The power of speech

Sunday Star-Times - - News - Jonathan Milne ed­i­to­rial

The ac­cused said noth­ing as he en­tered the court. He just smiled. That same half-smile so fa­mil­iar from many of his 86 tele­vi­sion, movie and stage cred­its, the smile we saw when he ac­cepted his two Acad­emy Awards. And the crin­kles around his light brown eyes, so pierc­ing they could wound at 20 paces. Even in the crim­i­nal dock this week, charged with sex­ual as­sault, Kevin Spacey had an un­de­ni­able pres­ence.

Per­haps it was good, then, that he had noth­ing to say at Nan­tucket Dis­trict Court­house. His ac­cusers believe Spacey has used that South­ern drawl and charis­matic Hol­ly­wood clout to si­lence those he has harmed.

If there has been one thing that has dis­tin­guished the #MeToo move­ment, it’s that sex­ual as­sault sur­vivors feel sup­ported to speak the sto­ries they have felt too fear­ful to tell, un­til now.

‘‘Most men who come for­ward aren’t 19 years old; my son is an ex­cep­tion,’’ says Heather Un­ruh, whose son was al­legedly as­saulted by Spacey. ‘‘Most men live with a dark se­cret for a long time. One in six men are sex­u­ally as­saulted by the time they’re 18. Why isn’t any­one talk­ing about that?’’

She is right: de­spite our seem­ing trans­parency in post­ing pho­tos of our lunch on In­sta­gram, to­day’s gen­er­a­tions still strug­gle with a legacy of guilt and mis­guided pri­vacy; there is much we bot­tle up.

As many as four out of five women ex­pe­ri­ence sex­ual ha­rass­ment; one in three suf­fers a sex­ual as­sault. I spoke to Har­vard Med­i­cal School teach­ing as­so­ciate Dr Jim Hop­per this week­end: he says the preva­lence of men be­ing sex­u­ally as­saulted is closer to the rates for women than once be­lieved – that ‘‘dark se­cret’’ of which Heather Un­ruh speaks.

With ev­ery per­son who chooses to tell their story, though, it be­comes eas­ier for those who are nurs­ing a painful se­cret to know they’re not alone. Peo­ple we meet, peo­ple we know, my friends and I, now find it’s not so scary to talk about our ex­pe­ri­ences. Yes, me too. As a 19-year-old, in­ex­pe­ri­enced in the world, a stranger plied me with un­fa­mil­iar drugs then sex­u­ally as­saulted me.

I felt ashamed, then. Now, I no longer do. I believe we blokes need to talk more about this cul­ture that en­ables per­pe­tra­tors and en­dan­gers vic­tims.

As we learn the power of speech, we can teach our kids about re­spect­ing them­selves and re­spect­ing oth­ers. I have three young boys: it will be­come eas­ier to talk to them about grow­ing up to be good men.

And that’s why this col­umn is not about #MeToo. This is about the power of speech. It is about the im­por­tance of old me­dia and new me­dia and reg­u­lar peo­ple com­ing to­gether shoul­der-toshoul­der in the street to share ex­pe­ri­ences and to en­gi­neer change. Trust­ing our­selves to talk openly, and act fairly.

In the Star-Times we hear from ‘‘J’’ who says she was abused as a child, but is barred by law from telling her own story with­out the agree­ment of the court and her al­leged as­sailant. We re­port on a pro­posed law change to con­ceal the iden­tity of po­lice of­fi­cers who shoot peo­ple. We have re­counted the frus­tra­tions of par­ents who are banned from talk­ing through a child’s sui­cide. We’ve met bul­lied work­ers whose com­pa­nies im­pose dra­co­nian gag­ging orders. We en­counter wealthy celebri­ties who hire ex­pen­sive lawyers to pro­tect some quite ridicu­lous pri­vacy ex­pec­ta­tions.

We tell our kids, no se­crets. But as a com­mu­nity, we’re strug­gling to bal­ance pri­vacy and open­ness, con­fi­den­tial­ity and ac­count­abil­ity.

As a jour­nal­ist, I believe shak­ing off some of those shack­les and gags can of­ten bring about pow­er­ful change. We’ve seen it as refugees open our eyes to their ex­pe­ri­ences. We’ve seen it in­spire ho­mo­sex­ual law re­form. We’ve seen it with #MeToo.

When you speak, whether in a quiet tweet or on the front of the news­pa­per or by fil­ing a charge in Nan­tucket Court­house, you give courage to oth­ers.

Telling our sto­ries can bring about pow­er­ful change

Jonathan Milne fin­ishes to­day as ed­i­tor of the Sun­day StarTimes, Sun­day News and Stuff Sun­days. This is his fi­nal col­umn.

Kevin Spacey en­ters court.

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