Suspicion no basis for a fair fight against harassment
CHRIS Gayle, international cricketer. Scott Briggs, Minister of the Crown. Jamie Clements, NSW Labor Party General Secretary.
Three powerful men became the public face of sexual harassment in Australia in recent weeks.
Ironically, their respective punishments have been in inverse proportion to the degree of proof against them, proving perhaps that in the age of identity politics it’s difficult, if not impossible, for any public figure to fight what one might call “identity accusations”.
The denial of certain accusations serves only to demonstrate the intractable nature of the broader problem of victimisation, as the difficult process of proof and determination gets in the way of the organisation “taking a stand” and demonstrating their “zero tolerance”.
Defence of the accused can demonstrate that the organisation/person/official, “just doesn’t get it”.
Jamaican Chris Gayle helpfully at least cleared up any need for troublesome investigations and fact finding by committing his crime on national television with true egomaniacal sportsman aplomb. Sports journalist Mel Mclaughlin was visibly uncomfortable when Gayle complimented her looks and suggested a post-game drink.
“Don’t blush baby” was his not so soothing verbal balm.
Gayle’s reluctant “I’m really sorry for that” apology probably deserves a place in the top 10 non-apology public apologies.
I couldn’t work out what was more sadly amusing – Gayle’s arrogance or his club’s Media Management 101 attempts to feed the beast with an insincere apology from the player.
Whether it was culturally specific banter, a dare posed in the change room, true sexism, or a combination of all three, there was no fighting the allegations for Gayle, just arguing about what it all meant.
(Cocky sleaze bag was my conclusion, especially after checking out his Instagram account – the guy has a strip stage in his house. Enough said). Interestingly, some of the most damming critiques of his actions I read were in the online Jamaican press. Cultural relativism travels well it seems.
Harassment or not, the public nature of Gayle’s conduct towards the successful and respected journalist ensured it was something very far from the insidious covert harassment that happens in workplaces across Australia, where woman (sometimes men) are belittled, pressured and made to feel very alone. His most vehement critics wanted him rubbed out of the game and the social media bucketing was torrid. Fined a trifling $10,000 by his club, Gayle finished his season and took to social media inviting his critics to “kiss my black rass”.
The Scott Briggs saga is a murkier tale. Briggs was on an official visit to Hong Kong (as part of a world tour of public transport systems – suspiciously junket sounding) when he decided to conclude his last day of official business with a night out on the tiles.
Chief of Staff and junior diplomat in tow, the night concluded at a crowded bar at 2am. The junior diplomat later complained that his behaviour had not been “appropriate”. From the media reports it seems the complaint was he stood too close to the woman, complimented her on having piercing eyes and kissed her at the end of the night – on the cheek according to Briggs, on the neck according to the diplomat (in the real world a crucial difference). Bad judgement at least has been proven.
Following a complaint, a committee of Cabinet considered the matter and Briggs was forced to resign. Unclear from the media coverage is whether the minutiae of the interactions was subjected to fact finding, whether the location of the kiss was determined, whether the Chief of Staff and Briggs concurred the compliment had been given, whether the closeness of the standing was confirmed.
Context and facts in such matters are everything. A slimy come-on to a junior public servant by a Minister of the Crown is loathsome, but if the former Minister’s version is correct, it’s not at all clear that’s what occurred. Did the politics of the issue make a defence impossible? Briggs was sacked from the Ministry but remains in Parliament, hoping no doubt for a restoration.
Jamie Clements resigned this week as General Secretary of NSW Labor. Last year a parliamentary staffer, with whom he had apparently previously had an affair, made a complaint against him.
It seems she had told Clements she intended revealing to her fiancé the fact of the affair. Clements, it was alleged, locked the door of the room, warned her that such a revelation would ruin them both, demanded a kiss and then uttered that most cliqued of misogynist lines: “you know you want it”.
An independent parliamentary inquiry cleared Clements, finding “insufficient insufficient corroborating evidence, on the balance of probabilities, to substantiate the allegations”.
An apprehended violence order application was later withdrawn. What was never withdrawn however was a remorseless and effective media campaign by Clements’ political enemies. Acting Labor leader Linda Burney didn’t even pretend the outcome accorded with due process.
“While there are clearly two different versions of events, this matter needs to be resolved now in the interests of the party and its members”.
Clements is left jobless, his political future in tatters. I find this impossible to celebrate, because I don’t know where the truth lies.
NSW Labor MP Lynda Voltz this week criticised the application by the Parliament of the “balance of probabilities” test to the accusation against Clements.
“If this is the bar we are going to set for women wanting to make a complaint of sexual harassment there will be a lot of women discouraged from coming forward”, she said.
The obvious problem of course is that the only standard of proof we have below the balance of probabilities is mere suspicion. Is this really the standard anyone, male or female, is willing to accept in the name of combating the scourge of sexual harassment?
To me the three tales offer an interesting insight into the rush to condemnation that can occur when an individual accusation (or proven wrong in Gayle’s case) fits within a meta-narrative of victimisation.
None of the three is a particularly sympathetic character to many Australians (cricketer, politician, political operative) but one can query whether we would (or should) accept in our own non-public lives the treatment they have received.
Public policy must be informed by wider social realities, but applying a big picture approach to the individual circumstances of contested interpersonal interactions between actual human beings, in all their diversity and uniqueness, is rife with danger for those involved.
The only standard of proof we have below the balance of probabilities is mere suspicion. Is this really the standard anyone is willing to accept in the name of combating the scourge of sexual harassment?