Thursday 23 January 2020

Brendan O'Connor: We must teach young men to call out bad behaviour

The rape trial poses a lot of challenging questions. But in a strange way Stuart Olding provides one answer, says Brendan O'Connor

REACTION: Julia Welc and Leah Dolan, from Clondalkin, at the rally held at City Hall yesterday. There has been a huge outpouring of support for the complainant in the Belfast case since the trial.Photo: INM
REACTION: Julia Welc and Leah Dolan, from Clondalkin, at the rally held at City Hall yesterday. There has been a huge outpouring of support for the complainant in the Belfast case since the trial.Photo: INM
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

At what point, you wonder, did people decide they needed to see the picture of the alleged victim. What was it? Could they not conjure the images of the various versions of events properly without her face? Or did people need to see her so they could see what type she was? Did they need a picture before they could pass judgment properly and decide for themselves what had gone on?

You can't blame people for looking when the pictures purporting to be the complainant were sent around. We already had every other intimate detail from this evening, or various versions of it. We talked about it incessantly. We all had theories. A favourite was to speculate at what point the complainant had decided she didn't like what was happening. Everyone had their own theory on that. As the evidence unfolded day by day people would change their views on the outcome. It was like a real-life Netflix drama that the whole country was bingeing on together. Or a Making a Murderer-style podcast. Some people would even get antsy on days where there was no new evidence to chew over. We criticise young people for seeing everything through the lens of social media, or porn, or shoot 'em up games. But the fact is that many of us saw this case through the lens of serial drama, a whodunnit.

There were, of course, lots of people with huge empathy, especially young women who had been victims of sexual assault, which, we are finding out, is far more women than we think. And there were those who were interested in the social, sexual, cultural and legal ramifications. As a journalist, you tell yourself you are following this because it is news, and because you are trying to figure out what it tells us about ourselves and the culture of this generation.

But there was no doubt an element of squinting windows. And there is no doubt, either, that social media is the new squinting windows. This is where salacious gossip is traded under the guise of concern for the subjects.

It is unedifying the relish with which we hoovered up the details and speculated. Lots of us started to feel a bit dirty, while continuing to eagerly read each new dispatch.

And, in fairness, the so-called rugby rape trial is leading to all kinds of conversations now. And we seem to have learnt some things from it.

It has led to a moment of reflection, and it might lead to some changes in how we do things, in life, and in the legal system.

This circus should never have happened. And it wouldn't have happened in this country. We wouldn't have known who the accused were in this country. And members of the public wouldn't have been able to pop in to get a gawk at the complainant facing her eight days in the witness box.

We wouldn't have known about her bloody knickers being passed around. Her name and the images purporting to be her would not have been so easily available.

But there are issues arising which are relevant in any jurisdiction. As is the way with social media, there is little nuance in the stances we have all taken in the aftermath of the trial.

You either say you believe her or else you are in some way tolerant of rape. The middle ground is that it's not yet a crime to be a complete dick.

These guys acted like dicks, entitled, Neanderthal dicks. But according to the legal system, which is the only mechanism we have to decide right now, they are not rapists or sexual assaulters.

You could be cynical and condescending about this and say that much of the outcry is the poor millennials, who have suddenly come face to face with the legal system and have realised that you don't always get the result you want. Just as they came face to face with democracy when Donald Trump got elected.

Some millennials had decided that the way justice worked in the realm of sex crimes is that the privileged accused get called out on Twitter, and then they get kicked out of Hollywood, or Silicon Valley, or wherever they were abusing their power. But of course, it's not so simple.

Because, as Margaret Atwood pointed out when she became a bad feminist: "My fundamental position is that women are human beings, with the full range of saintly and demonic behaviours this entails, including criminal ones. They're not angels, incapable of wrongdoing. If they were, we wouldn't need a legal system."

So social media, where ibelieveher and metoo originated, cannot replace the justice system. But it would seem the justice system needs to be fixed in regard to rape trials doesn't it? Let's face it. Judging by what we all saw in Belfast, you would not get involved in a rape trial if you were a woman.

As a man I think I might counsel a friend, a partner, a wife or a daughter against getting involved with the legal system.

But equally, as a man, I would not want a friend, a brother or a son to be judged and punished on social media. I would want him to have the full protection of the legal system. Because, as Atwood points out, women do lie, or make mistakes.

Metoo has stalled slightly in Sweden right now after Benny Fredriksson, artistic director of Stockholm's leading arts and culture centre, took his own life after a raft of accusations against him and an investigation found last week that there was no evidence of sexual misconduct by him.

Changing the conduct of rape trials is going to be complex and difficult because accusations do have to be rigorously tested.

Let's hope this case isn't just another social media outpouring that comes to nothing. Let's hope we find a way to change things.

More immediately there is something we can do. And it's quite simple. And the way forward, in a strange way, was shown by Stuart Olding.

You might think Olding's statements during and after the trial, and those of his lawyer during the week, were cynical. But let's give Olding the benefit of the doubt for a minute, because what he said is useful anyway. In the court, he said he was ashamed of his behaviour and the way he spoke about that poor girl.

Afterwards he did what Jackson was not willing to do, and he said, while maintaining his innocence, that he was sorry for the hurt caused to the complainant.

Olding's lawyer, Paul Dougan, told Sean O'Rourke last Thursday that he thought Stuart Olding was a different person now to the person he was that night.

I say all this, not in any way to make Olding out to be a good guy. But maybe he gives us one agreed starting point here, something we can all get behind.

Olding knows he was a dick, and he is ashamed of it. And he is clearly trying not to be a dick anymore.

This case is an opportunity to tease out a lot of issues, from consent, to porn filling the vacuum left by no meaningful sexual education for or conversation with our kids. It is an opportunity to look too at how we treat rape complainants in the legal system. It is an opportunity also to look at the culture of young men and the culture around sports.

But what if we all agreed that rape or not, one good thing we could all agree now is that we teach young men not to be dicks? And what if we instilled in young men not to tolerate their friends being dicks, that they call it out, and make it shameful.

It's not the whole answer, but it is one answer. Don't be a dick.

Sunday Independent

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