October 29, 2014

Jian Ghomeshi and the ways of judgment

I have no desire to comment on the shitstorm that erupted over the weekend involving Jian Ghomeshi and the CBC, except to join my voice to the chorus of support for the victims of sexual assault and reiterate that this is not and never has been an even playing field, that crimes like this mostly go unreported, and that the immediate dismissal of the women involved reflects a broader structure of misogyny. As a friend pointed out in a post today at GUTS, it's not enough to simply stand by and wait for the facts to emerge. We need to make space for voices that are, under the current conditions, too afraid to speak.

Over the past few days, I've been interested in the way I've seen people react on Facebook and Twitter, and I've tried to be relatively cautious in my own interactions. The sheer amount of people who initially jumped to Jian Ghomeshi's defense was striking. His manipulative, PR-fashioned Facebook post was itself an interesting tactic, but I was more impressed with how quickly it circulated. For all of us who rushed to judgment of Ghomeshi's actions there were many more who rushed to judgment of his alleged victims. Now, as some of his victims are beginning to speak out, we're seeing momentum swing the other way. It would be petty to start calling out those who came to Ghomeshi's defense and are now recanting. That said, I hope the conversation shifts, that there is more awareness of how difficult it can be for victims to come forward, and why a broader understanding of consent is so important. Although it's been a slow, secretive issue for some, I'm struck by how fast the news of Ghomeshi's shameful activities has spread, how quickly we could take sides, and how quickly we all wanted to. 

It's an impulse I experience frequently on different forms of social media. I see something and my immediate response is to endorse it, ignore it, or condemn it. We "like," we "share," we "retweet." We trust others who are doing the same. But how often do we think through what we're doing and how it might affect others? Much of our social media activities are there to be seen. We share, but we do it mostly for ourselves. Exposure, visibility, followers -- these are the conditions of social life online. Our reach can be broad, but the form of this spectacle occurs with the speed of lightning. We are part of a public forum but it's first and foremost a system of representation.

Using social media is a performative activity. You're always seen by someone, even if that audience chooses to ignore you. At the same time, the rapid, live nature of recent events suggest that these platforms don't really condition the same kind of thoughtfulness or caution one might adopt if they were speaking to crowd. In many ways, it's an obvious point, but it's been on my mind as this scandal has grown. Are we prepared to have our judgements judged, especially by those who, unlike Ghomeshi, don't have the privilege of 100,000 likes on Facebook or 300,000 Twitter followers to raise the profile of their statements? Are we prepared to have our words judged by victims, those whose voices have been taken away?  How are we benefiting from sharing and tweeting about a case of sexual assault, where a simple statement or retweet can trigger a survivor's trauma? 

Not surprisingly, Ghomeshi's Facebook post went as far as it could go in the opposite direction: not a snap judgment but a postured, "personal" defense, a blanket claim of full consent made on behalf of all parties involved. 

October 26, 2014

The return of Sleater-Kinney

Last week, Sleater-Kinney announced their reunion and comeback album No Cities To Love, but calling it a "comeback" isn't totally fair. 2005's The Woods saw Sleater-Kinney at the height of their powers, and each member has kept incredibly busy with a range of other worthwhile projects (from Wild Flag and solo albums to Portlandia and the Jicks).  By the time they called it quits in 2006, Sleater-Kinney had successfully transitioned from the riot grrrl movement of the mid-90s through  indie rock's internet-fuelled critical mass.

If their new track "Bury Our Friends" is any indication, Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss haven't lost any jam. Like many who came of age during the late 90s, I was instantly hooked when I heard Sleater-Kinney for the first time. The combination of raw energy and insight in their music was something I'd never heard before. It was heavy, direct and full of political outrage. Just what I was looking for.

A welcome return from an absolutely vital band.

October 8, 2014

A Jest of God

Last week, on a whim, I picked up a two dollar copy of Margaret Laurence's 1966 novel, A Jest of God. Halfway through the book, I'm shocked at how much I enjoy Laurence's prose. In two brilliantly uncomfortable scenes, she presents a pair of contrasting church services. The first takes place after Rachel reluctantly accepts the last of several invitations from a fellow elementary school teacher. At this church, or, "the Tabernacle," as her friend Calla calls it, speaking in tongues isn't a rare occurrence. Rachel is on edge the entire time and, on this particular night out, things don't end well. 

Most reviews of the book focus on Rachel's inner struggle, her self-alienation. Rachel is a compellingly complex character with plenty of problems, many of them internal and many more derived from circumstance. But even with all her neuroses, I find Rachel's accounts of these services incredibly resonant. 
Singing. We have to stand, and I must try to make myself narrower so I won't brush against anyone. A piano crashes the tune. Guitars and one trombone are in support. The voices are weak at first, wavering like a radio not quite adjusted, and I'm shaking with effort not to giggle, although God knows it's not amusing me. The voices strengthen, grow muscular, until the room is swollen with the sound of a hymn macabre as the messengers of the apocalypse, the gaunt horsemen, the cloaked skeletons I dreamed of once when I was quite young, and wakened, and she said, "Don't be foolish -- Don't be foolish, Rachel -- there's nothing there." The hymn-sound is too loud -- it washes in my head, sea and waves of it.
Day of wrath! O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophet's warning!
Heaven and earth in ashes burning!
I hate this. I would like to go home. Sit down. The others are sitting down. Just don't be noticeable. Oh God -- do I know anyone? Suddenly I'm scanning rows, searching. Seek and ye shall find. Mrs. Pusey, ancient arch-enemy of my mother, tongue like a cat-'o-nine-tails, and Alvin Jarrett, who works at the bakery, and old Miss Murdoch from the bank. How in hell can I get out of this bloody place without being seen?
Of course, Rachel doesn't escape before the end of the service and we're treated to more of her sardonic inner monologue, occasionally interrupted by the words of a zealous preacher. The next chapter finds Rachel attending church again, this time with her mother (the unnamed woman scolding her for her young superstition in the passage above). While the Tabernacle service is full of flare, the Presbyterian church service is as bland as the members of the town establishment who attend it. Rachel, again, sees the service for what it is: an expression of the neutered desires of its congregation.
Here we are. Mother flicks through the Hymnary to look up the hymns in advance. I wonder what she believes, if anything. She's never said. It was not a subject for discussion. She loves coming to church because she sees everyone, and in spring the new hats are like a forest of tulips. But as for faith -- I suppose she takes for granted that she believes. Yet if the Reverend MacElfrish should suddenly lose his mind and speak of God with anguish or joy, or out of some need should pray with fierce humility as though God had to be there, Mother would be shocked to the core. Luckily it will never happen. 
Mr. MacElfrish's voice is as smooth and mellifluous as always, and he's careful not to say anything which might be upsetting. His sermon deals with Gratitude. He says we are fortunate to be living here, in plenty, and we ought not to take our blessings for granted. Who is likely to quibble with that? 
The wood in this church is beautifully finished. Nothing ornate -- heaven forbid. The congregation has good taste. Simple furnishings, but the grain of the wood shows deeply brown-gold, and at the front where the high alter would be if this had been a church which paid court to high alters, a stained-glass window shows a pretty and clean-cut Jesus expiring gently and with absolutely no inconvenience, no gore, no pain, just this nice and slightly effeminate insurance salesman who, somewhat incongruously, happens to be clad in a toga, holding his arms languidly up to something which might in other circumstances have been a cross.