In the court of public opinion, everyone is guilty. But then again, everything we see is framed, subjective, slanted, opinionated and edited. We draw limited conclusions based on limited facts.
The hype surrounding certain trials echoes the hype of movies: even before the ending, we have the good guys, the bad guys and deeply set expectations about how things should be. Have you ever see a romance where love doesn’t conquer all? Where the best friends don’t get together in the end, or after a life’s worth of challenges, the married couple don’t just get a divorce, but hate each other and part ways never to speak again? It’s gut-wrenching. When things don’t go the way we expect them to go – the way we think they should go – you get a really bad movie or an award-winning one that leaves you feeling depressed.
Expectations set the stage for everything. We all have 20/20 vision in hindsight, and when we expect something to happen, regardless of whether we end up being right or wrong, every event leading up to the ending becomes just another nail in the coffin of why the whole production was doomed from the start. Doomed to either meet our expectations, or doomed to miss them, much to our moral outrage.
This way of thinking is fine for story arcs and plot development, but it’s a cognitive bias that affects our ability to interpret and make sense of the world.
I didn’t want to weigh in on the Ghomeshi trial, but it’s all the rage right now.
I couldn’t make it through this Buzzfeed article, which asks you to: “cut off friends who think those women lied, lecture your parents if they don’t understand rape culture, talk to your co-workers about this flaming dog-shit day and how it could happen to any of you.” The Vancouver Sun ran an opinion piece by a victim services worker at WAVAW Rape Crisis Centre who lamented the verdict and how flawed the Canadian justice system is. Maclean’s ran one titled “Jian Ghomeshi: How he got away with it“. The National Observer calls Ghomeshi cowardly and claims the Crown has a lot to answer for in two separate stories.
Ghomeshi was found not guilty, and no one, not even our “objective” media sources, seems willing to accept that. I’m not sure it’s their job to: everything should be challenged and everything should be criticized. But what I’m reading is very one-sided challenges about how what happened was a failure on two main counts: it was a failure for women, and it was a failure of our Canadian justice system.
Whether the Canadian justice system failed depends entirely on one’s perspective. To call it a failure also means one must have had expectations about what should have happened, about what the “right” results should have been.
Articles are charging how the women represented by the prosecution were victimized, blamed and treatly poorly by the judge, as well as the system at large. Journalists and pundits have questioned the relevance of picking apart the victims’ testimonies, and whether inaccuracies and conflicting statements should have been disregarded. It seems Canada wanted Ghomeshi tried on the basis that several women came forward to explain in detail how he sexually assaulted them, and have that, be that.
Our objectivity is limited by the fact that we aren’t gods: we can’t know whether someone lied, we don’t have omniscience, we don’t know facts that aren’t presented to us. The best shot we have at it is through our justice system, and even that relies on what is permissible in court, and on our ability as humans to advocate, to listen, to judge. By nature, the Canadian justice system is flawed.
So putting morality aside, inaccuracies in testimony are relevant. As is consistency, as is honesty and the appearance of honesty, because as people we really have no way to tell the difference.
Anyone, male or female, who is assaulted, sexually or otherwise, deserves the opportunity to legally seek restitution. Morally, they deserve justice, and closure.
Everyone, male or female, also deserves a fair trial, and to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, in the court of law. That doesn’t apply to the court of public opinion, and it’s something our historic guardians of that court – our objective media outlets – seem to disregard too. No, the press doesn’t label someone as guilty before a verdict; there are laws against that. But in how they cover trials and from whom they seek “expert opinions”, their biases come out to play.
Very few people disagree that sexual assault is wrong. But I think we’re collectively confusing Ghomeshi’s verdict with whether the Canadian justice system in practice considers sexual assault to be wrong. It doesn’t, and there is proof of that. The issue, if you believe that there is one, is that there wasn’t enough evidence for a judge to conclusively charge and sentence a man for actions that, based on the evidence, cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
This issue is evident when the judge’s verdict is read in full, rather than skimmed and cherry-picked for headline-worthy quotes. In fact, I think it’s quite considerate of the fact that the justice system relies on evidence, and that while there were inconsistencies and contradictions in the victims’ testimony, that that doesn’t mean the events did not happen. It wasn’t a 500-word article that victimized women, it was a careful judgement of what was presented at trial. This wasn’t a case about whether the system needs to change to accommodate situations that naturally result in little available evidence. This was a trial about whether a man could be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, as goes any trial in any criminal court in Canada.
Regardless, it doesn’t matter. Ghomeshi may have been found not guilty, but that doesn’t hold true in the court of public opinion. Many “self-appointed judges” have picked up the perceived slack, and where our real court may have “failed”, our merciless and expectant public trials will continue until some version of a moral ending is achieved.