The court of public opinion usually gets a bad rap.
After all, we have a judicial system. It is based on cold evidence, not hot emotion. We trust our juries and judges to be impartial, to make decisions based on facts. We do not seek justice at the hands of a torch-bearing mob.
The system is imperfect. Still, we believe in it.
So last Sunday afternoon, when the court of public opinion opened its chambers for the unscheduled trial of Jian Ghomeshi, the real judicial system seemed to be under siege.
The scales of justice had been replaced by a blender that was filled with murky innuendo, gossip, rumour, speculation and then set to “puree.”
The CBC delivered its opening statement, which basically was this: “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Ghomeshi has committed an act so repulsive, we must let him go.” The network’s former star countered with a longer version of this: “These prudes object to my kinky sex life.”
In the court of public opinion, this is where it usually ends. There is a dispute. We hear about it. We take sides. Then we shrug and the real system takes over.
But this time, the case has taken place entirely in the people’s court.
With the exception of two Facebook posts, we have not seen or heard from the defendant. There was no press conference, no primetime interview. Ghomeshi vanished into the ether. It’s as if he no longer exists.
As the evidence was presented by the media, starting Monday with an investigation in the Star, Ghomeshi’s missing silhouette was filled in with horrifying tales of alleged violence against women. He was recast as a Jekyll and Hyde. He could be charming one minute. The next, he was biting and choking and punching.
On Sunday night, the jury was split. By Friday, the evidence seemed overwhelming: a monster had been lurking in the spotlight for years. What we heard was ugly and unsettling. The bit about Big Ears Teddy made us nostalgic for the more innocent days of Rob Ford smoking crack.
As new victims emerged, as the narrative veered away from Ghomeshi’s defense — that this was a smear campaign led by one “jilted” ex-girlfriend — something else became clear: the court of public opinion is far more powerful than we thought.
You might go one step further and ask: Is what transpired even possible inside the real system?
There’s a reason women are reluctant to report sexual assaults. The real system, built upon a presumption of innocence, is stacked in favour of the accused. Most assaults involve a known assailant. A case often devolves into a “he said, she said” impasse.
The problem is she needs to say so much more than he.
She has to share intimate and painful details with strangers. She has to relive the attack. She has to endure skepticism and, often, outright hostility. She may be stigmatized. She may be subjected to a cross-examination so heartless and invasive, it feels like a second, third and fourth assault.
That’s if there even is a trial, which usually there is not.
But over the last week, something remarkable happened. A protective tent was pitched inside the court of public opinion, that ethereal space that connects minds and cuts across media, social media and our living rooms.
And the women felt safe enough to come inside and share their stories.
We should not underestimate the courage this required, especially when you consider some of the nastiness that emerged online in the first couple of days as outraged Ghomeshi fans engaged in victim blaming.
We should also not underestimate how the court of public opinion made any of this possible.
The women do not know one another. If they had gone to the authorities when the alleged assaults happened, they would have done so alone, one at a time, at different times over the years. It would be the word of one younger, more vulnerable woman against the word of one older, more powerful man.
How do you think this would end?
The court of public opinion erased some of these institutional biases. Suddenly, there was strength in numbers. These women were not alone. They had one another. More important, they had us. They came forward after the story broke because the court of public opinion seemed like the exact opposite of the real system.
As they talked, we listened. As we listened, they were believed.
This, too, should not be underestimated.
It’s been a traumatic week. This is a tragedy for all involved — the victims, Ghomeshi and the CBC. Yet amid all of the ugliness, as we the people watched from our virtual benches, a startling amount of good seemed to escape from the bad.
How do you find justice in a case that may never get deep inside the real system? Usually, you don’t. But this week, even before a police investigation was launched on Friday, justice seemed to be served inside the court of public opinion.