Rehtaeh reaction

Not surprisingly, yesterday’s Contrarian post on the furore over Rehtaeh Parsons’ death has produced a lot of email, pro and con. Much of the angry reaction appeared on Twitter, where Contrarian tweets as @kempthead.

Before sampling the reader response, two important preliminaries:

  • What Rehtaeh’s family has been through this week is about as awful as human experience gets. They have been loyal in support of their daughter, and courageous in their rejection of vigilante action against those accused of abusing her. Whatever one’s views on the issues I raised, compassion for this family ought to be universal.
  • As I said yesterday,  if you or anyone you know are having suicidal thoughts, please call the toll-free Kid’s Help Line at 1-800-668-6868 or the toll-free Suicide Prevention Line at 1-888-429-8167. Also please check out this website, and this list of warning signs.
  • Any effort to completely decouple sex and alcohol is bound to fail, but by the time they reach puberty, all boys and girls ought to clearly understand that a person of any age who is drunk to the point of throwing up cannot legally consent to sex, and anyone who has sex with someone in that state is committing a sexual assault.

Jeremy Akerman writes:

Just because we think we know something does not make it fact. Nor does something become fact because we want to believe it. Actually, we know very few actual facts about this whole affair. Of the original incident, we know what one person said that another person said had taken place. This whole matter has been subsumed by mob hysteria. The role of Anonymous is particularly sinister. They talk of sending “teams of investigators” to uncover the truth. More like a few self righteous people picking up gossip around cafes and school gates. These “investigators” got the Amanda Todd case horribly wrong when they “outed” a totally innocent man. It is surprising he was not killed.  What I have been saying is this: Leave the torches and pitchforks in the shed for the time being. Let us wit until we get all the facts before we start lynching people.

A reader called Patrice (no last name) writes:

Did you read Anonymous’ response? According to the boys’ peers, they were bragging that they committed the rape, even while showing them the picture they took to prove it. Similarly to the way teens sometimes arrange, film and upload videos of school beatings to Youtube.

Did they feed false testimony to the RCMP? Did their parents? Maybe all the kids who heard them brag but didn’t report it should be charged as well for not reporting it.

I would read Patrice’s comments and those from Anonymous, in the context of Jeremy Akerman’s remarks. Anonymous is not gathering evidence. It’s gathering rumours, gossip, and multiple hearsay in a superheated environment from excited and possible distraught or fearful young informants. Such activity has no place in the justice process.

A reader who asked that her name be withheld out of concern for her employment wrote:

In the rush for a salacious story, the media have—with a couple of notable exceptions—told one side of this story, while ignoring the pivotal issue: mental health.

Parents sometimes want someone to blame because they cannot accept that this happened to their child. But it does. And sometimes there is no blame. Ask the Fountain family, which lost their much-loved son to depression. Or the family of Jay Smith, who was talented, popular and loved.

I take issue with the media coverage of this case for the reasons you have mentioned. They have—with a couple of exceptions—made her death a one-cause suicide, which is the very thing that psychiatrists advise them not to do. They have glorified her death and made her a martyr. Mental health is more complicated than that.

We don’t know if she was medication, some of which produces suicidal tendencies. We don’t know why she released from hospital. We don’t know if she was raped because we have only heard from her mother, who is devastated and grief-stricken. The RCMP say it was a he-said, she-said case, but we have not heard from the he side.

The one thing I did find unsettling about this story was the family’s contention that it took the RCMP ten months to interview the alleged rapists. If this is accurate—and hopefully we will find out—then I do not believe that was acceptable.

This is one point I hold in common with those demanding an inquiry. If the facts Rehtaeh’s family hve reported are true—that it took 10 months to interview the boys, and they were interviewed in a group—then this requires an explanation. But there may be an explanation. No one is compelled to give evidence against themselves, and the boys may have had legal counsel who set the conditions for the interview. The point is: we just don’t know, and assuming the worst is unhelpful.

Colin May writes:

We don’t know all the facts, and never will. TV news has been treating this quite sensationally, including Evan Solomon. The lust for ratings knows no bounds, although CTV this afternoon had a very good interview with a Toronto criminal lawyer; tasteful and sensitive.

Chris McCormick quoted the moving public statement by Rehtaeh’s father, Glen Canning. [Link is to the Toronto Sun, because Canning’s website has been overwhelmed by traffic and knocked offline.]

“You have the opportunity here to do something good and let’s face it, the court system in Nova Scotia was just going to rape her all over again with indifference to her suffering and the damage this did to her. My daughter wasn’t bullied to death, she was disappointed to death. Disappointed in people she thought she could trust: her school, and the police. She was my daughter, but she was your daughter too. For the love of God do something.

“I’ve been contacted from media outlets from all over the world and as a past member of the media I understand why you all want to speak with me. You have all been very courteous, professional, and respectful. Please know, however, this is the only statement I am able to make. I’m [too] devastated. I feel like I’m dead inside.”

From Ian Johnston via Facebook:

I’ve appalled by what I’ve been reading from here in Toronto. Come on folks. Get a grip. It’s like hysteria….

[T]he most telling repeated line I continually see is that, “We need an investigation to get justice….” assuming of course a re-investigation will reveal an injustice. Seems a bit of a leap. As you said, folks seem to have leapt to the assumption of wrong-doing and are unprepared for if a new investigation gets the same result.

From another reader who asked me to withhold his name because, “I do not want to be attacked by a vigilante mob, or hacked by a bunch of outlaw geeks.”

Thank you for publishing your thoughtful perspective on the Parsons case. I find it deeply troubling on a number of levels – not just the obvious and utterly justifiable grief her family and friends must be enduring, but perhaps even more due to the apparent public reaction or, perhaps more accurately, overreaction.

This is an extremely complex situation, and as seems to happen far too often, the news media is appearing to overlook some basic questions that seem rather obvious.

[This reader then speculates on certain unknowns about the case, which I will omit out of concern for those involved, and the fact that, just like the inflammatory comments of those demanding vengeance, they are pure speculation.]

…I am deeply troubled by the knee-jerk reaction by far too many people towards wanting to lock the alleged perpetrators up forever without due process. I am equally troubled by those who in one breath blame our public institutions for what happened, and in the next call for MORE institutional  intervention to solve such problems. The disconnect there seems rather obvious to me…

I am going to try to tune much of this out over the next while. I fear nothing good will come out of this, and vigilanteism is never pretty

Longtime Contrarian reader Denis Falvey writes:

While I agree with you that there should be a high bar for conviction, I do think it would be a good idea to formally register society’s disgust with these “boys'” alleged behaviour, by at least challenging them to prove their innocence—likelihood of conviction notwithstanding. The facts as know would then be before the public, and there would not be the suspicion of the matter being swept under the rug. As it is, the public has only bile and innuendo on which to gnaw.

Innocence until proven quilt should not mean that everyone charged is somehow automatically quilty; nor should it mean that if you are not charged, you are therefore innocent.

There is talk on an enquiry now, probably at great expense. But isn’t that what could have been achieved by a judge and jury, at less expense?

Also, sometimes maybe, proving one’s innocence of the accusation of wrong doing may be enough to trigger self-examination of behaviour against acceptable standards of society? Isn’t that what we want in this type of situation?

Your underlying point is correct; we don’t know what happened here.

Thanks to all who contributed. Join in by clicking the “Email a Comment” link near the top of the page.  More later…