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DANIEL VAUGHAN: Yes, we must believe women. But we must presume innocence, too.
Last week, I wrote about a divide in our country that has been caused by the collective guilt Americans feel over the large number of people who have been affected by sexual assault. The most prominent response I received about that column was that we need to believe alleged victims, because when we don’t do that, it discourages other women from coming forward about their experiences.
That’s a fair rebuttal that deserves a response.
I agree, overall, that believing victims is an important step. There’s a reason we have collective guilt in the first place over the #MeToo movement, and that’s because you can point to various stories, from Harvey Weinstein forward, outlining how our society repressed women from speaking about what happened to them.
But this collective guilt has caused us to swing in the complete opposite direction. Instead of doubting and questioning women who come forward, we now believe any story of sexual misconduct (or worse) that comes from any woman.
It’s an understandable impulse, and perhaps even one that is needed to force the conversation surrounding sexual assault in a healthier direction.
But the tendency to believe every #MeToo claim and condemn the alleged perpetrators creates a tension between our drive to accept these stories and one of the bedrock foundations of Western civilization: that every man, woman, and child is presumed innocent until proven otherwise.
And I don’t mean this in a strictly legal sense; the presumption of innocence is something that extends beyond mere law to a part of our collective moral and ethical beliefs. We fundamentally believe that the accused only get a fair shake if we presume they are innocent first, and force ourselves to prove that an event actually happened.
If we don’t hold ourselves to these standards, and instead believe anything from any accuser, then our culture is ruled by mob justice. And there’s no more significant drivers of the current mob than social media and the press.
And even though Ronan Farrow at the New Yorker has proven himself largely reliable in this #MeToo moment, we know other segments of the media have not done that at all. Some of the most infamous examples the media going overboard when reporting sexual assaults were in the cases of the Duke Lacrosse team and the Rolling Stone report of a rape at the University of Virginia.
In the Duke Lacrosse case, the media breathlessly reported a story on a woman who claimed to have been raped by athletes from Duke. The story received massive media attention nationwide and attracted broad condemnation.
But the entire case fell apart and the charges were dismissed. The lead state prosecutor ended up getting fired and disbarred for grossly mishandling the situation and rushing to prosecute the players instead of following the evidence.
Similarly, Rolling Stone‘s coverage of a rape at the University of Virginia was almost entirely a media-driven defamation. Rolling Stone accused multiple students of being involved in a gang rape of a young student on campus as part of an initiation rite for a fraternity.
But no one could find any proof that the events described in that story happened at all. Rolling Stone was forced to withdraw the story and apologize profusely to everyone involved with leveling false accusations. Every media outlet in the country tried to prove the allegations happened, but couldn’t find a thing.
It later turned out that the woman involved, though she clung to her story, may have had false memories from PTSD, or made it up entirely to earn the affection of another student.
It takes a while for these widespread allegations to be disproven by journalists and lawyers. But at the initial onset, the tendency is always to condemn the perpetrators. Social media mobs continuously run out of control. One of best books on the subject is So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Ron Jonson, a British journalist who interviewed multiple people who have been victims of the social media mobs of today.
But you can move even beyond news stories and find examples of false accusations of sexual assault ruining lives in our history and literature. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee explores the theme, as a black man is falsely accused of assaulting a white woman. Lee’s narrative described a similar event that happened in her town when she was growing up.
Perhaps the most egregious example of false allegations is the story of the Scottsboro Boys, nine African-American teenagers who were accused of raping white women on a train in 1931. All nine of these teens were falsely convicted of their crime and some were sentenced to death. Their convictions weren’t overturned until they had all passed away.
The point is this: there’s a reason we have the presumption of innocence. We’ve proven that when that protection gets removed, innocent people get destroyed in the process.
Believing victims is important, and encouraging women to come forward and describe what happened to them is essential. But we can’t allow that importance to override all our senses and destroy people through mob justice.
We live in a world where we correctly feel guilt over overlooking the decades of misconduct from people like Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, and Bill Cosby — but the same world has also given us the Duke Lacrosse case and Rolling Stone‘s lousy journalism.
Yes, we must believe women. But we must also uphold our ideals of a presumption of innocence. That creates the necessary tension to ensure we don’t start destroying innocent people’s lives.
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