on firing Ian Buruma

Damon Linker thinks the firing of Ian Buruma is taking the #MeToo movement a step too far:

Buruma made a serious editorial misjudgment. But he became the focus of intense fury on Twitter and was fired for something else — for displaying insufficient outrage and indignation about Ghomeshi’s actions, and for seeing value in using Ghomeshi’s personal experience as an occasion for thinking about an aspect of the subject without first and foremost engaging in scorched-earth excoriation.

That is what is fast becoming unacceptable.

Damon is, as I have said often, one of the best columnists around, so I always take his views seriously, but I’m not convinced by his argument here. First, I wonder if Damon has accurately described the reasons for Buruma’s firing. None of us were privy to the conversations between Buruma and his employers, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they had asked him to apologize for his actions and words in ways he wasn’t prepared to do. Maybe the details will emerge later.

But even if he was simply summarily fired after his Slate interview I’m not sure that it’s right to say that Buruma simply “displayed insufficient outrage and indignation.” I want to look a little more closely at the details of that interview.

What is Buruma willing to say that Jian Ghomeshi did? He speaks of Ghomeshi as “being a jerk in many ways” and as belonging to a general class of people who “behaved badly sexually, abusing their power in one way or another” — people who “misbehaved.”

But his great emphasis is on the fact that Ghomeshi was not (or has not yet been) convicted of any crime: “in cases like his, where you have been legally acquitted … I am not talking about people who broke the law. I am not talking about rapists … What is much murkier is when people are not found to have broken the law … All I know is that in a court of law he was acquitted, and there is no proof he committed a crime … My concern is what happens to somebody who has not been found guilty in any criminal sense … All I know is that he was acquitted … 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.”

That last sentence seems especially troublesome. Isaac Chotiner, the interviewer, keeps reminding Buruma that several women have accused Ghomeshi of biting, choking, and punching them during sex. Buruma tries to wave this away: “Take something like biting. Biting can be an aggressive or even criminal act. It can also be construed differently in different circumstances.” No doubt this is literally true. But to assert that such behavior “really has very little to do with rape or criminal violence” is effectively to say that the women who claimed that Ghomeshi bit and punched and choked them in violent ways were wrong. The suggestion is very strong here that maybe all Ghomeshi did was “make them feel uncomfortable.”

Buruma repeatedly says — and in itself this is certainly defensible — that he doesn’t know what Ghomeshi did. “I don’t know if what all these women are saying is true. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it isn’t…. The exact nature of his behavior — how much consent was involved — I have no idea, nor is it really my concern.”

But what, then, is his concern? It is to learn what it feels like to be publicly “pilloried” as Ghomeshi has been. Again and again he characterizes Ghomeshi as someone who is the passive victim of something: Buruma claims to be interested in the experience of “finding your life ruined and being a public villain and pilloried,” of what it’s like to “have been legally acquitted but you are still judged as undesirable in public opinion…. My interest in running this piece, as I said, is the point of view of somebody who has been pilloried in public opinion and what somebody like that feels about it.”

So when we put all this together, we see that Buruma has no interest at all in what Ghomeshi did, but rather cares only about what has been done to him: the fact that he has been “pilloried,” not whether he has done anything to deserve such treatment. It’s especially telling that Buruma does not think Ghomeshi has ruined anything, but rather is “finding” his life ruined — like finding out you have cancer, or finding that your job has been eliminated. Buruma simply erases the causal links between Ghomeshi’s behavior and his experiences. And it is hard to see how this isolating of the experiences from their causes can have any effect other than to increase sympathy for Ghomeshi.

And the women who have complained about Ghomeshi’s treatment of them? Buruma says not one word about them. They too have been erased. What does it feel like to be them? That’s a question Buruma never asks. And he doesn’t ask it because, as he says, it isn’t his “concern.” It is not something that, editorially at least, he cares about.

Looking at this whole picture, I don’t think we see someone merely “displaying insufficient outrage and indignation about Ghomeshi’s actions.” I think we see a much deeper moral blindness — an excessive interest in one person’s sufferings and an utter lack of interest in the sufferings of others — that, to me, calls Buruma’s judgment seriously into question. If I had been his boss, I don’t know that I would have fired him; but after I saw that interview in Slate, firing him would have been my first option.