Your interpretation isn‰Ûªt welcome here

Two very important recent news items have caught my attention. They are unconnected, yet the controversies surrounding both items relate to the same theme. First, a young man named Colin Kingston allegedly stabbed and killed his ex-girlfriend, Kelsey Annese, and her lover, Matthew Hutchinson, and then committed suicide, Jan. 17. Secondly, Spaniard’s Bay in Newfoundland has been in the news lately because its only female firefighter, Brenda Seymour, has come forward with sexual harassment allegations against the town’s fire chief, Victor Hiscock. I’m not going to discuss my opinion on the alleged crimes themselves because I don’t know all the details and I don’t want to speculate. Instead, I want to explain why I believe that the interpretations and reactions to the purported acts in both cases, by the media and other people surrounding them, were outrageous.

Kingston’s alleged murder-suicide was all over the news. Interestingly, rather than simply discussing the details, reporters were speculating that Kingston’s motive was that he was confused and still in love with Annese. This is problematic because it perpetuates a system in which we explain spousal abuse and crimes of passion as the unfortunate result of extreme emotions.

In the case of the fire chief in Spaniard’s Bay, Hiscock allegedly made sexist comments and allowed pornography to be shown during training sessions. The local town council voted against removing him from his position, yet he chose to resign shortly thereafter. Twenty other firefighters from the Spaniard’s Bay volunteer fire department resigned in solidarity with Hiscock, Jan. 19. The apparent majority opinion in the town was that Seymour was wrong to report the alleged sexual harassment because it was not her place to do so and it wasn’t serious enough to warrant her reaction. One of the firefighters who resigned, Cory Mahaney, was quoted as saying: “It seems to me that she has a personal issue with [Hiscock],” implying that her motive was the pursuit of a personal vendetta against the chief. 

I can definitely argue from a feminist perspective why both offenses, assuming that the details I read are accurate, are inexcusable. I can explain to you in many different ways why the unjustified reactions to these offenses were the result of our society’s deeply engrained patriarchal mentality. I can talk about these things for hours and hours, but I don’t think that would be a worthwhile use of my time or yours. Rather, you might be interested to know that as a feminist, I actually believe that it is extremely important that the alleged perpetrators of both actions be treated with some compassion, even when the victims involved are women. We are all human, and if we as feminists truly want to pursue equality, we need to make sure that in doing so we are not diminishing the rights of men. Kingston and Hiscock have the right to be treated compassionately, meaning that it is not our place to speculate on their motives or the intentions of their actions and draw conclusions without a clear understanding of what actually happened.

Kingston’s alleged murder-suicide is an interesting case because it raises the question of how to fairly report on a tragedy.  The way that his crime was reported was not fair at all. He was somebody’s son and somebody’s friend so I understand that the intent of the reporters was to try to maintain his integrity, and maybe that is why they framed his actions in the context of love gone wrong, thereby making it a little bit more excusable. However, I deeply disagree with reporting on the alleged crime this way. People do not kill their loved ones simply because of love. People kill for power, fear, anger, confusion, depression, or despair, but not solely because they love. I don’t know why he did what he did — we’ll probably never know for sure — but to say that it was an act of love, as some of the media is claiming, is way too simplistic. If we insist that a murder is the result of love we implicitly make it more excusable.

Next, I find that the reactions to the Spaniard’s Bay sexual harassment allegations are appalling. Again, I can understand that in cases of sexual harassment allegations it is expected that people won’t believe the claims right away. However, the defence put forward for the chief’s alleged actions wasn’t that he didn’t do what Seymour claimed. Instead, some argued that those actions were permissible, or not that serious. A woman who lives in the town was quoted as saying that, “if [Seymour]’s going to be in a room of men, she has to be able to take the heat and take a joke.” To me, that sounds like the “boys will be boys” excuse.

These two events are unrelated, but they became connected when people’s reactions fell into the all-too familiar trap of excusing and justifying wrongdoings by speculating on the intention of the perpetrator. In the case of Kingston, the interpretation of the perpetrator’s motives framed the crime in a sympathetic way. Then in the case of Hiscock, people attempted to downplay the allegations, thereby undermining the magnitude of sexual harassment in a concentrated male environment. 

We need to stop making excuses justifying why people do bad things. It doesn’t matter how badly we want to believe that someone is a good person. When bad things happen, we need to make sure that the focus is on the harm that was caused so that everyone involved can begin to heal. If you excuse the perpetrator, you dismiss the crime and allow for something similar to happen again in the future. Treating the perpetrator with compassion means providing them with the support to right their wrongs; it never means that you allow the crime to happen without consequences. 

Moving forward, I want you to remember to humanize the perpetrator in order to make a compassionate and comprehensive report of crimes. But humanizing the perpetrator never means that you provide your own interpretation and diminish the suffering of the victims.