Jian Ghomeshi and the Perils of the Non-Apology Apology

For too many men, the primary focus of #MeToo has always been on male redemption—leaving women to bear the costs of harm caused

Small rectangle of a letter containing a mea culpa

Last Friday, Jian Ghomeshi returned from the wilderness with a message: I’ve changed. In a long essay in The New York Review of Books, he assures readers that he spent the last four years, after sexual-assault allegations wiped out his career in late 2014, “reflecting” and now feels “deep remorse” for his actions. As part of his bid to prove he is now a better man, Ghomeshi bookends his mea culpa with anecdotes of admiring women he has since won over. “Chalk up one more human being who no longer thinks I’m a creep,” he writes, after describing how he became friends with a stranger who was initially predisposed to hate him.

Not quite a year after the initial, unstoppable momentum of #MeToo, a number of men who disappeared from the public arena—men who either admitted to, or still stand accused of, sexual misconduct—are now trying to stage comebacks. A few weeks before Ghomeshi’s essay appeared, Harper’s published a 7,000-word piece from John Hockenberry, the former WNYC radio host accused of multiple instances of sexual harassment, titled simply “Exile.” Also, little more than nine months after he copped to showing his “dick” to women and masturbating in front of them, Louis C.K. performed a surprise live-comedy set in New York City to enthusiastic applause. Around the same time, Matt Lauer, accused of sexually assaulting an NBC employee in his office, reportedly mused to fans at a New York steak house about his return to television. Each man’s reappearing act sparked discussion on social media about forgiveness, penance, and what #MeToo owes to the men whose lives it has—supposedly unfairly and overzealously—destroyed.

To succeed, these comebacks will depend not only on the institutional support of legacy magazines, media companies, famous comedy clubs, and powerful friends but also on the extent to which we allow the disgraced celebrities to mischaracterize and diminish the accusations against them. Harvey Weinstein, who has been criminally charged with several counts of sexual assault, addressed none of the allegations against him in his October 2017 public statement, but did admit the “way I’ve behaved with colleagues in the past has caused a lot of pain.” C.K. said he put women in a “predicament.” Hockenberry stressed he was “no rapist or sex offender” but was instead guilty of “improper, failed, and awkward attempts at courtship.”

Meanwhile, Ghomeshi accurately asserts that he was found not guilty—although he is careful not to portray the criminal counts against him as sexual-assault charges, which they were. Nor does he acknowledge that the withdrawal of his final sexual-assault charge, for which he entered into a peace bond, also came with a public apology, in which he admitted to sexually inappropriate behaviour. Kathryn Borel, who received that apology, was not so ambiguous: “Every day, over the course of a three-year-period,” she said, “Mr. Ghomeshi made it clear to me that he could do what he wanted to me and my body.”

Rather than acknowledge any of many accusations against him—which included biting, choking, and slapping—Ghomeshi contends he was merely “emotionally thoughtless,” examples of which include how he “leveraged [his] influence,” admitting that some women went along with what he wanted to “avoid my disappointment or moods.” Hockenberry—who at one point, suggests he was motivated to write about his “misfortunes” in part to provide “spirited defense of something once called romance”—similarly downplays two incidents that he agrees happened, in which he made aggressive sexual advances on coworkers. He laments that only one accuser has “responded to my heartfelt queries.”

For too many men, from observers to the accused, the primary focus of #MeToo has always been on male redemption. How quickly can they rally? What about their reputations? Can their careers be saved? Do they deserve the vast outpouring of hate and scorn? Indeed, in his interview with Slate, now former NYRB editor Ian Buruma claimed that he published Ghomeshi precisely because he wanted to explore whether people who have “behaved badly sexually” can ever come back from public purgatory. (The magazine confirmed today that Buruma was no longer at the helm, following the uproar over the essay itself, and Buruma’s response to it.) And, in his interview with the CBC, Harper’s publisher and president Rick MacArthur defended his decision to publish Hockenberry’s essay by saying that he wanted to counter what he calls the #MeToo movement’s “unfortunate tendency to lump together everybody from Harvey Weinstein to the guy who looked at you funny at the lunch room at the office canteen.” MacArthur then adds: “There is a distinction to be made, and the response in many cases has been disproportionate.”

