Why conspiracies of silence exist

The revelations of CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi’s abusive behavior towards women have been stunning. Among many women who moved in the same circles as he did, his behavior was apparently common knowledge and they took care to avoid him and quietly passed the warning along to other women who might be unsuspecting. But that quiet network was not enough to prevent some women from not knowing and thus falling victim. To make it worse, there was also a belief among some that he was gay, thus leading some women to put their guard down in his presence and think that he only wanted to be their friend. Among men, the reactions were all over the place but the primary one was why no women had publicly accused him of behaviors that had been apparently going on for a long time.

And this illustrates a deep problem: that people in powerful positions benefit from a conspiracy of silence in sexual matters that is motivated by factors that can vary widely depending on the gender and the particular situation of the individual.

Carl Wilson was someone who knew Ghomeshi and had been on his show repeatedly. He too had heard rumors of his behavior and in a very personal essay tries to understand what made him also become part of that conspiracy.

It’s as if no matter where you go, you are in the position so many Catholics have unwillingly found themselves in: You are always in some way part of a community that is studiously ignoring the wrong some man is doing. In this case it was the Canadian arts and media scene. But friends have told you these patterns occur among scientific researchers. In education. In medicine. In theater. In an activist group, an ethnic community, a queer community, a kibbutz. Men at the top, abusing their influence. Objections murmured mostly behind their backs.

There was a round of similar allegations against men in the literary world just a few weeks ago. Some of your friends knew the accused parties. Some knew the aggrieved women. Not all of the stories were straightforward. Some friends felt torn about accounts being aired online, in public, destroying reputations—about whether to call certain incidents “rape.” Others had no such hesitations. Tempers flared.

What do you do, you thought then, about actions that make women feel unsafe, violated, but do not cross the line of criminality? About gray zones? About the creeps in your midst?

Now, you think: If something seems kind of wrong, it is all too possible that it is very wrong.
In Jian’s case, you didn’t know, of course. But you knew. There was doublethink, a split consciousness. “Everybody” knew, so perhaps you had no special burden, not compared to his employers, for example.

So what should you have done, back when there were only rumors and snaky vibes? Refused to be a guest on Q? Scowled and been uncivil to Jian in public? Should you have tried to expose him? You didn’t have much to go on, and you are not an investigative reporter. Then again, you used to work as an editor at a Toronto newspaper. You could have urged someone to look into it. It just didn’t seem clear enough. So you took it too lightly.

If things are fuzzy, the human default is often to do nothing. It’s genuinely difficult to conceive and accept that something extreme may be happening, unless you witness it firsthand. Unless it happens to you. And as some of the women’s accounts make clear, it can be hard to absorb even then.

The worst thing, you realize, is that you tended to look down on Jian’s conquests. As if anyone who fell for his come-ons was a fool, instead of merely lacking the advantage of inside knowledge.

No wonder the women didn’t hope to be taken seriously. No wonder most filed no grievances, and none of them laid charges, nor spoke out in public, until they learned they were not alone. They expected not to be believed, and worse, that they would be hounded and humiliated—and the way many Q fans have treated them on social media proves them right. Neither did they trust the legal system, for good reason. A lot of your older male journalist friends don’t get that: “Why not go to court?” they say on Twitter.

And then, some of the women say they feared that speaking out might jeopardize their careers in Canadian media. “I felt like Jian was CBC god,” as one of them puts it. And this is where you feel most implicated, along with your colleagues. In a small country, in an insular profession, the tightness of interconnection holds everything in place, maintains the status quo. Even in a field whose task is allegedly to question the status quo. Where, nonetheless, most of the bosses are still men.

When reading the stories of the women assaulted by Ghomeshi, the same strain occurs over and over again. That because of his position of influence, they felt that would not be believed and that Ghomeshi had enough protectors in high places to deflect their charges.

I was reminded of the situation that occurred in my own university where the dean of the law school was acting inappropriately with female faculty and students. It was only after an associate dean called him out on it that it became public. This associate dean was male and had tenure but even that level of security was not enough to shield him from the pushback he received. After vigorously contesting the allegations and retaliating against his accuser, the dean finally resigned.

When I spoke with colleagues in the law school, they said that the dean’s behavior was widely known but not exposed because no one likes to be the one to bell the cat, to be the first person to publicly challenge the behavior of a powerful person. It can be lonely being out in front. Those who do it are likely to be vilified by those seeking to curry favor with the powerful, especially if the institution has a vested interest in protecting the abuser, and their only hope is if others quickly come forward too so that they do not bear the weight of being the sole accuser. This is happening with Ghomeshi and the tide has quickly turned against him.

Anne Kingston has an article in Maclean’s on Ghomeshi’s rise and fall, on the ‘secrets’ that were widely known, on facts that were hiding in plain sight, trying to grapple with the issue of why it took so long for the story to explode.

Now, the private Ghomeshi—the version given a free pass by his employer but well known within arts and media circles as “kind of dark with women,” as a friend of one of his accusers put it to her—was suddenly public. It was a case of everybody knew—except for the hundreds of thousands of listeners who started the day with his soothing voice, and who, understandably, trusted in the person presented to them by the CBC.

It turns out that the affable public persona that people found so endearing hid an abusive and manipulative personality that extended well beyond his sexual acts and made the lives of his co-workers and subordinates miserable and now those acts are coming back to haunt him, with an outpouring of negative stories. He seems to be the classic ‘kiss up, kick down’ kind of person. When you do that on your way up the ladder, you should not be surprised when your victims take the chance to kick you on the way down.


  1. says

    If you don’t speak out, you protect the abuser/rapist/criminal.
    If you speak anonymously, it’s “spreading rumours”.
    If you speak without firm evidence that stands up in court, it’s deemed “slander”.

    It’s called a no-win situation because everybody loses…except the guilty, of course.

  2. lanir says

    And if you’re the first victim and no one else can come to your aid (and the conspiracy of silence will lend great credence to that possibility in many cases), there’s a risk you’ll simply provide him with ready defenders when he does it again.

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