent actress), describing conduct with core similarities that, as described, is most assuredly nonconsensual. Ghomeshi has clammed up, his crisis management firm Navigator has severed ties with him (I don’t have any inside information, but my experience with the world tells me, and this is mostly speculation based on other events, that the most likely scenario to cause such a rift is where the client has failed to tell the crisis management team everything they need to know to do their job), and as of early Friday, Amanda Palmer was declining to disinvite Ghomeshi to an event — though that afternoon, she folded.
Ghomeshi’s description of his conduct, perhaps before he decided to obey the First Rule of Holes (when in one, stop digging), was that it was consensual, which inexorably implicates BDSM communities. The reaction has been pretty swift, actually — we don’t like that we can be fired for consensual play, but that’s not what is alleged about Ghomeshi. He is accused of hitting and choking women without warning, and that doesn’t meet any definition of consent or ethics. The mainstream doesn’t understand us and is more tittilated by us than sympathetic, so when their gaze falls on us I always worry. I have been very relieved to see that so far elements of the mainstream media seem to have a good grasp that we’re not sticking up for what Ghomeshi is alleged to have done.
I’m writing now, though, because there are some people who, faced with what appears to be the impossibility of defending Ghomeshi on the merits as the survivors keep coming forward, instead choose a neutrality that is essentially Ghomeshi support. Mainstream allegations of sexual assault usually bring forth both the bald-faced slut-shaming and victim-silencing defenders, and the “neutral” defenders. But because this case has unfortunately implicated BDSMers, that someone prominent in BDSM communities takes that stance is particularly problematic for us.
I’m speaking of Janet Hardy. Readers of this blog or veterans of the 429 fight at Fetlife may recall that the fairest description of our attitude towards each other is that we don’t merely disagree, we detest each other. I detest her because of what she says, and she detests me because of the way I’ve spoken about what she says. To be fair to her, I set her up. I read what she was quoted by Tracy Clark-Flory saying*, and I figured like the Jack Nicholson character in A Few Good Men she was barely constraining the urge to bark out what she really thought, in a way that would be anathema to me and my allies, many of whom openly or privately say the same things about her that I do. To be fair to me, I didn’t twist her words. I got her to say exactly what she thinks, she had a fair opportunity to reject or reformulate the position and instead adopted it, and I used it and she didn’t like it one bit.
The conversation ranged across three spaces — a Facebook comment thread on something our mutual friend Clarisse Thorn posted, the comments to Part 6 of the There’s A War On series, the part about Fetlife and the Suggestion 429 effort to change Fetlife TOU to let people make an open report of a first-hand experience of sexual assault, and finally, when I handed her my formulation of her position and she agreed that was her position, my post on the NYC Consent Working Group page in Fetlife.
The issue there was whether Fetlife, with various protections to guard itself from liability (as an aside, unless you’re actually a Canadian media lawyer, I don’t care and won’t air what you think about the issue of Fetlife’s exposure), should let people use the Fetlife name — not even the wallet name — of a person when reporting the first-person account of a sexual assault. Hardy is against that, and against naming names unless the survivor reports to the criminal justice system.
I said what I thought she said and gave her a chance to adopt or clarify the formulation. I said, “that is what you’re saying, isn’t it? That you can’t know whether to believe them, so they should either go to the cops (we both recognize that’s usually a doomed enterprise) or shut up so as not to make people uncomfortable?” And she said, “Thomas: Unfortunately, yes, that is what I believe, although I don’t like it any better than you do.” She had her chance to say that she didn’t mean that. She had her chance to say that when presented that way, it was too harsh a stance. She didn’t say that. She didn’t qualify it. She said, “yes, that is what I believe.”
I’m raising this again because Hardy is still determined to provide predators social license to operate. With Ghomeshi in the news, she posted on another friend’s Facebook thread about Amanda Palmer’s now-abandoned defense of Ghomeshi:
I don’t know any of these people personally, I have been asked to be neither judge nor jury, I have no access to the facts except what’s been filtered through the media, and I don’t get to have an opinion specifically about Jian. I can certainly have a general opinion about abuse v. BDSM, but this specific case is not anybody’s business but Jian’s, that of the women involved, and their attorneys’.
