In her new book Had It Coming, Globe and Mail investigative reporter Robyn Doolittle attempts the near-impossible: a nuanced, open-minded, de-politicized discussion of our post-#MeToo world. Doolittle rose to fame covering the Rob Ford crack video for the Toronto Star and changed the way Canadian police forces handle sexual-assault allegations with her 2017 Globe series Unfounded. That project came out in February of 2017, eight months before allegations against Harvey Weinstein became the tipping point that would culminate in a cultural reckoning. But if this uprising is long overdue, it’s also complicated and fraught with not a lot of easy answers. Here, Doolittle chats with Refinery29 about why we need to move away from snap judgments, her conflicts around the Aziz Ansari allegations, and how to have meaningful #MeToo conversations without ruining Thanksgiving.
Let’s talk about the book's title, which can be read a lot of different ways.
The idea of the title is kind of threefold. It started from the position of flipping this old trope of "she" had it coming — she was dressed provocatively, she had too much to drink — to this idea that maybe men need to start scrutinizing their actions more if they want to avoid being in a bad situation. But then it’s also this idea of how this cultural moment has been a long time coming — like we have had it coming. #MeToo didn’t start in October 2017. In the book I try to map out the evolution looking back at the Kobe Bryant trial and how the woman involved in that case was treated, the many times that R. Kelly was exposed as being an alleged predator and no one really talked about it. You started to see the first cracks in Canada with Jian Ghomeshi and [in the U.S.] with Bill Cosby around the same time.
I’ve gotta say, reading your book probably left me with more questions than answers. Was that the goal?
Yes, that’s good. The book came about after I did my Unfounded series. Basically, I spent two years really immersed in these issues — looking at rape myths and stereotypes and how they lead the justice system to disproportionately dismiss sexual-assault complaints. I thought that I had a really clear understanding of the situation and then #MeToo happened. As more and more stories were coming out and we got more and more into the issues, I realized I didn’t really have my mind made up on a lot of these things because I’d never really thought about them before. For the first time we’re having to confront certain realities and I think it’s important to take a while to think everything through and not rush to snap judgments.
No snap judgments!? What are we supposed to do on Twitter?
I know, exactly. I think we want to resist going straight for the hot take and make room for the idea that when we take the time to really consider things, our opinions are likely to evolve.
A lot of your own evolution was happening in real time in the book.
Absolutely. It made the writing challenging because I would write something and then I would have to go back and reconsider. One of the issues I thought I had a really definitive opinion on was whether women are drinking too much at parties. My snap judgment is that of course a woman should be able to drink as much as she wants at a party and only worry about her bank account and a hangover. Of course, I really do believe that. At the same time, I have two very young daughters and when I think about them going to high-school parties, I know that I’m going to have conversations with them about alcohol in the context of safety and avoiding putting themselves into vulnerable positions. This is something I discussed with Susan Brownmiller, who is an iconic second-wave feminist author and who has more recently expressed some opinions that haven’t been very popular with the younger generation of feminists. I think my point is that you can make an effort to understand where people are coming from even if you don’t agree.
One of the topics that comes up frequently in the book is the difference between what’s legal versus what’s moral. Why is this such an important distinction when discussing #MeToo?
We see this a lot when someone comes forward with an accusation and the discussion is, "well why didn’t she go to the police," or "this isn’t going to result in a charge." It just misses the point. If someone comes out and says, "I don’t think this is criminal," it’s like that means it isn’t wrong either. It’s not illegal to cajole someone into having sex. That doesn’t mean it isn’t really bad or abhorrent behaviour on the part of the guy. So if I’m saying, for example, I don’t think the Aziz Ansari story is a sexual assault, that doesn’t mean it’s okay or fair. I think we need room for evaluating behaviour on a continuum.
The Ansari story comes up a lot in the book, I think precisely because of the ambiguity. Most of us can agree that Harvey Weinstein is a pig who can jump off a cliff, but that doesn’t mean we’re making progress.
Definitely. One of the moments for me when this book crystallized was when I was talking with some of my friends about the Aziz story and we all had different views on his alleged behaviour. My question was, "Is this really fair that he was so publicly dragged?" My friend’s feeling was, "Look, he had it coming. If he didn’t want this to happen, he should have been more respectful to his date."
For me, the Aziz story felt important precisely because it was so problematic.
