Saturday, November 1, 2014

Jian Ghomeshi, Rob Ford, Russell Williams, narcissism, “consent”, Margaret Wente, and other stuff

It’s ironic that Jian Ghomeshi’s star rose in part because of his amazing interview with another troubled celebrity ­- the weirdly talented actor and wannabe musician, Billy Bob Thornton – a show which will now live in memory as a kind of performance art pas-de-deux.  Maybe they instinctively “got” something about each other.  Maybe not.

I liked Q and was a regular listener.  Because he was something of a musician, Ghomeshi could ask decent questions about (pop) music, and was either a great, empathetic interviewer or an amazing fake.  Though nothing is yet proven, the picture emerging is pretty convincing and dark.  One can easily imagine why women have not come forward until now.

Q was an important part of Canadians’ daily life, and its passing (even if resurrected, it can’t be the same) is sad – particularly given the gruesome reasons, the shock and betrayal.  Dissecting why the show worked may be relevant to why Ghomeshi was able to do what he did.  Jeet Heer’s Storify is interesting, as is this: (I didn’t realize Ghomeshi didn’t write his opening essays - perhaps because he seemed to take personal credit for them afterwards).   I’m left wondering about a lot of things - the relationship between personal flaws and talent, institutions and employees, stars and audiences, narcissism at large and up close, the wider issue of “consent”, and a few other things like Rob Ford – especially since it now appears Ghomeshi’s story also involves video.

Ghomeshi and Narcissism

This is purely speculative, but given his own past references to mental health (neuroses and anxiety disorders), and particularly the fact that Ghomeshi required a replica of his childhood teddy bear be turned away from his violent sexual acts – the former CBC star may suffer from some form of mental illness (though he’s obviously very high functioning, and responsible for his actions).  The high functioning part would not be unusual; think of Russell Williams, a predator also enabled by his status within a different kind of institutional culture.

I find it slightly easier to imagine how Williams performed his military job while diverting enormous amounts of time to sexual perversion, and ultimately, murder.  His duties were command and control related rather than creative.  He was highly organized and reportedly had issues with obsessive-compulsive disorder which may have been partially camouflaged by the organization and fastidiousness of military culture.  In this way the two parts of his life seem in some way related.  Ghomeshi’s issues were perhaps masked by a different, artsy, bureaucracy that tolerated eccentricities.

Still, it’s a bit harder to grasp the yawning discrepancy between the creative talents of Ghomeshi, including his sympathetic on-air persona - and his completely opposite, repugnant private life.   It’s almost as though the show didn’t just feature great performances and artists, it was performance – a daily ‘creation’, or fiction, everything he himself was not - pitch perfect for his audience - for his own, and their, self-reflection. 

One wonders whether there’s a link between what seems like a hole in the core of Ghomeshi’s being, and the remarkable cultural edifice he crafted to fill that excavation.  He (and his insufficiently acknowledged team) seemed to intuit exactly what the audience wanted in terms of tone, even as he himself was deaf to real people (interestingly, his Twitter self-description list ends with “mammal”, not ‘human’).  

Problems with “consent”

While tempting to see the Ghomeshi narrative through a “consent” lens, I wonder about how useful this is – though I’ll limit comments to more common definitions of consent – not the BDSM kind, about which I know nothing.

More than past generations, young people are deficient in experience.  They live and breathe the limited, mediated modalities of image and text, whose effects are not fully understood, but are already seen to be less conducive to both meaningful physical intimacy and a solid sense of self.  We’re told there’s a decline in close, real-life friendships, increasing unfamiliarity with the subtleties of face-to-face, non-verbal communication, and a massive rise in the consumption of porn at younger ages.

“Desire” is disappearing (in the sense of “longing”, which as the word implies, involves a certain remove - a distance in time or space – something the internet has erased). Brains are being rewired in the context of shrinking experience and increasing self-documentation and self-regard (“How do I look to myself?”  “How do I look doing this?” - versus the ability to be fully absorbed in an activity or another person that must simultaneously seen as separate from self). While there are relevant power and gender imbalance discussions to be had, this aspect – the shrinking experience, the recording and posing/posting aspect, and the internalized performer/audience aspect - is something that probably affects young men and women equally.

Whether or not men are more responsible for the overarching social architecture that permits violence (yes, they are), the larger effects on both men and women of these broader changes may be similar, and are, for want of a better word, alienating.  It may make young men more likely to commit assaults and young women less likely to come forward, as in the Ghomeshi case.  “I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, didn’t know what was supposed to happen”… were some of the reasons given by Ghomeshi’s victims for speaking only now, when the media has given them “consent”.