In a sense, we are being asked to mourn the loss of everything these accused men have built—Ghomeshi reminds us that he once spoke to “hundreds of thousands of listeners” and was on “influential people” lists, and Hockenberry writes about his Emmy and Peabody awards—but we do not talk enough about how they may have built their careers and who lost in the process. Sexism and misconduct are not side effects of these men’s rise; they’re inextricably part of the reason for it, whether or not the men are aware of that. Such deeply ingrained abuse, and its deeper institutional support, has effectively cleared the playing field of so much competition: female colleagues who may have been smarter, more creative, better—if only they were not so distracted with dodging unwanted kissing, ass grabbing, dick exposure. Below the surface of these high-profile, headline-making accusations, in other words, is a story about the everyday erasure of women.

Male apologies, with the expectation of absolution, have been a #MeToo feature from the start. If anything, these nonapology apologies underscore that many men and women still have trouble agreeing on what constitutes egregious behaviour—let alone what it means to properly acknowledge it. Thanks to a culture that cushions, and even promotes, male misconduct, it’s entirely believable that men who’ve misbehaved have never once seen their actions as bad. Now, suddenly, they’re being forced to account for them. No wonder these men often sound as if they don’t truly buy it. Even men who claim to have thought long and hard on their deeds often interpret their behaviour in a way that’s directly at odds with what the women themselves say they’ve experienced.

The domino timing of these mea culpas is not coincidental either. As the notion that the #MeToo movement has overcorrected takes hold, the media’s hunger for a good #MeToo comeback can’t be separated from the need for things to return to the way they were. After C.K.’s first step back to centre stage, his friend and fellow comedian Norm Macdonald told The Hollywood Reporter that “there are very few people that have gone through what they have, losing everything in a day. Of course, people will go, ‘What about the victims?’ But you know what? The victims didn’t have to go through that.” (He later apologized.) Then there was Michael Ian Black, a comedian, who tweeted after C.K.’s return: “people have to be allowed to serve their time and move on with their lives. I don’t know if it’s been long enough, or his career will recover, or if people will have him back, but I’m happy to see him try.” (He apologized too.)

It’s this same line of thinking that appears in both Hockenberry’s and Ghomeshi’s essays, in which they lament being unable to work. What they really mean is that they are unable to work in the same field they left at the same level to which they are accustomed. At the same time, it’s worth remembering that harassment can often stall (or end) women’s careers. In a 2017 Gender & Society study, researchers found that 80 percent of the women they surveyed who reported sexual harassment changed jobs within two years. Put another way, women who were harassed were 6.5 times more likely to change jobs, even accounting for other factors, like the birth of a child. A 2018 Marketplace-Edison Research poll found that, of those women who’ve experienced workplace harassment, more than 46 percent say it caused them to quit their jobs or switch careers. One woman told Marketplace-Edison that what her career “has been shaped by most, more than any other factor, is the level of sexual harassment I faced.” That statement is not so different than Borel, the subject of Ghomeshi’s peace bond, asserting that she left the CBC and moved to California because of his behaviour.

And yet there is something positive about the these men forcing their way back into the spotlight with their inadequate apologies, confessions, and spilling of self-centred feelings. All of it is a stark reminder of how much work is left to do. If men like Ghomeshi keep retreating, it becomes easier for them to become symbols for all sides—not just shorthand for rape culture, but also shorthand for the perceived #MeToo injustices. Hockenberry becomes a martyr for men galled by his supposed “exile,” who can’t help imagine themselves in his shoes. But these comeback attempts also force us to step outside our own simple narratives and back into the difficult ones: we have to reckon with the reality that, despite the increasing attention to these conversations, we still don’t know what to do. We don’t know how to overturn the shocking regularity of workplace sexual harassment and misconduct. We don’t know how to dismantle lopsided, abusive power structures. We don’t know how to ensure #MeToo’s momentum becomes action. And we don’t know if these men can ever come back (or any time soon), because so much of it depends on untangling the twisted roots of everything that gives them impunity to act this way.

This new preoccupation with the way forward—for men—only reinforces the deep resistance to meaningful change. It reinforces how much we desperately need to keep talking about these issues, how we must create new frameworks and conversations. Surely, there will be a time when #MeToo must turn its attention to men. If they have no hope for redemption, why would they ever act differently? I look forward to men truly reflecting on their actions and listening to women, to men sharing those lessons with other men and stepping up to support organizations advocating for change. We can all agree that’s better than a surface apology, with no indication whether their behaviour will change or why it’s so important that it does.

But let’s be clear: women are not done talking yet. And if the #MeToo men are upset that, as some have claimed, they are being judged first and foremost by their gender, well, perhaps they have at last tasted some of what it means to be us.

Lauren McKeon
Lauren McKeon is deputy editor of Reader's Digest Canada and the author of two books, F-Bomb and No More Nice Girls.