Jian Ghomeshi’s progressive persona was the perfect cover for his abuse

In Leah McLaren’s Toronto Life story on fallen star, Jian Ghomeshi, she writes,

What’s startling about the allegations against Jian is not that a seemingly law-abiding person is accused of doing terrible things. That happens all the time. It’s the way Jian wove the most cherished and sacred liberal values of Canadian society into an ingenious disguise that he used to hide in plain sight.

She adds that one woman she spoke to for the story — an alleged victim of Ghomeshi’s abuse — “believes his persona was a deliberate cover for his predatory behaviour.” That is to say she believes he intentionally presented himself as a progressive man — one of the “good guys,” as it were — in order to gain access to the women he wanted to victimize and to ensure he got away with it.

Initially, the allegations against Ghomeshi did come as a huge shock to me — up until the day he was fired, I’d been a fan — but that shock didn’t, for a moment, lead me to question whether they were true. He gave himself away immediately — the red flags were all there. Beyond that, women rarely make this stuff up. As I read Ghomeshi’s defensive Facebook post, I was filled with a familiar rage — his attempts to pin the accusations on a “bitter ex” à la, “bitches be crazy, wink wink,” to paint himself as a victim, and, of course, his appeal to the current “anything goes because, consent” political climate (“Sexual preferences are a human right,” he stated confidently) were so transparent.

What was and is “shocking,” to me, is not that a seemingly progressive man could be a predator, but that we still refuse to acknowledge how common this is.

I have an ex much like Ghomeshi. I’ve written about him in the past. It’s not so much the specific nature of the violence that brought all those memories flooding back, but the behaviour, the personality, and the language they both used. This is, in part, how I recognized Ghomeshi’s routine so easily.

My ex seemed, like Ghomeshi, to enjoy playing the role of Good Guy Activist while simultaneously behaving in abusive ways. I think it thrilled him, in a kind of perverted sense, to be surrounded and supported by “strong” or feminist women (like myself). Like the ex-radio host, he always preyed on very young women (after me, a woman 20 years his junior, he went after an even younger woman, impregnating her for good measure).

“Jian worshipped his family — and the idea of family in general — always saying he wanted to marry and have children some day,” McLaren writes.

Similarly, my ex would wax poetic about how important family and loving your family was, despite his bubbling resentment at his own father and siblings. He would feign sadness that, in his mid-40s he’d still not managed to marry or have children of his own and use this as a means to defend his ongoing pattern of pursuing women who were young enough to be his daughters. In fact, he claimed he had no choice — women his age simply weren’t interested in marriage or children. (An odd thing to say as now, at 35, many of my friends have yet to start, or have only just started, a family.)

When I went public about his abuse, I was baffled that so many women stuck by him, painting me as a crazy liar. But, like Ghomeshi, he was extremely conniving and manipulative, able to spin stories and lie with ease — “His true gift is his innate ability to control the people nearest to him,” McLaren writes.

Still convinced he’s done nothing wrong, but rather that he is a victim of “a pernicious conspiracy of deranged ex-girlfriends,” Ghomeshi now tests people, in terms of their loyalty, by looking “deep into [their] eyes and [asking], ‘Are you fully there for me?'” The similarities between Ghomeshi’s described behaviours and my ex make my skin crawl. These are the qualities of an abuser — no matter how violent, no matter how politically progressive.

McLaren and many of Ghomeshi’s friends had trouble reconciling the allegations with his charisma. They didn’t want to believe it but were, eventually, given no choice.

But what I have trouble understanding is that resistance, considering that common qualities shared by sociopaths and abusers include charm and charisma, often combined with intelligence — an attractive personality, in other words. This is, of course, part the problem — we think the men we like aren’t capable of abuse. We want to believe our friends.

While feminists have been trying to explain, for years, that misogynists aren’t monsters, they are, simply, our family, friends, and neighbours, this reality never seems to permeate general discourse.

McLaren writes,

The trouble with having a friend accused of committing a heinous crime is that you abhor the action but have difficulty squaring it with the individual you knew and cared about. Though none of the allegations against Jian have been proven in court, I now believe he behaved violently and without consent on what appears to be a habitual basis over the past 20-odd years.

I suppose it’s unfair to expect women who haven’t encountered these characters before, in their personal lives, to see the red flags right away. But politically, we’ve been watching this go down, over and over again, for decades. Today, it seems more pervasive than ever before.

McLaren writes, “Jian used liberalism and feminism the way Roy Cohn used McCarthyism—as a grand screen of moral superiority that hid his deeper, more urgent desires.”

Oh. You mean like all those other progressive men who are less famous than Ghomeshi, who maintain positions of power in leftist movements despite women’s efforts to speak out about their predatory or abusive behaviour?

