An inappropriate joke by an MP is not really a #MeToo moment: Robyn Urback
James Bezan's quip was supremely dumb. But it shouldn't be conflated with the stories of chronic abuse
There have been many phenomenal successes as a result of the #MeToo movement, not the least of which has been watching once-untouchably powerful men brought down by revelations of their own misbehaviour. Women are no longer afraid to come forward, and everyone is thinking more carefully about how their behaviour affects others. There's no question that, for these and many more reasons, the movement has been an unrivalled force for good.
But there have been small casualties along the way, one of which seems to be respect for nuance — a topic that Alheli Picazo explored in a recent column for CBC. Picazo outlined the danger of conflating boorish and offensive behaviours with those that are predatory, exploitative and criminal: all of them are wrong, to be clear, but the latter is usually habitual and devastating for its victims, whereas the former can be addressed and corrected, and usually does not derail the lives of those it affects.
'Inappropriate and insensitive comment'
The comment by Conservative MP James Bezan indeed falls, or should fall, into that less-severe category. While posing for a photo-op back in May with Liberal MP Sherry Romanado and another MP, Bezan said, "This isn't my idea of a threesome," a quip that Romanado says caused her "great stress" and humiliation.
The first the public heard about it was in the Commons Monday afternoon, when Bezan stood up to apologize for an "inappropriate and insensitive comment." At the time, we didn't know what he actually said, but we can assume he caught wind of the fact that Romanado would bring it up.
It was after that statement that Romanado rose to call out Bezan for his "humiliating and unwanted" sexual remark. "These comments have caused me great stress and negatively affected my work environment," she said, though she didn't say what the comments were, and her office likewise declined to elaborate.
It was only later, when Bezan issued a statement, that we learned the nature of his comments.
That might be a small detail, but it's a crucial one: when discourse around inappropriate sexual conduct is dominated by images of a lumpy Harvey Weinstein holding a bottle of massage oil and creepy Roy Moore groping teenagers, we tend to think the worst when we hear of "humiliating and unwanted" sexual remarks. But there is a world of difference between "Just touch it" and "This isn't my idea of a threesome." Both are dumb and inappropriate, but only one is chilling.
Bezan's statement also revealed there was a long process of dealing with his remark that concluded several months ago. The chief human resources officer received a formal complaint in May, when Bezan said he offered to enter mediation so he could apologize. The request was denied, so the office launched a review, during which Bezan said he offered a written apology.
A few months later, the chief human resources officer completed his report, which "did not support a claim of sexual harassment" and recommended no disciplinary action. Bezan said he apologized again and completed sensitivity training offered by the House.
I suspect that Romanado decided to bring it up now — she reportedly raised it in a caucus meeting last week as well — in the spirit of #MeToo, feeling emboldened by the brave women who have come forward with their stories of harassment and abuse. But her story is not of harassment and abuse: it is one of exposure to a rude, oafish comment, for which the culprit has rightly apologized.
I'm not sure what is to be achieved by airing this publicly: we know harassment is a problem on the Hill, and we know that female politicians, in particular, have to grapple with an onslaught of abuse. But there is a difference between hordes of trolls calling Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne a "disgusting lesbian" on Twitter or a politician preying on his intern, and a fellow MP making an ill-conceived joke.
A flimsy example
Turning the latter example into a major issue ends up serving the interests of skeptics who think this #MeToo business has gotten out of control. And for some, it may trivialize the stories of exploitation of power, chronic abuse and unwelcome sexual advances. It's that nuance thing, which, I think, Romanado has forgotten.
Make no mistake: Romanado was right to complain at the time. And it is her prerogative as to whether she wants to accept Bezan's apology. But turning this issue into a spectacle now was, I believe, an unwise decision. It's a flimsy, ill-fitting example of what is a real and grievous issue.
I am certain that I will be accused of victim-blaming for sharing such views — an accusation for which, really, I have no defence. I am being critical of someone who was exposed to an inappropriate comment. I just think it's foolish to assume that every single woman who makes any sort of accusation against a man should be automatically immune from any sort of criticism. There's nuance to be had here. It shouldn't be verboten to acknowledge that.