Some Moral Hysteria
I’m uncomfortable, as I suspect a lot of men currently are, with the pursuit of Jian Gomeshi and the attempts to prevent Bill Cosby from performing the several gigs he was contracted for in Ontario. My discomfort isn’t due to any ambivalence about how serious the accusations against Cosby and Gomeshi are and I have no attachment, sentimental or otherwise, to either man. I found little of interest in the soft celebrity interviews Gomeshi conducted on CBC Radio before it was discovered that he was a violent erotic creep, and I was making fun of Cosby’s cornball daddyism—and his horrible sweaters—while the Cosby Show was in its initial run and no one knew about his sexual proclivity for groping and otherwise sexually violating semi-conscious and/or unconscious women.
I don’t have any difficulty condemning sexual violence, either, whether it’s the strangle-and-punch strain that Gomeshi appears to have enjoyed or drugging sexual partners before humping them, as Cosby has been accused of—either with Hollywood stardust, possible career ops, or actual chemicals. I also don’t understand why anyone would want to do any of those things to another human being, and my inability to understand is both moral and aesthetic. I simply don’t get why anyone would think coercive sex is fun.
Still, I’m uncomfortable with the media swirling around these two men. At its heart lies a moral hysteria that I worry is about to spin out of control—if it hasn’t already. That’s why, for instance, I kept the description of sexual violence above gender neutral. This isn’t because I’m unaware that men are perpetrating the overwhelming majority of sexual violence against female partners. No one can statisticize the percentages precisely, but well into the 90s seems about right. Still, I want that small exception held, for two reasons. The first is to remind us that sexual violence is a pathology that isn’t strictly tied to gender. The second is that totalities have a tendency to generalize into other totalities, and that we may need to remind ourselves that even if sexual violence is primarily a male-to-female pathology, it doesn’t follow that all men are sexually violent or that us peaceful guys are bursting a vein repressing our natural urges to drug, choke and otherwise violate our wives and/or girlfriends.
Sexual violence, it seems to me, is a phenomenon rooted in culture and nurture, not in biology. It is fouled psycho-social erotic circuiting, not mother nature’s plan. Mother nature’s plan is fairly easy to decipher, actually. It’s to get us screwing, whether we’re doing it to produce babies, or as a distraction from all the crappy and painful parts of being alive, like not having enough to eat, or life being mostly cold and comfortless whether you’re watching the floor crack beneath you while you’re sewing buttons in a Bangladesh sweatshop, or watching birds fly into the windows while you’re pushing paper in a Toronto office tower. Mother nature’s plan, in short, is exactly the opposite of what Gomeshi and Cosby have been accused of doing, which is harming people they’re supposed to be giving pleasure to.
So why am I so uncomfortable with what’s going on that I’m identifying it as moral hysteria? Well, there’s this: the Toronto Star’s front page a couple of days ago was splattered with accounts of the planned protests against Cosby’s comedy performance in Kitchener that evening. Meanwhile, the CBC Radio’s The Current featured a long interview with an activist who was part of organizing the anti-Cosby protests, which she insisted had to be carried on both outside the venues and inside, to make sure nobody would be confused that Cosby is a nasty piece of work and not funny in the least. The photo of Cosby that accompanied the Star’s story had him looking like the archetypal octogenarian pervert, with enough pixels to make sure you notice that his eyes are small and beady and that he needs a shave, and is thus the sort of pervert who inflicts razor burn along with the rest of the packet of indignities. The photo was so egregiously uncomplimentary that it reminded me of the photographic destruction of Michael Ignatieff a few years ago, except that Cosby was being made to look old and perverted, not, as with Ignatieff, perpetually frozen somewhere between sneering elitism and wooden OCD awkward. Relegated to the Star’s back pages in the face of this celebrity journalism, meanwhile—or simply absent and ignored—were the day’s casualties in Syria and central Iraq, troop and equipment moves in Eastern Ukraine, and further shifts and cracks in the floors of sweatshops across southeast Asia and China. There’s an issue with perspective here.
At this juncture, I feel as if I ought to note, very, very carefully, that neither Bill Cosby nor Jian Gomeshi have been convicted of a criminal offense, although Gomeshi has recently been charged with several sex-related offences as a result of complaints lodged with the police by several different women. I’d also like to ask, still more carefully and very quietly because I’m pretty sure I’ll be shouted down, about the well-being of the presumption of innocence that is a crucial element of our criminal justice system. It doesn’t matter that the sheer number and vigour of Gomeshi and Cosby’s accusers seems to indicate that both men are guilty—where there’s smoke, the saying goes, there’s usually fire, right? And, yes, I get what the larger issue is: everyone wants an end to bad, violent men hitting, sexually assaulting or otherwise harming and humiliating women. Still…
Human history is filled with witch-hunts and moral stampedes. It’s no comfort to me that the thunder of hooves here is muted by most of them being clad in Birkenstocks, and you’ll have to excuse me if I’m not comforted that it’s unlikely that this particular witch-hunt is going to end with real world bonfires or beheadings. Some nasty individuals are going to be punished—or not, since Cosby is a genuine Hollywood celebrity with a personal fortune close to $500 million. What worries me more is that some innocent people are going to be collateral damage, and a whole lot more people—all of them male—are going to feel intimidated and confused by the mob of the righteous, which, as always, is more interested in experiencing its righteousness than in achieving justice or respecting due process. And yes, this does feel like it’s turning into a stampede of the righteous, and of the kind that goes out of its way to trample not just its intended targets but anyone who objects to the unanimity and velocity of the herd.
That it will result, somewhere down the line, in a number of women not being sexually assaulted, beaten and humiliated makes it worth the cost, I guess. One of the costs is that it will make normal relations between men and women more difficult than they already are—not to mention making the definition of “normal” more unworkably narrow and elusive. The other side of it is a little more subtle. We’re used to the bad guys using blunt instruments to get what they want. But when the good guys start swinging cudgels, everyone should start looking for another way to get things done.
1200 words, January 15, 2014.