I really hate being asked to armchair-quarterback this sort of thing. I hate even more my own tendency to *do* it, and I’m trying to stop.
[Emphasis mine.] After some back-and-forth, she added, “But I simply refuse to form an opinion about this specific case, because a) I don’t have enough information; b) my opinion doesn’t matter; and c) doing so implicitly supports a culture of court-of-public-opinion that I think is toxic.”
It’s false that her opinion doesn’t matter. I wish her opinion didn’t matter, and since I think her opinion is both wrong and dangerous, her opinion not mattering is an end I would like to achieve — that’s why I’m singling her out. Because what she says does matter. She has multiple books in print, books that are foundational texts and points of entry for people new to BDSM and polyamory. She has been on CNN, and she had a recent educational event moved to a larger venue because she drew several hundred people and exceeded the capacity of the original space. That doesn’t make her Drew Pinsky, but that’s an awfully big podium from which to claim lack of importance.
So back in 2012, Hardy backpedaled and said that the survivors could come forward and say what happened, and name names, but Fetlife didn’t have to host it:
The original question was whether FetLife had an obligation to host these complaints. Obviously, any bottom (or, for that matter, top) who believes themselves to have been abused has every right in the world to make their complaints known, with the understanding that they are risking a slander or libel suit. So do the friends of the abused person, if that’s a risk they feel it’s worth it to take.
But when they do — as they now have in Ghomeshi’s case, two of the now nine accusers using their names publicly — Hardy’s position is that no matter how many there are, no matter who they are, even if responsible media vets and prints their stories, she will refuse to form an opinion unless she is either on a jury, or gets to review the accounts herself.
Anyone who says this, and pretends it’s their general view of life and not a special rule for rape and abuse allegations, is lying, either to you or themselves. I’ve never talked to someone about a murder in the news and heard, “well, I didn’t hear all the evidence, so I’m not in a position to form an opinion.” We’ve probably all heard people with absolute certainty about what happened, despite a minimal command of the evidence, and we’ve probably all heard people who were more circumspect, who qualified their opinion because there might be more to it that they did not know. But I’ve never heard someone say they should not form an opinion of a murder case, an organized crime case, a public corruption case … just sexual assault and abuse.
There is a classic way talking heads handle disputed facts, it’s time-tested and it’s one I use myself pretty frequently, which is to take a disputed set of facts arguendo. We can say that if the Bagley indictment is accurate (as I did when I covered it) it was abuse, without resolving facts. We can say what we think of Lucy Decoutere’s account of Ghomeshi’s attack, based on how she related it, without signing on to her recitation of the facts. Andrea Zanin, in one of the most-read pieces on Ghomeshi from inside the BDSM community, did essentially that, saying for example what she though of the conduct alleged, including face-punching. It’s hard to argue against taking a stand on the facts alleged without taking a stand on whether they’re true. It’s hard to fault that approach unless you’re really trying to find a way to stay “neutral.”
Nobody Is Going To Adjudicate For Us
A lot of people in kinky communities want the criminal justice system to come in and make the hard decisions for them. That’s not going to happen.
If we tell people to report to the cops, which cops will they report to? These cops? These cops? These cops? This cop? This cop? The police chief who says, “don’t get pulled over” is a solution to rape by cops? Or the cop who touched off Slutwalk by saying that women get raped because they dress like sluts? Or all the departments that minimize rape reporting, deliberately misclassify it to minimize their stats? If the police don’t work for people who are not kinky, imagine what we’re asking when we tell kinky people to go to the cops? Everything I said in Part 4 of There’s A War On is true, and maybe in our current national moment of skepticism about how the watchmen are watching, fewer people will push back on that.
It isn’t a surprise that nobody went to the police about Ghomeshi before it broke in the press. He saved evidence of the assaults — this is not the first time an abuser has done that. Eddie Ball and his confederates kidnapped Japanese women studying in the US and tortured them nonconsensually, and kept video on the theory that the exposure of the video would be so embarrassing that they would never come forward. (It didn’t work for Ball, either. It is my understanding that Ball is still a member of the world-leading US prison population.) We don’t yet know exactly what was in the reported combination of texts, photos and video that Ghomeshi maintained, but whatever it was didn’t persuade CBC that his activities were innocent kink and instead prompted his immediate suspension, it has now been reported.
