One of the attractions of demagoguery—the political appeals to popular prejudices—is that it offers simple explanations to complex issues. Nuance can be lost in dangerous ways when demagoguery reigns supreme. It is often a pride of intellectuals to be champions of nuance in the fight against demagoguery. However, sometimes nuance can be a rhetorical tactic. This is apparent in the recent controversy surrounding the decision at the New York Review of Books to publish a piece by Jian Ghomeshi in their “The Fall of Men” issue.
As documented by the Toronto Star, Ghomeshi was accused of a slew of allegations of sexual assault during his time at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, to include acts of biting, choking, and punching women, resulting in a two-year media firestorm. While Ghomeshi was acquitted of the charges for insufficient evidence in one trial for four charges of sexual assault committed against three complainants, the other trial for another charge of sexual assault against a fourth complainant was dismissed, essentially, only after he agreed to make a public apology in exchange for a peace bond (the complainant sees this as an admission of guilt, but Ghomeshi’s lawyers claim otherwise). Sexual assault is notoriously difficult to prosecute, which is also compacted by how rarely it is reported.
Ghomeshi’s article in the NYRB paints a picture of the author as someone to be pitied because of damage to his career and social life, with sugarcoated admissions of guilt like this one: “I was emotionally thoughtless in the way I treated those I dated and tried to date.” He also wants to imply that he was a victim of internet rumors, rather than nearly five years of well-sourced reporting by The Toronto Star—their record shows that, at least, 15 women made allegations against him (this number is possibly conservative, as other outlets have cited more than 20 women).
We find the appeal to nuance at work, though, in another article by Isaac Chotiner from Slate that contains an interview of the editor, Ian Buruma, who approved the publication of Ghomeshi’s appeal for pity. Here, we gain insight into an explicit rationale for giving access to such a reputable and wide-reaching publication. Buruma wants to claim that we are at a cultural moment where we need to get “uncomfortable” and think about how we navigate conversations about sexual assault in the legal vs. social realm—and how Ghomeshi’s essay on the platform of the NYRB helps to accomplish this. As the interview progresses, the appeal to nuance is merely supported by good-old-fashioned “he said/she said” logics, much like the (sigh) same appeals were made by some in the academic community following sexual harassment accusations of NYU professor Avital Ronnell, as pointed out by Andrea Long Chu.
Chotiner asks Buruma that if he knew, for sure, that the allegations were true, whether he would still run the piece. Buruma responds coyly, saying it would depend what the allegations were. Chotiner responds, “punching women against their will,” to name one of the many specific allegations, to which Buruma answers that “sexual behavior is a many-faceted business.” In other words, it is complicated, it is not so simple. He claims that something like biting, for example, can be “construed differently in different circumstances.” Since so much information is available on Ghomeshi’s history, couldn’t he decide for himself what sort of “circumstance” these allegations of biting took place? Is there something more sinister in weighing the claims of multiple women against a decision to ultimately give this fellow media figure a prestigious platform?
Since Ghomeshi was never, technically, accused of rape, Buruma attempts to rationalize that “it’s a very different case” compared to something like Harvey Weinstein’s accusations, and he feels that people “very quickly conflate cases of criminal behavior with cases that are sometimes murkier and can involve making people feel uncomfortable, verbally or physically, and that really has very little to do with rape or criminal violence.” Even if we accept this premise, why does Ghomeshi get to write this article in a highly reputable publication? Why not someone else to write about the “murkiness” of sexual violence? Just like Brett Kavanaugh’s pursuit of a U.S. Supreme Court seat (and he is someone who arguably has less evidence against him than Ghomeshi does), what does the wider public “owe” these folks outside the court of law? Do they necessarily deserve a highly visible and credible publication of their writing—let alone a Supreme Court seat? Who gets to decide?