I Knew About Jian Ghomeshi

So did a lot of people in our Toronto scene. We never said anything. Are we complicit in his alleged abuse?

Photo by Peter Bregg/Getty Images
Jian Ghomeshi in 2012.

Photo by Peter Bregg/Getty Images

You know Jian, of course. So does almost everyone else you know.

You are all part of the downtown-Toronto arts scene. Jian is the host of the popular public-radio culture show Q, heard across Canada every weekday morning and syndicated to 180 U.S. stations—a rare CBC success at reaching beyond retirees.

As a critic and author, you have been a guest on Q a half-dozen times, most recently in early summer, to discuss a Slate piece you’d written. You enjoy doing it, and you value it professionally: It is by far the highest-profile Canadian broadcast venue that consistently engages with the kind of work you do. You think you and Jian have a good on-air rapport.

Then again, you are a man. You are well-aware that to many of the women you know, Jian is a creep.

You run into him constantly around town. Awards ceremonies, panel discussions, fashion events, charitable and cultural galas of all kinds—Jian is there, and he is subsequently pictured online and in the society pages, often with his arms around a couple of young women in cocktail dresses. He might as well have been appointed Host Laureate by the Canadian parliament. It is a function of Canada’s small population, and its colonial propensity to stick with the familiar, that there is usually just one such inescapable person in this country. For the past five years, it has been Jian.

Because he is post-boomer and Iranian Canadian, he is embraced as the embodiment of the New Canada: multicultural, tuned-in, no longer parochial. But as a well-read, affable, stylish liberal, he does not make the Old Canada too uncomfortable, either.

He does make some people uncomfortable. Female friends often remark that they would never date him, that they’ve “heard things.” You’ve heard things too.

You and Jian are about the same age. You met him before his brief celebrity as the leader of a goofy college-circuit folk-rock band in the mid-1990s. (The only sin you knew of there was against decent music.) Some of your friends had worked with him before Q, and when it was launched others got jobs there.

There was chatter at parties, stories of pushed boundaries, of Jian hitting on woman after woman. You’d heard this kind of talk about journalists in town before, but usually about men of an older generation, not your own. The gossip was sometimes kind of funny, sometimes simply gross. On one or two occasions, a little darker, in ways you couldn’t really parse.

Then, one weekend years later, Jian abruptly goes on leave from the CBC. At brunch the next morning, friends tell you it’s because a freelance writer you know (he interviewed you for his podcast just a few weeks ago) is about to publish an exposé of Jian’s treatment of women, in the office and in his private life.

Your friends laugh at your startled expression—which is not because there are allegations (though you don’t yet know their depth), but because someone is finally reporting them. As another journalist said, whenever there is a profile of Jian in a paper or a magazine, you wonder if it will confront the subject. It never does, not seriously. Until now.

In the next couple of days it all begins to come out, and keeps coming.

There were the parts you’d anticipated: allegations of workplace harassment, aggression, inappropriate behavior. But by the end of the week, eight women have accused him of assaulting them violently on dates, most anonymously, but two by name. The allegations include belts and bruises and concrete walls. Toronto police announce that they are investigating three complaints.

As you follow all of this, you remember reading the words of Pope Francis when he held a special Mass at the Vatican this summer for visiting survivors of clerical sexual abuse: He spoke of “despicable actions, camouflaged by a complicity that cannot be explained.”

You were brought up in the Church, sort of. But as a nonbeliever, you bolted like a cat as early as you could. As the international scandal about priests and young boys unfolded over the ensuing decades, you were grateful you’d distanced yourself when you did. You watched mostly with an outsider’s outraged disbelief: How could these parishes and hierarchies have tolerated and hushed up these patterns for so long?

That question, and that quotation, return to haunt you now.

Despite what you knew, when you were invited on Jian’s show, you went. And went again. Though you found his manner slick and off-putting, you were friendly with him. You played nice. You never saw each other socially, but you chatted. His interview style sometimes seemed patronizing, particularly with female guests; you were surprised so much of the audience found him charming, rather than smarmy. Then again, he was always well-prepared and well-scripted.

The banter about Jian’s annoying pick-up-artist persona continued. One summer evening at a Toronto outdoor indie-rock festival, a friend was tipsy, talking about him a bit loudly, when you noticed Jian right behind you, holding a beer. You shushed her. You nodded hi and hoped he hadn’t heard, because you wanted to continue being invited on the show. Which you were.

You’re skeptical about calling every professional network a community. “I’m a member of the sports-equipment-public-relations community.” Come off it. But when you discover that the gauche figure in your field whom you’ve all grumbled and laughed about is possibly something much worse, you realize it is a community. Because you feel associated. You feel responsible. You stood by. You grinned and took the man’s hand.

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. A former Q staffer says that after she complained, a CBC executive reminded her to be “malleable.” There remain a lot of questions about what happened there.

But maybe you, too, downplayed the problem because facing it might mean making a sacrifice: You liked doing that show. Just as the CBC and the U.S. stations liked having that show. As his publisher liked selling his 1980s memoir. As organizations liked having Jian host. As websites and newspapers liked printing his handsome photos.

And so it went on. And more women ended up hurt. While he allegedly turned his teddy-bear face away.

(You contacted Jian to tell him you were writing this piece and get his comment, but he did not respond.)

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.

“A complicity that cannot be explained,” said the Catholic patriarch. That was bold, but too facile. This denial, the church’s in a massive sexual-abuse cover-up, or yours in your cultural circles, was not a fog ordained by God to cloud the mortal mind. It served functions. It was not just something that was broken. It was something that was working all too well. Complicity can be explained. And it must be, because you need to figure out how to break it.

For days, a dynamic, tense discussion unfolds among everyone you know. Friends in the music community speak out. Petitions are started. You exchange links to essays about women’s voices, being silenced. How sexual violence is treated unlike other crimes. You post on Facebook about your unsettled feelings about your role, about having played nice.

Your friend Becky, an improv comedian, remarks: “One always has a responsibility not to play nice when one knows one shouldn’t. Unfortunately, having a responsibility does not make actions easier or more possible. It’s just that we live in hell and awful people are in charge.” That makes you laugh, which helps.

But it doesn’t help enough. Already, amid the racket, you have heard new whispers, about other men. You don’t want to believe them. But you do. So far, you have done nothing about it.