Every once in a while, there’s a conviction in a case of abuse between kinksters. In kink cases, the best indicator of conviction is either hospitalization that documents injuries, or video evidence, or both. It may be possible to get convictions in other circumstances (Jetton comes to mind, though the conviction was a misdemeanor). But basically those are the cases that get prosecuted. The presence of video evidence tells us that even if Ghomeshi is charged and convicted of a crime, he would not be an exception to that rule.
In Praise of Naming Names
Right now, the police are looking at Ghomeshi. They’re looking at Ghomeshi because several of the victims came forward. Several of the victims came forward because they knew about each other. They knew about each other because their allegations went public. Their allegations went public because they took the step of saying what happened to them, and who did it — not to the justice system, but to the media. If the Toronto Star had not gotten wind of this and probed and probed, they would never have gotten the story. And he’d still be doing the same thing to who knows how many young women.
In reality, the thing that finally burns through people’s skepticism about someone they like (or want to like, or have a stake in) is when too many survivors come forward to dismiss the allegations. The more independent the accusers and the more their allegations seems to describe a coherent pattern, the less the hypothesis of innocence scans. We look at the information available to us, and we make up our minds based on what we have available (and change our minds if the mix of information changes). But the first story has to break the surface for the rest of them to come out. If nobody is the first one, then the other people with stories to tell never come forward.
We can’t make anyone be first; survivors have to look after their own well-being before they worry about what they owe to others — they can’t be the ones that owe the obligations. As the injured parties, they have to be the ones to whom the rest of us owe. But when they do decide to come forward, our position has to be that we’ll make it possible for them to tell their stories. There’s no perfect, fair tribunal out there. (People taking a “cops or STFU” position implicitly argue that the criminal justice system is a final arbiter, but when folks want to believe in the accused, they reject or minimize even a jury conviction. The truth is, we all impose our own judgments on criminal allegations, adopting or rejecting indictments, verdicts and appeals as we see fit. Either that, or Casey Anthony is welcome to babysit your kids.) If we want to get to the bottom of anything, we need to get our facts where we can find them, and the only thing for it is to have a culture of transparency — not just for rape, but for fuckups and landmines, too; I’ve written about this before. But especially for rape and abuse. If we stiffarm the first survivor who comes forward, we’ll never hear the second and the third, and if we never hear from the second and the third, if they are out there but we never know about them, how can we fairly evaluate the claims of the first?
The criminal justice system has its protections because it has the powers of the State — to convict of a crime, to imprison, to limit civil rights. Those are great powers and with great power comes great responsibility. With lesser power comes lesser responsibility; a restaurant can refuse you service with little in the way of adjudicative rigor because they’re not the state and that’s not a lot of power, a casino can exclude you for being too good at blackjack without ever proving that you counted cards, and I can determine who is welcome to join me at my dinner table on no basis at all. The power to say, “this happened to me, this is what this person did” is a very limited power. It still comes with some responsibilities — not to defame, for example, though in the US, you’re not defaming if what you say is true. But it’s nowhere near the power to imprison or to attach a criminal record, and people feel free to dismiss first-person accounts with even greater facility than they reject criminal convictions they don’t agree with. Shit, Mike Tyson still gets guest roles in movies and people line up to shake his hand, and he was convicted and went to prison.
The one real power that the first person naming of names has, is to let other survivors know they are not alone. These stories come out in bunches because many of the survivors decide to report only when they know they are not alone.
Refusing To Draw Lines Hurts Us All
Transparency and the best information we have, is all we will have, for the forseeable future. “Cops or it didn’t happen,” for kinky people especially, is functionally the same as “it didn’t happen.” On top of this, we now have people in a position to de facto represent kinksters to the mainstream saying that even when the charges become public, when the survivors put their name to it, when they say who did it and create space for others to come forward, that they won’t ever make up their minds about whether the specific instance is abuse or not.
I’m worried that the mainstream will hear that loud the clear.
* From the Clark-Flory piece: “It has ‘some of the flavor of the kind of victimhood that we see from some second wave feminists,’ she says, ‘and I don’t want to get too deep into this because I’m going to get myself into trouble, but you know where I’m going with this.’”