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Why Many Canadians Sided With Jian

10/30/2014 09:54 EDT | Updated 12/30/2014 05:59 EST
Tim Robberts via Getty Images

*This post was co-authored by David Moscrop

A famous man releases a statement in which he claims that a vindictive ex-girlfriend is colluding with a freelance journalist to publicly demonize his sexual preferences.

A major publication responds quickly, releasing an article in which three women claim that the famous man punched, bit, slapped and choked them without their consent during sexually abusive encounters (and in Canada, one cannot legally consent to assault causing bodily harm). A female former colleague claims he groped and threatened her with rape at work.

Immediately after the competing claims are released, which side do we publicly support, and why? Or, why might we express only shock, abstaining from expressing support at all? To ask this is to ask what kind of heuristics -- essentially mental problem-solving shortcuts -- we use when we consider a dispute about sex or violence in which facts remain unclear.

Eight women have now alleged that recently-fired radio host Jian Ghomeshi sexually abused them, and as more facts emerge more opinions may change. But we're interested in the opinions voiced before many facts emerged: these reveal our collective unconscious beliefs. Disturbingly, we've found that the first four women who said they were abused by Ghomeshi received a dramatic lack of support from those who heard Ghomeshi's story directly from him when he posted it on Facebook; equally disturbingly, they received mostly ambiguous support from those who heard their stories directly from journalist Jesse Brown, who posted the initial Toronto Star article on Twitter.

We analyzed a random selection of 100 of the 20,000 unique responses to Ghomeshi's Facebook posting, as well as the 30 unique responses to Brown's first Twitter posting of his co-authored Star article. On Ghomeshi's statement, we only analyzed comments that readers made after the Star's story ran (links to the story appeared on the part of the feed we looked at). We classify responses as either: a) expressing support for Ghomeshi's story; b) expressing support for the stories of the women saying Ghomeshi sexually assaulted them; or, c) expressing ambiguous sentiments.

This isn't a scientific sampling. And of course a particular kind of person may post online about such affairs -- but that's exactly what we're interested in here: the people who want to publicly engage with a public scandal. So what follows is a first-step reasonable qualitative analysis of what was said as this story broke -- and the trends are clear.

Most people showed Ghomeshi uncompromising support: on his post, a remarkable 78 per cent of commenters indicated that they adore and/or believe him, while only 12 per cent of responses were ambiguous, and a scant 10 per cent indicated that they support the four women rather than Ghomeshi.

On Brown's post, unsurprisingly, more people supported the four women who came forward and Brown's telling of their stories; however, surprisingly, that support was still relatively weak. Only about 30 per cent of commenters expressed some kind of support for the women's stories, many only quoting the relevant facts and going no further.

And here's where things get really interesting: when presented with four women's claims of sexual violence told by the journalist who has investigated Ghomeshi for months -- which are linked to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, a risk-averse corporation with strong legal counsel -- while few commentors expressed support for Ghomeshi, only 7 per cent, most others were only moved to express ambiguously non-committal statements, such as "Yikes" or "Eeesh." A full 60 per cent of commentators expressed unclear opinions to the journalist immediately after they read his article in which three women said they endured brutal sexual attacks and one says she was sexually harassed.

So why all the support for Ghomeshi?

Some answers may be found in the comments themselves.

Several people who replied to Ghomeshi made blatantly sexist remarks, such as "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," or "Sue the b----," referring to one of the four women who came forward.

Many other commenters tried to link their support of Ghomeshi to broader political issues. Often referencing former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's statement that the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation, they disturbingly equated allegations of sexual violence with rights to sexual orientation.

Still others expressed disbelief that any "honest" individual would "go to the press" rather than notify police if she were sexually assaulted. These commenters appeared not to consider that while some sexual assault victims may answer journalists' questions simply to tell the truth or warn others, they may not wish to subject themselves to gruelling reporting or court processes or harassment.

Different users ignored all issues related to the multiple alleged assaults, wishing Ghomeshi luck in rebuilding his career and commending him for his radio skills.

Finally, others declared that people are innocent until proven guilty. Legally, this is certainly true, but there is no risk of commentors sending Ghomeshi to jail without trial. Many think it fairer to declare four women morally guilty of being liars than declare the same of Ghomeshi.

So there are at least five reasons, none credible, why most people who commented on Ghomeshi's statement expressed support for him rather than the women who say he sexually assaulted them: commentors believe that women are generally loathsome; they feel violence towards women is a private matter, particularly when BDSM is mentioned; they distrust women who speak of sexual assault outside a courtroom; they think a man's professional achievements are more worthy of consideration than serious allegations against him; or, they believe multiple women are more likely to lie than one man. These implicit stories, when interwoven with each other, created the remarkable narrative that a major, risk-averse corporation and a serious investigative journalist are defaming Ghomeshi.

Another question emerges from this: after one credible news organization fired Ghomeshi and another ran an investigative report about him, why all the ambiguous support for the women's stories from commentors more likely to sympathize with them? Perhaps many people, as a matter of ethical principle, never express opinions about serious disputes not taken to court, but that seems highly unlikely. More probably, people fear Internet retaliation for expressing unpopular opinions. Tragically, the more that people are ambiguous in supporting women's statements about violence, the less that women can depend on buffers protecting them from retaliation.

In light of these problems, commenters could express strong concern for the many women who say that Ghomeshi sexually abused them, while not attacking Ghomeshi himself. We hope observers will respond similarly to similar incidents, and we wish there weren't any of those, because we feel profound concern for any woman who says she has been threatened, abused, or brutally assaulted.

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