You mean like every other progressive man who, today, has been given a free pass to attack feminists online, by women and men who dominate activist politics with empty Ghomeshiesque rhetoric about “consent” and the “rights” of individuals to do and be whatever they like, regardless of larger impacts? The ones who gleefully glom onto smear campaigns and no-platforming attempts because, today, it’s not only acceptable, but it’s encouraged, to make feminists out to be the true enemy of marginalized people. (I’m looking at you, who are positioned as the male voices of progressive Canadian politics, all the while attacking women who speak out against male violence, advocating on behalf of the sex industry, promoting hatred against feminists who oppose the purchase of female bodies, and following porn accounts on Twitter.)

You mean the men who’ve learned it’s acceptable to use misogynist slurs against women so long as you disagree with those women politically? Or the men who will only come out in support of women who don’t challenge their positions of power, right to objectify women, and male entitlement?

Oh.

The “wolf in organic, fair-trade lamb’s clothing” McLaren talks about is not shocking at all to women who’ve any experience in progressive movements. These men — the ones who claim to support women’s rights, the plights of marginalized populations, equality and justice — are almost worse, to us, than the men on the right who fight against access to abortion and affordable childcare. They are worse because we are forced to trust them, to work with them, to call them allies. They are worse because, when we do call out their misogyny, the rest of those we’d considered allies stand idly by, twiddling their thumbs, waiting for the “drama” to die down so they can get back to work. They know, all too well, that by siding with women instead of these men, they will lose out on career opportunities. They know, all too well, that there are limits to the kind of feminism these “progressive” men will accept. They know, all too well who has the real power.

Because Ghomeshi was so well-known — a Canadian celebrity — and because so many women came out, one after another, it was impossible to brush his behaviour under the rug. It became clear, quite quickly, that this was real and had been going on for decades.

Though many asked the CBC to be accountable (why hadn’t they addressed this sooner?), public institutions are not the only enablers. Progressive men and so-called “feminist” women have actively created a culture that supports abusive and misogynist men. They’ve handed them the reigns and cheered them on. They’ve provided a perfect cover for men who wish to use a progressive persona as a means to hurt women — whether they mean to hurt individual women by raping or abusing them, or whether they mean to hurt women as a class, by chipping away at our movement and our right to speak freely about our own oppression.

Male violence is systemic, to be sure. But when we enable and encourage and support anti-feminist men and even abusers in our own ranks, when we allow them to climb to positions of power on the left and let them step all over women on their way up, when we support men who advocate for our objectification and subordination in their efforts to take over as voices of our movement, we, too, are complicit.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • MIchael Lebednik

    Articulated with laser-precision, and speaking truth to power. Thank you, Meghan, for reminding me that for men, actions speak louder than words. Your uncompromising challenge is a bracing breeze in a stagnant media cesspool.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Thanks Michael!

  • ‘ I think it thrilled him, in a kind of perverted sense’

    I’ve always wondered what men get out this play acting.

    • C.K. Egbert

      Except I don’t think it is play-acting; it’s not as though “progressive” men genuinely respect women’s humanity–they simply draw the lines at different places. A “progressive” man will say that a woman can work outside the home and refuse sex, and yet in the same breath he will defend BDSM, pornography, sexual exploitation, and other forms of subordination.

      I think “progressive men” genuinely see themselves as the “good guy.” MRAs benefit “progressive” men, because MRAs are so virulently misogynist that any man that isn’t an MRA looks “good” by comparison, and men can use MRAs as the metric of their behavior (which also often comes with the implicit threat, “See? I could be so much worse, you should be grateful!”). Men engage in manipulation in order to preserve their self-concept as the “good guys.”

      It’s sort of the way that the sex-positivists fetishize consent, and yet rather than excluding behaviors that would violate an affirmative standard of consent (which would include prostitution and most BDSM practices), they instead contort their understanding of consent to fit whatever forms of sexual violence/exploitation they want to defend.

      • Meghan Murphy

        “Except I don’t think it is play-acting; it’s not as though “progressive” men genuinely respect women’s humanity–they simply draw the lines at different places. A “progressive” man will say that a woman can work outside the home and refuse sex, and yet in the same breath he will defend BDSM, pornography, sexual exploitation, and other forms of subordination.”

        Exactly!

  • corvid

    The pimps and pornographers are leading men around by their dicks. So far gone are they on the “porn is freedom” track, that they will reject anything said by the women right in front of them. In this climate it becomes impossible to tell the truth about our bodies and lives, because our truths are positioned as lies by this culture.

  • Reader

    I’ll say it- how does Joe Biden fit into this? Yes, he has a decent record. Violence against Women Act, gun control, etc. However, the harassment that he inflicts on women and girls is unconscionable. It’s gone way beyond plausible deniability. It’s just so obvious that he gets away with it because he has power and because he’s progressive. Has he even apologized for his behavior, ever?

    One final point- isn’t stressing his record and whatever good he’s done which I am also guilty of- aren’t I also discounting the experiences of the women? It’s all about him and his intentions. But surely the experiences of the women he’s harassed, and will harass are important too, even if they may not speak out against him due to politics and/or “the greater good”.

  • Christopher Ryan

    Testing Testing