I think the discussion around the Aziz allegations are probably the most important conversation that we need to be having. I guess as a journalist I have problems with the way the story was presented, but on the other hand, this is the behaviour that so many women are encountering. My friend’s position is that if a famous man weren’t attached to the story, we would never be having discussion around non-verbal consent. Is it okay that someone was publicly embarrassed because it’s for the greater good? I don’t know, but I have time for that argument.
You talk about how if we want to make any progress we need to depoliticize #MeToo.
What we’ve seen in general is this retreat into our own camps, tribalism. Once your group takes a stance on something you’re more likely to adopt that stance and unfortunately #MeToo is an issue that different political groups have a default position on. Which is too bad. It really doesn’t make sense that someone’s views on immigration or the carbon tax should impact how they feel about protecting and supporting women, but that’s how this has unfolded. The result is people aren’t having honest conversations so much as they’re strengthening their positions within their own groups, which is not going to get us anywhere.
I’m reminded of the recent encounter between Justin Trudeau and Bianca Andreescuu at the rally to celebrate her US Open victory. Depending on your politics, it was either two great Canadians celebrating a victory or a powerful man groping a 19-year-old.
This is exactly what I’m talking about. Especially because, if it wasn’t Trudeau, the opinions would probably switch. If it was just a random man, you can imagine progressives talking about personal space and power dynamics and conservatives would be the ones saying "Oh my god, these social-justice warriors are crazy." What is the world coming to? It’s a war on men!
In an earlier draft I touched on those allegations as part of a chapter that looks at how we need to make space for men to talk openly and to atone in the cases where that is appropriate. I think with the groping allegations against Trudeau, I don’t know what happened there exactly. I don’t think it was a call-the-cops situation, so it’s a great example of the ethical versus the legal. What would be amazing is if he could have come out and said, "I probably did that, I was too handsy with that woman. This is how I realize I was wrong, this is how I have evolved." Instead what I imagine happened — and I don’t know this — but it seems like there was a strategy to issue an underwhelming statement and then try to move on. Politically that probably makes sense because I don’t think we’re in a place where men can come out and say, "Yes, I was inappropriate with this woman." One of the experts I speak with in the book is Jeff Perera, who is an expert on healthy masculinity. He talks about how we need real-life examples of men coming out and admitting wrongdoing without being crucified.
During your research you tweeted a question about whether there could be a path to redemption for Jian Ghomeshi and what that might look like. How would you answer that same question now?
I think a lot of the problem is when bad behaviour crosses into a criminal context, there is a risk that any kind of admission of wrongdoing could open a person up to charges. And maybe that’s what facing the music looks like, maybe that’s the right thing to do. When you look at Ghomeshi, he faced more than 20 allegations of impropriety, and not all of them went to court. He hasn’t really addressed those and he didn’t address them in the essay that he wrote in the New York Review of Books, which is what led to my tweet about his redemption. I think there could have been room for him to mount a better version of that essay, but he is also someone who I think most people don’t think he deserves a second chance. At least not to return to the level of celebrity.
Well that’s the whole thing. When you look at a lot of the high-profile men who have lost their jobs because of #MeToo investigations, it feels like they’re less interested in real redemption than returning to their previous position of wealth and celebrity.
Right, like say sorry and you can get your radio show back. Again, I think it’s the range of behaviour that needs to be considered. Do I want to hear Jian Ghomeshi on the radio again? No, I don’t. Do I want to see another season of Master of None? Yes.
Thanksgiving is around the corner. Got any tips on how to respond when a family member says something that makes you want to flight the mashed potatoes in their face?
In the book I talk about how, as a journalist, there are certain trigger words that signal to your crowd that you’re on the "right" side of an issue. My argument is that if we know what those words are, we should avoid using them. So if you’re at Thanksgiving and your Uncle Bob starts ranting about women trying to lock up all men — if you actually want him to evolve on his thinking, yelling at him about the patriarchy and rape culture is probably not going to do that. Maybe you want to ask him about why he thinks the way he does, explain why you see it differently.
Or you can quietly leave the table and rage cry in the bathroom.
Ha! You know it’s true. The bookcomes back again and again to this idea that conversation is the way forward,but that said, we don’t have to engage with everyone. Sometimes it’s okay tojust get through dinner.