Earlier this month a jury in a Virginia court found in favour of Johnny Depp in his defamation suit against his ex-wife and fellow actor Amber Heard. This was Part Two of their battle over defamation and libel - in Part One Depp lost his November 2020 libel case against the Sun newspaper in the UK.
Reaction to the Virginia verdict has mostly focused on two issues: first, the potential disaster it represents for women who want to call out domestic violence in the public arena, particularly the courts, and second, the effect that televising the trial might have had on its outcome. Sometimes the two are elided as in Moira Donegan’s pointing out that screenshots of Heard’s weeping face were turned into a meme, her crying became a TikTok trend, and lip-sync re-enactments of her testimony went viral.
There is no doubt that misogyny and TV voyeurism are a toxic combination and it’s clear that, in any process involving these two features, women will do badly. In this sense the Virginia trial ran absolutely true to form.
But in focusing on misogyny and the televising of trials there’s a deeper problem that goes missing. Here’s a counterfactual question. Imagine a world in which there is no misogyny and no televising of trials: would we be guaranteed fairer outcomes in the judicial process?
The answer? Probably not. The most profound systemic issue here is neither misogyny nor television, it’s the adversarial judicial system that invites and even encourages the poisonous anatagonism that was the hallmark of the Heard-Depp trial. The mistake is to think that hostility is specific to this trial and is largely absent in all the others. Less obviously, but equally detrimentally, it is present in every single one of them.
This is because an adversarial system invites strategising and deceit, poor listening, and a lack of respect and concern - all of which were fully on display in Heard-Depp, and magnified by misogyny. What’s needed is a deliberative system in which participants:
- treat each other with mutual respect and equal concern
- listen to one another
- speak truthfully, and in which,
- there is no use of force, strategising or deceit, and no sign of partisanship, self-interest or ideology
Pipe dream? Perhaps, but no more than a world rid of misogyny. The difference is that, in a deliberative judicial system, misogyny would have a vanishingly small influence on proceedings, while in a world rid of misogyny but in other respects left the same, the judicial system will continue to turn out strategised, deceitful, disrespectful - and therefore fundamentally unfair - outcomes, for both women and men.
Tarana Burke, founder of #MeToo, gets it right: “The ‘me too’ movement isn’t dead, this system is dead. This is the same legal system that y’all have been relying on for justice and accountability for decades to no avail. When you get the verdict you want, ‘the movement works’ – when you don’t, it’s dead”.