On this past Sunday, blogger Lisa Marie Basile was intending to debate criminal profiler Chelsea Hoffman on the case against Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito . Both are feminists who have published articles on the case against Knox. Basile published two articles on international news site The Huffington Post arguing for Knox’s innocence. Hoffman has published articles supporting the case against Knox on All Voices and on her own site. The debate started being advertised about a week prior. About twenty minutes before the scheduled debate, Basile cancelled the debate, but still appeared with Hoffman to have a discussion.
I was not surprised by Basile’s withdrawal; in fact I was quite surprised she did it so late. I was pretty certain she would withdrawal earlier in the day when I saw a tweet from Basile to Hoffman mentioning second thoughts. Why, then, did the final decision only occur twenty minutes prior? The reason given for Basile’s withdrawal was the public response to her articles. She said she received “nonstop threats and harassment”. She also detailed some of the other harassment she received, but she did not call out any specific instance; she was reacting to the overall reaction and her desire to not want to deal with the public response to her articles. I’m not aware of the personal exchanges between Hoffman and Basile prior to the show, but somehow Hoffman still convinced Basile to appear, albeit without the debate format. Basile’s reasons for withdrawing from the debate the tone and primary topic for the discussion that followed.
They started out in supposedly “safe” territory by discussing the reasons Basile withdrew from the debate. The pair discussed responses to their public writings. Basile stated it was her first time writing about crime, and asked Hoffman about how people respond to crime cases in general, and if the response in the Knox case is typical. While they did specifically address responses from people who have long followed the case, they generally criticized and condemned the responses they received.
Many have criticized Basile and Hoffman’s sweeping indictment of twitter and other responses. Almost everyone who responded to the two of them prior to the show were apparently thrown into the same basket. Basile showed little willingness to separate out claimed threats or the documented sexist harassment she experienced from other criticisms of her views.
Eventually, Hoffman drew Basile into a conversation about the Knox case. I commend Hoffman for her ability to create a space that fed in to Basile’s need for a “safe” space. I need to ask, why was it necessary to create such a “safe” space to begin with? Because of the public response, or because of Basile’s unwillingness to deal with the public response to her articles?
Basile acknowledges that when she published her first article, she knew she was stepping into a highly charged, polarized debate:
When I wrote the May 2014 piece “Where Are All The Feminists? Why Amanda Knox’s Story Is About More Than Murder,” I was well aware of how deeply polarizing this case has been over the past several years.
Her false claims in her published articles were publicly criticized (rightly so). Shortly after her first article was published Basile demonstrated an unwillingness to engage in public conversation about the Knox case with her readers by requesting that people contact her privately to discuss the case. Despite Basile’s apparent reservations about the response to her article, she proceeded to publish a second article internationally, with an even more authoritative headline: “Almost Everything You’ve Read about Amanda Knox is Wrong.” When Basile published her second article, she tried to direct twitter comments to the Huffington Post article (the comments I added never seemed to appear).
Getting back to the non-debate, we should remember the two participants were feminist women. Part of the feminist perspective is that meaning is established by collaboration between individuals. Viewed through this perspective, Basile and Hoffman had a nice little session of collaborative meaning-making. However, the outcome did not construct a shared meaning of Knox’s innocence or guilt, as was expected from the announcement of the debate on the Knox case. The shared meaning they generated was more on their interpretation of the online responses to their articles.
Basile’s feminist persona generally (aside from the two articles she wrote) is that she engages with people expecting to establish this kind of collaboration. With two notable exceptions, Basile denounced responses to her articles as being “disrespectful.” The only two people she cites as being respectful are, in fact, two other feminists. It seems Basile limits her view of “respect” to be only those who engage with her to establish this collaborative meaning making. She rejects direct critiques of her views and arguments “disrespectful” of her “opinion.”
Judging by Basile’s stamp on what she considers “respectful” dialog, one interpretation is that Basile demands that readers engage with her with a feminist, meaning-making approach. My criticism is that if Basile had an expectation that she could make everyone engage with her in the same approach, or worse, an inability to deal with anyone in any other way, then she was simply unready to be published on the international stage. Her style of writing authoritatively on the case is also at odds with the way she presented her views as “opinions” in the chat with Hoffman. The contrast between the article and the show is so stark, it leads me to wonder if there was a ghost co-writer on the articles.
Basile also seems to lack any self-introspection of her own actions and approach. Her online article criticizes people for providing citations to biased articles. She critizes Nelson’s article by saying “all but two of her links to ‘evidence’ direct readers to private, biased anti-Knox sites.” Then during her chat with Hoffman she admits (with a laugh) that her own citations may also be biased; and indeed they are; the links she provides for case information include the Knox advocacy site Injustice in Perugia, journalist Nina Burleigh who advocates for Knox, and she extensively quotes the error-laden advocacy piece written by Sollecito’s co-writer, Andrew Gumbel.
In an ironic moment, one of Knox’s white knights came to Basile’s rescue. Former FBI man Jim Clemente tweeted at the end of the conversation to Hoffman and another twitter user for being understanding and supporting Basile’s decision. Why did Clemente feel the need he had to thank Hoffman on behalf of Basile? According to follow-up tweets, Clemente didn’t seem to have been previously in contact with Basile regarding the with the alleged threats . Clemente also complemented Basile on her debate (which channel was he watching?) and on her articles. Basile was honored by Clemente’s admiration despite Clemente being one of the major violators of civil debate.
Viewers who turned in for a debate on the evidence and fact would have been disappointed by the style of conversation between Hoffman and Basile. My primary criticism is their grouping together all public responses, then basing their judgement on a sweeping categorization, instead of doing the harder work to “separate out the wheat from the chaff.”
Animosity and antagonism between camps has long been part of the case, but it can surely be traced to the early attempts by Knox family and advocates to suppress details of the case from the US. Direct attacks on people who believe differently has long been part of the strategy of Knox advocates. Knox advocates early on coined the phrase “guilters” (and its alternative, “haters”) for anyone who attempted to discuss the actual evidence against Knox and Sollecito. One of Knox’s white knight FBI men has been actively involved in pushing the “guilters” phrase, and even attacks the family of Meredith Kercher.
Despite appearances of a respectful discussion, this show wasn’t a vote in favor of two sides being able to really engage in meaningful debate on the evidence between two people of different sides. The two participants have had a passing involvement in the Knox case, and yet still weren’t able to get into a deep discussion of the case. The evidence of the case was discussed nominally, stated as general beliefs about a scattering of case details. Hoffman seemed to state that she will continue with debates, albeit on other cases. It will be interesting to see how those debates go, and if respectful dialog and a deep discussion of contested case details can mutually exist.