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Why We Need to Keep Talking About Jian Ghomeshi

11/14/2014 03:10 EST | Updated 01/14/2015 05:59 EST
Isaiah Trickey via Getty Images
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 11: CBC radio personality Jian Ghomeshi at Pears on the Avenue on September 11, 2010 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Isaiah Trickey/FilmMagic)

Breaking news and chatter about the Jian Ghomeshi case have certainly slowed down, and, for the first time, I'm also seeing signs that many are ready for the issue to go away entirely.

"Isn't it time," folks on my Twitter feed are saying, "that we put an end to the public trial and let the police and the justice system take over?" I've had students ask why debates about a celebrity radio host have raged on and on when Canadians didn't take nearly as much time to mull over the implications of the Ottawa shooting. And, some are even suggesting that since following crises on social media can exaggerate fears, we're in personal danger when really we're not, it might be best for our mental health to break off real time engagement with discussions and arguments surrounding Ghomeshi.

It is tempting to ask whether we've all not heard enough at this point, but given the social and cultural significance of Jian Ghomeshi, there are important reasons that the public conversations continue to go on.

The most obvious set of issues that are symbolized by Jian Ghomeshi pertain to questions about the relative social status of, and sexual politics between, men and women.

We can all talk a good game today about our commitment to gender equality, but as soon as the issues get a little hot, the consensus evaporates. Recent events show that when it comes to responses to allegations of rape on our campuses, or to media coverage of the intimidation of women in the gaming industry, we do a lot of handstands and handwringing to avoid grappling with ways that women lack the same power and influence that men have. Jian Ghomeshi has to be understood in relation to concerns being voiced about this selective myopia.

Whether Jian Ghomeshi's alleged actions are the product of complex psychological forces, or a sign of entrenched cultural dynamics that continue to provide men with permission and protection to act with force against women, the feel good message that women are equal to men has once again come under scrutiny. Viewed in this way, talking about Jian Ghomeshi, the way he's allegedly treated women for years, and the reasons it's hard for women to report that they've been sexually assaulted has been important. It's helped to advance a growing conversation that's needed to push people to confront what they don't (want to) see about the realities of gender inequality in 2014.

Another major message underlying the Jian Ghomeshi case flows from what it potentially suggests about the status of the CBC in today's Canada.

Canadians have been wondering about the CBC for some time. There's been a steady stream of news about the economic realities that are being used to justify a drastically shrinking CBC. There's been embarrassment over just how badly the Mothercorp bungled negotiations to retain the rights to its NHL broadcast, Hockey Night in Canada. And, while coverage of the Ottawa shooting provided a temporary opportunity for Canadians to summon nostalgic imaginations of the CBC's unique role and quality, news of Jian Ghomeshi appeared as evidence that another inexorable step was being taken towards a public broadcasting nadir in Canada.

It's easy to exaggerate the place of the CBC in Canadian society. Yet, whether you see the national broadcaster as a unifying symbol of our identity, or as a bloated institution that's unable to legitimately compete with private content providers, the CBC has always been afforded an exceptional status in our national narrative. With news that its brightest star has allegedly harmed so many, the CBC has taken a severe blow. In talking about Jian Ghomeshi, how his interns' professional vulnerabilities reduced their freedom to speak up, and about his bosses' unwillingness to confront their prestige-drawing host, we're not only piecing together how terrible things could have happened in the country's most prominent workplace, but we're also wrestling with the uncomfortable cultural question of whether the CBC, as an idea and reality, was every truly exceptional at all.

A final subplot to Jian Ghomeshi derives from the importance of social media to the story.

From growing the popularity of Q and cultivating a celebrity reputation, to seeking out and communicating with alleged victims, to a pre-emptive public defense, and to the investigative work that's helped bring everything to light, social media has been front and centre. And, while its vital role in amplifying, calling out, and responding to Jian Ghomeshi is undeniable, it's also hardly an exaggeration to suggest that, without the internet, the story of the former radio star's alleged abuse might have never even seen the light of day. But, aside from this perplexing paradox, what does the social media angle say about the unrelenting resonance of Jian Ghomeshi in the hearts minds of Canadians?

That social media both helped bring Jian Ghomeshi close to Canadians and then duly helped pave the way for them to force him to go away says a lot. Social media is not just a reporting tool, or a platform for intrepid individuals to disseminate sensitive information when established news outlets can't or won't do it. It's increasingly our life.

It's how we learn about the world and others, and how we present ourselves to our worlds and to others. It's not necessarily about consuming and creating identities that are authentic, but it is about consuming and creating identities that we want to be seen, received, and responded to by others. Seen in this way, talking about Jian Ghomeshi is not just about coming to terms with a spectacularly disgraced public figure. It's a reflection on the contemporary routine ways that many of us socialize, and feel we get to know others and ourselves. It forces us to reflect on just how much of that which we willingly make visible to each other as expressions of friendship and community is also less than entirely true.

Jian Ghomeshi hasn't only been a reporter of our culture, he's been a carrier of that culture as well. We routinely build up our culture to make ourselves feel good, but just as we're seeing now in the case of Jian Ghomeshi, we invariably, and sometimes knowingly, leave the meanings that we assign to culture incomplete.

Now that we've been presented with a fuller version of who Jian Ghomeshi is, we also have a fuller picture of who we are. Talking about those things we left out of the frame, and why we left them out in the first place, is one of the only ways we can start to take steps to try to do things better.

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