On Rehtaeh Parsons

By Mark McConaghy

Last week our nation was shocked by the suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons.

The details of the story are so grim they remain difficult to summarize: at the age of 15 Parsons was allegedly sexually assaulted at a house party by 4 teenage boys in the small town of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. A cell-phone picture of the alleged crime was taken and distributed across social media around her high school, going viral through the community. Denounced as a “slut” by some classmates, she was bullied and harassed. Forced to switch schools to escape such treatment, she descended into rounds of depression, hospitalization, and drug abuse. On the night of April 4, after an angry outburst, Parsons hung herself in her bathroom.

How, I ask you dear reader, did this happen in our country?

That a young woman could experience the sexual violation of her body and then be cyber-bullied about it, that an entire community of her peers would mock her for the trauma she endured, is nothing short of revolting. Here in Canada we have praised ourselves for years that our country stands for human dignity and social justice. We congratulate ourselves on fighting for the education and liberation of women in far off places like Afghanistan. We like to think we have a culture of gender equality that is a model for the rest of the world to follow.

So how, I repeat, could something like this happen in our country?

Every Canadian across this country needs to be asking themselves that question. In shame, in grief, and in anger we search for answers.

This is a complex story. Nobody should be so brazen as to suggest there are easy answers here. Parsons death has struck a cord in the Canadian public because it combines a potent mixture of social forces that demand our attention: the cultures in our middle and high schools, teenage sexual activity, young male violence against women, public medical services available to crime victims, substance abuse, and depression.

The story also touches upon an issue that continues to confound even the most prolific of thinkers in our world: the nature of community in the digital age, when there is literally zero privacy anymore. Any act, any secret, any piece of information about ourselves can go viral in a matter of moments, channeling across web platforms of all kinds and into the consciousness of strangers around the globe. And yet to have such awesome tools of information does not explain why they were used in this case to laugh at the violation of a young woman. The internet can certainly exacerbate bullying, but it cannot be facilely blamed for it.

Each of the issues mentioned above offer a potential avenue into this story, one strand that must be uncoiled so we can understand what led Parsons to the fateful attempt to end her own life. Indeed, each one of these issues was talked about by an untold number of newspaper pundits and journalists across the country last week. They no doubt deserve to be analyzed.

And yet did it have to take the hanging death of a 17 year old girl for us to become galvanized nationally to talk about violence against women? Did it have to take the loss of this young person’s life for us to start talking about what it means to be a community in a digital world? Why is it that only after a tragedy occurs that the factors that contributed to it seem so clearly identifiable, as if we are incapable of seeing the warning signs when there is still a chance to act to avoid disaster?

I am sick of well-meaning pundits emerging tragedy after tragedy to discuss the need for reform, for dialogue, for transformation. Whether it’s a gun massacre in Newtown Conn, a shooting at the Eaton Center in Toronto Canada, or the death of young women like Rehtaeh Parsons, tragedy hits us in the face and we come to attention. For a couple of days we feel bad, we tweet and we comment, we blog and we worry.

And then the newscycle moves on.

Yet the family of Rehtaeh Parsons will have to live with the dogged pain of her absence forever, long after the talking heads and the editorial writers will have lost interest in this story. The problem of the short attention span is, of course, both inevitable and widespread in the digital age. This is not only due to the schizophrenic nature of the internet, where text, image, and sensation flows so effortlessly with the click of a mouse. This is a schizophrenia built into the market economy itself. The pressures of daily life, the need to go to work and provide for our loved ones, dominate our lives. Inevitably, our desire and commitment towards particular issues ebb when we are not directly affected by them. And at a time of austerity, nobody can afford to devote themselves full time to social activism, unless maybe you have a cushy MP salary or the safety net of university tenure to fall back on.

And yes, dear reader, the irony that I am currently blogging about the empty expression of grief via blogging is not lost on me. I, too, am as guilty as anyone- I feel grief and indignation and then I’ll move on. With the absolutely horrifying bombing in Boston this week, my attention span has already been riveted to issues of public safety and terrorism.

And yet let’s strive not to forget this story. Let us not forget that an entire community of young people turned their back on a peer in need. Let us not forget that a picture of her alleged violation was circulated amongst teens across her small town, where it seems she found few empathetic peers to help her through her pain. If the community had acted to reach out to this young woman, if there had been an entirely different form of collective response to her suffering, would she be alive today?

Something has gone terribly wrong in our culture for this apathy and this violence to exist. How could an entire community of our citizens do nothing in the face of the alleged sexual violation of a 15 year old girl?

To ask that question is to stare into an abyss that lies just behind the progressive, humane facade of our liberal welfare state. The death of Rehtaeh Parsons has cracked that abyss wide open for us. The darkness we see therein is terrifying.

Whether you are a neoliberal conservative or a radical social democrat, whether you want to live in a purely capitalist society or an egalitarian commune, there are certain fundamental principles of human life that transcend differences over questions of political economy.

There are universals that we must come together to agree upon and to protect above all else, with every fiber of our collective being, lest we parish into out and out barbarism.

The sanctity of the human body to be free from physical, sexual, and psychological violence is one of those universals. It is a line in the sand. A first principle. Something that transcends the entrenched political beliefs on the left and the right.

Our Canada, our beloved country, failed to uphold that first principle for Rehtaeh Parsons. She deserves the full measure of justice our criminal system can provide. And we deserve the full measure of our shame for letting such an incident happen in our community.

We can honor her memory by acting to protect each individual body from violence wherever we are: in the classroom, in the workplace, in the boardroom, on the street, or in the family.

At this blog, we often say: no dead bodies. Maybe we should change that to no violence enacted against bodies, physically, sexually, or psychologically. Regardless of how you want to phrase it, we have failed here.

Now let our shame be our call for mobilization. Let us fight against the darkness that lies just behind the pale.

Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century. An avid cinephile, he also reviews films for the Toronto Review of Books. At the moment, he his integrating his political interests into a variety of aesthetic projects, spanning from poetry to experimental film.

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