Saturday, 18 April 2015

Michael Bublé teaches consent

Michael Bublé has been blasted for posting a Twitter picture of a woman's bum, with leery racialised commentary, without her consent.  She's a woman of colour.

He's since posted his take on the issue: 
"Anybody who knows me would never misinterpret the message of the photo my wife took in Miami that seems to have caused unexpected rage by some people. I do not court controversy. But I realize that a photo that was meant to be complimentary and lighthearted has turned into a questionable issue. For the record, It hurts me deeply that anyone would think that I would disrespect women or be insulting to any human being.. I was not brought up that way and it is not in my character. I regret that there are people out there who found the photo offensive. That was not and is not my intention. Women are to be celebrated, loved, respected, honored and revered. I’ve spent my life believing that and will continue to do so."
He could not have written a more revealing aide to critiquing rape culture and consent if he tried.  He was meaning to compliment her; he doesn't disrespect women, he loves them; he's hurt because his intention has been misunderstood.

Any of that sound familiar?

He doesn't get into the woman's short shorts "asking for it" - that element of rape culture is nicely taken up by others on Twitter.  It would be easy to criticise Mr Bublé for this - too easy, to be honest - I'm far more interested in exploring the things it shows us about consent culture.

A few weeks ago, I was talking about Friend B with Friend A.  Friend B has a history of not asking for what they want directly, and even when others around them are explicit in saying what is not ok, repeatedly testing that through indirect actions.  None of this is sexual, it's about living stuff, friendship stuff, activist organising stuff.

I said to Friend A, as we discussed a recent situation, that Friend B was "naughty." 

It's been bothering me ever since.  The minimisation, the flippancy of my comment.  Because were the content of these interactions different, we would be talking about sexual assault.  Friend B is repeatedly disrespecting other's boundaries in order to do what they want.  And because they are clever, and because life stuff is complex, they do not take responsibility for what they are doing, and they would be absolutely horrified to be called on it as an issue of consent.

So it's been bothering me because I've been excusing behaviours that undermine consent, albeit in a non-sexual context.  To create a consent culture we have to do so, so much better.

Back to Mr Bublé.  What if he'd asked the woman concerned if he could photograph her, post the picture on social media to millions, make comment on her arse?  That would have been better, obviously, than what he did.  But it still would be chock-a-block with the power dynamics that he, as a rich, white, famous man, benefits from.  Could he borrow the racialised "baby got back" about an anonymous Black woman in the context of North America, slavery and the ongoing objectification and violence towards women of colour?  It's hard to see how it could be a free agreement to enthusiastic participation.  Consent processes are complicated, and sometimes need revisiting to get them right.

A few years ago now, I was arranging a conference, and one of the people I wanted to speak - because they were the best person in Aotearoa on a particular subject - said they were busy that day.  I remember noticing something in their voice, and stopping, noticing that I would usually have suggested helping them with travel costs to ensure they could do both things, trying to work out a way that would work.  What stopped me was knowing the person was a survivor, and hearing in their "no" something uncertain.  They were not sure I was going to listen.

It was a horrifying moment, because I realised that many times in the past, I might not have.  I might have continued to seek what I wanted, because I wasn't reading their "no" as definitive.

A consent culture, I believe, is only something we can work towards imagining at the moment.  Because consent culture would make neo-liberal capitalism impossible - why would workers consent to the greedy CEOs having so much?  Consent culture would dismantle colonisation and the ongoing harms to indigenous peoples and use negotiation, justice and equity as a basis for sharing space on the earth. 

In addition to organising for consent structurally, in all the ways that happens, we can and should be interrogating the personal spaces where negotiation and power sharing live.  We can and should be honest with ourselves about when we are over-riding someone else's consent.  We can and should ask for help from people to listen to us, even when we are having trouble saying what is ok.

And Mr Bublé, in your case, a genuine apology would be most welcome, acknowledging that whatever was going on for you, in the moment of posting that picture you were not thinking about the woman pictured having any needs or wishes that didn't suit you.  And that, ultimately, coupled with power, is the abuse of consent.

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