Some women apparently left right after Ghomeshi’s assault, some stayed around for a while to be polite.  They wondered if this was normal.  This suggests that as well as the socio-political imbalance (feeling their story might not be given credence should they tell it), they perhaps didn’t feel or trust their own experience to begin with.  It’s not clear that saying “no” is so easy, or would have helped in any case, when dealing with a quick, unforeseen cuff to the head. 

“Consent” is perhaps too simple.  It’s yes or no (0 or 1).  But sex, like any intimate relationship, involves a lot of grey (and not necessarily the “Fifty Shades” kind).

Focusing exclusively on textual/verbal “consent” seems reflective of our shrinking ability to have, negotiate, or even imagine rich, complex, fluid, physical, non-verbal/text experiences.   So one wonders if the solution is really to be found in enforcing only those narrow and explicit verbal contracts and strictures, or whether it would be better to expand the questions, concerns, and attention we give to this.  Its larger aspects are endemic and have no easy fix, like “Like”.

Does pulling away count?  Must a ‘no’ always be spoken?  Does a look mean anything? Aren’t these also important parts of communication that young people (glued as they are to their texts and phones) need to develop if they’re to have full, healthy relationships?   Isn’t non-verbal sensitivity part of what’s needed?  And quite apart from the limited effectiveness of “consent” as a safeguard, how is love, or poetry about love (by men or women) ever to be made out of a constantly re-negotiated contract?  

In that sense, consent just seems symptomatic of a bigger problem.  At the start of this fiasco, it seemed perfectly normal to discuss Ghomeshi’s presumed or proposed “consensual” BDSM as OK.  There’s something ironic and troubling about the reliance on narrow contractual, verbal/textual tools to combat potential abuses in what is already becoming an atrophied and diminished aspect of our lives – something that was, and should be, the most profound, subtle and meaningful expression of intimacy and connectedness.

Ghomeshi, Rob Ford, high culture and low
Does the Ghomeshi story share anything with the populist narcissism/representation dynamic of the Ford phenomenon – a particularly constructed public obsessed with a celebrity who purports to “look like them” rather than “represent” them in that older, political sense of the term?

Sure, Ford is more demagoguery than artfulness, more high culture than low, but it was interesting to see the two stories playing out simultaneously the night of Toronto’s municipal election.  Rob Ford, another distorted man-child, also demonstrates a gift for narcissistic representation (often consisting of outright misrepresentation), and also saw no reason why egregious acts in his ‘private life’ should be seen as having anything to with his job. Ford too seemed perfectly attuned to what his audience wants; they were more interested in being represented in the sense of being ‘seen’ - than in the older kind of representation that would produce housing, transportation or other services. (The Fords, promising to champion social housing, had voted against improvements, and this mattered not a bit to those smitten by their own image on Jimmy Kimmel or their instagram accounts).  Ford too, seemed aided in his outsized ambition by his astonishingly flawed personal life and a similarly remarkable ability to lie to both himself and the public.  It was almost as though the more glaring his personal vices, the larger his ambition became - a not dissimilar conflation of ego, audience and representation as in l’affaire Ghomeshi.  

All of this is our (sad) culture.  That watching Ghomeshi’s Facebook ‘Likes’ decline became a “story” is symptomatic of it. There are deep questions about changing forms of representation, technological self-absorption, violence and consent, the cult of celebrity, and institutional responsibilities.  I just wish people with more skills, insight and knowledge than I would talk more about it.  Maybe we need a program like Q.

Note:  Margaret Wente is weighing in on Ghomeshi again, failing to mention she was dumped from the Q media panel following her own scandal – a plagiarism story that also involved an institution protecting and enabling one of it’s ‘celebrities’.  Among other things, well before that bigger story became news, she’d been on Q talking media 'ethics' while regurgitating a column she wrote about the Occupy protests which featured an invented Occupy protester, apparently hastily lifted from an unrelated website.  One can debate the relative proportion of narcissism, laziness and entitlement at work with Margaret Wente, but free of overweening self-regard she is not.

As for Ghomeshi, I met him at the gala for a cultural event he hosted in 2013 at The National Gallery, and for which I was a juror.  Since I left early, I don’t know whether he picked up any young women at the after-party, but now I’ll always wonder.