Always Believe The Accuser?

Andrew Sullivan —  Dec 10 2014 @ 8:00pm

Zerlina Maxwell makes the dubious argument that alleged rapists should be presumed guilty until proven innocent, at least in the court of public opinion:

We should believe, as a matter of default, what an accuser says. Ultimately, the costs of wrongly disbelieving a survivor far outweigh the costs of calling someone a rapist. Even if Jackie fabricated her account, U-Va. should have taken her word for it during the period while they endeavored to prove or disprove the accusation. This is not a legal argument about what standards we should use in the courts; it’s a moral one, about what happens outside the legal system.

The accused would have a rough period. He might be suspended from his job; friends might defriend him on Facebook. In the case of Bill Cosby, we might have to stop watching his shows, consuming his books or buying tickets to his traveling stand-up routine. But false accusations are exceedingly rare, and errors can be undone by an investigation that clears the accused, especially if it is done quickly.

Freddie is aghast at Maxwell’s belief that public opinion is entirely separate from the judicial system and that such an attitude won’t lead to serious miscarriages of justice:

I find it particularly disturbing that, in a country with a long legacy of using spurious claims of sexual aggression as a weapon against black men, many of those who consider themselves the most committed opponents of racism are endorsing a deeply simplistic and idealistic notion of how the pursuit of justice actually happens in the non-ideal real world we live in. A brief consideration of American history will show you some examples of rape claims that were automatically believed, and the consequences are a terrible stain on our country.

When we talk about carceral feminism, this is what we mean:

allowing the great moral duty to oppose rape to allow us to develop credulous attitudes towards the police state. People keep insisting to me that this doesn’t happen, but how can Maxwell’s assumption of a necessarily impartial judicial system, unmoved by public opinion, represent anything else? We’re living through righteous, mass protests of an unchecked, deeply racist police system. That so many are failing to apply that analysis consistently and thoroughly is deeply discouraging. We owe support and attention to the victims of rape. Developing a false credulity to the notion of judicial impartiality does neither them nor the rest of us any favors.

McArdle piles on, adding that Maxwell’s “always believe” approach would actually result in making all rape victims less believable:

One cost of minimizing false negatives is to the false positives who get hurt. But another cost is to the credibility of all rape reports. People who responded to the problems with the Rolling Stone story by saying that this didn’t have anything to do with the real problem — the culture of rape on college campuses — were missing something important. Actually, two important things.

First, that deciding what to do in the face of these trade-offs between false positives and false negatives is actually a vital matter of public debate in all areas of policy, and this story cast important light on how those trade-offs may have been made outside of the public eye.

And second, that by declaring that this story, which just a week before was a grave matter demanding the urgent attention of the nation, somehow became trivial and irrelevant when it started to look as if it might be false, writers and activists were suggesting that they simply didn’t care about false positives. Which undercuts the very public trust they need to advance their cause.

Brendan O’Neill sees an emerging culture of credulity gone haywire:

If Erdely nodded along to Jackie’s story while robotically thinking “I believe,” she isn’t alone. Automatically and uncritically believing allegations of rape is all the rage today. Where for most of the Age of Enlightenment it was considered civilized to believe that those accused of a crime were innocent until proven guilty, now it appears the way to show that you are a good and caring person is to do pretty much the opposite. You should believe instantly the alleged victim’s every word, and by extension to believe instantly that the accused is guilty as hell.

So when Dylan Farrow claimed she was sexually abused as a child by Woody Allen, the meme “I Believe Dylan” spread like a pox across the internet. #IBelieveDylan trended on Twitter. At IndiewireMelissa Silverstein said “There are a few fundamental beliefs that I hold, and one of them is that I believe women.” All women? All the time? Including, say, Condoleezza Rice when she said Saddam had loads of weapons of mass destruction?

This is silly. Women are just as capable as men of making stuff up.

But Maya Dusenbery, a former fact-checker, argues that it was the biases of journalism, not feminism or advocacy, that led Rolling Stone to do Jackie the tremendous disservice of not fact-checking her story:

One of the main purposes of fact-checking is to correct journalism’s bias toward a “good story” above all else. … [I]f Rolling Stone was so eager to keep Jackie’s story in the piece that they were ready to run it against her will, that suggests their willingness to bend their fact-checking standards may have had less to do with some feminist “sensitivity” to a survivor’s request and more to do with not wanting to risk losing a particularly shocking tale of a gang rape that would help their article go viral in the way it ultimately did.

I do not know if that’s the case — perhaps Rolling Stone genuinely, if very mistakenly, believed they were doing the right thing for the right reason — but I think it’s plausible, and I’d like to see all the journalists rushing to pontificate about how to do “good reporting” on sexual violence acknowledge the possibility that it was journalism’s bias towards a good story that’s to blame here. That in chasing the “perfect victim,” Rolling Stone pressured a traumatized rape survivor to tell her story, ditched their fact-checking standards, and then threw her under the bus when the account — totally predictably — was challenged.

But, of course, the one thing that journalism refuses to question is its own ability to reveal the truth. It clings fast to its central conceit: that it has no biases of its own, and if followed correctly, its standards and conventions are enough to magically correct our cultural biases and lead us to some “objective” truth — or at least get us closer than anything else will.