Friday, March 25, 2016

It's Complicated

by Jean Roberta

Like many other media-watchers in Canada, I’m confused and disappointed by the verdict in the “sexual-assault” trial of former talk-show host Jian Ghomeshi (formerly of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). He was acquitted due to inconsistencies in the testimony of women who said he choked, hit and restrained them during sexual encounters that started out consensually.

Here are some links which might work if pasted into your browser:

The most public complainant, actor Lucy De Coutere, apparently sent him some flirtatious messages after the alleged assault, and this only came out in court during cross-examination. Her behaviour does look illogical.

But so does the reported behaviour of an attractive man who seemed to attract hordes of women, yet seemed touchy, self-centred and manipulative at work and at play, according to many witnesses. His claim that he is “into BDSM” has already been debunked by educators on all things kinky. Rule #1: find out who you’re playing with, and ask for consent.

What does all this have to do with forgiveness? When I was as young as Ghomeshi’s dates (he is in his forties, but prefers women in their twenties), I was constantly encouraged to forgive men who seemed pushy, manipulative, or even violent. After all, I was told, when there is conflict between two people, there is always fault on both sides. I was reminded that human beings are only human.

Maybe Lucy De Coutere internalized some form of this advice, so that her responses to unexpected violence were confused and inconsistent.

The other uncomfortable parallel between my previous relationships and Ghomeshi’s messy track record is that I’ve always been attracted to people who claim to be leftist, anti-establishment types who are against every form of oppression and aggression. I came of age during the War in Vietnam, when redneck men in the U.S. wanted to sign up to fight for America, and hip, sensitive men wanted to sneak out of the U.S. to avoid the draft. (Some born-Canadians even wanted to pass for U.S. draft-dodgers to give themselves more cred.)

Ghomeshi was apparently so far to the left in his student days that he was highly visible in campus feminist groups. I’ve met men like this, and they always made me uncomfortable for reasons I couldn’t clearly explain when I was younger. In some cases, they started conversations with, “Well, if women really want equality . . .” They were the experts in other people’s experience as well as their own.

Whenever a leftist man or woman lets me down (as they have done with shocking regularity), I’ve been advised to stop blaming him/her/them. I am either supposed to believe that a socially-conscious platform trumps abusive behaviour or that whenever I become disillusioned with someone in my life, that is a sign of what is wrong with me.

The problem with being opposed to the currently unjust and unsustainable state of the world is that simply being opposed to THIS mess really isn’t a sign that one wouldn’t create a different but equally messy mess, given the chance.

I’ve been urged to attend workshops on forgiveness. Wouldn’t I like to let go of whatever old grudges I’m still holding onto? Wouldn’t I like to achieve a zen state of peace, tranquility, and acceptance of everything? Not really.

I’m a fan of forgiveness AFTER the harm has stopped and after the perpetrator has done everything possible to make amends. If someone stole something from me and then gave it back, with an apology, I would be happy to let bygones be bygones. (Note on this point: when my first woman lover stole the contents of my bank account, approximately $1600, she defended herself by telling me that her parish priest had promised her God’s forgiveness. I promised her my own forgiveness if and when I had been paid back. She never returned the money, and for years, she advised me to forget our little misunderstanding.)

Spouse and I have a bisexual friend who wants to travel with us in the winter of 2017, when I will be on sabbatical. (However, I will be paid 80% of my regular salary, so I won’t have unlimited wealth.) This prospect makes me increasingly uneasy because of the way she drove us out of a local queer organization in the 1990s. I have noticed her long-term pattern of being overly generous, a wannabe salon hostess of the queer community, who seems to need unquestioning agreement in return. She has a fluent vocabulary of psychobabble. For some reason, she now treats Spouse and me like friends, but I’m fairly sure that for about 20 years, she warned others to avoid us.

I am tempted to express my concerns to this person in a public place before making any agreement to go anywhere with her, but I can easily guess the response: why am I so obsessed with the past? (And besides, I misinterpreted everything she did.) Why can’t I let it go? My distrust is so unhealthy!

Spouse didn’t seem to remember our old conflict with “Friend” until I spelled it out for Spouse in detail. In situations like this, I sometimes wonder if I do have an uncanny memory for minor offenses, little dents that other people have accidentally put into the vehicle of my life.

Be that as it may, if “forgiveness” means deciding to trust someone who has shown herself/himself untrustworthy in the past, I can’t do it.

If “forgiveness” only means not hiring a hit person to track down all my enemies, I can resist the temptation to do that. I can be gracious enough not to carry a concealed weapon in my boot or my bra. I can even tune out fantasies of inflicting medieval torture on a deserving victim and justifying it as a spiritual duty. I try not to be a hypocrite.

However, as long as “forgiveness” (without that other thing that is often dangled in front of unhappy people, “closure”) is recommended, over and over again, as the appropriate response to every offense, I can’t buy it. This may be my fatal flaw. I can move on, but I can’t simply clean up the screen of my mind by deleting everything negative until there is nothing left but greeting-card slogans.


  1. Memory for the past is a survival tool. It's rational to harbor mistrust toward someone who has harmed you in the past, until you see clear evidence that he or she has truly changed. And that sort of caution isn't necessarily antithetical to "forgiveness". Letting go of your own anger and hurt does not necessarily imply letting down your guard.

  2. In that case, I'm in favour of forgiveness. A central problem with this concept seems to be that not everyone understands it to mean the same thing.

  3. You're entirely right that forgiveness does not equal trust. Being wary of people who have done harmful things in the past and not convincingly repented is a necessary survival mechanism.

  4. "I was constantly encouraged to forgive men who seemed pushy, manipulative, or even violent."

    This is so true, and I know it's been a factor many times in my life as well. I really appreciate your pushing back with this post, and I agree with everything you've said.

    It's an important point that many societal discussions around forgiveness seem to confuse what it actually is, or use multiple definitions interchangeably.


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