A Corrective to Human History

I work with a lot of boomers that I’d characterize as “small C conservatives.” They try to keep the workplace apolitical as possible, but every now and then the news of the day boils over and they can’t help themselves. Recently it’s been the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation process — and the threat they personally felt by a society daring to work out a corrective to the harm powerful men have wrought since time immemorial.

Maybe that’s not a fair way to describe it. To them, it’s a corrective to “innocent until proven guilty.” If your main source of news and opinion is cable news and whatever Yahoo! aggregates to the front page, then surely it must seem like kids these days are taking hearsay as gospel and unaware of the consequences. It must seem like the millennial are building a system that can be easily abused, and innocent people will have their cries fall on deaf ears.

It would be news to them that we already live in this world, and have lived in it for hundreds of years. If the specter of people getting hurt in this new vision is a deterrent, I would say that the old system they’re trying to protect has been hurting people since time immemorial. Under the guise of “innocent until proven guilty,” the guilty remained out of reach of any consequences, and their victims were made to suffer in silence.

I should clarify that no one is talking about the judicial system. Everyone, on all sides, still agrees that there is a standard of proof before anyone goes to jail. People who equate the court of public opinion with the court of law are doing so to murky the waters and make the debate less precise.

What we’re trying to revamp is the way accusations of sexual assault, misconduct and abuse play out in the public conversation. Until this moment, most of the public’s energy was spent trying to disprove and shame accusers and victims, whether they be Monica Lewinsky or Anita Hill. Now that there’s a real vocal advocate for another side, it should be seen as a proper balancing of the scales.

The reason believing women is a bigger priority than believing men is because the act of lying is a bigger, more consequential crime for the accuser than it is for the accused. In the 20th century, what would it take for a man to abuse his power over someone in the name of sexual conquest? We can look at the norms of the culture. Much has been made of Revenge of the Nerds and Sixteen Candles and their nonchalant acceptance of what we now today know to be sexual assault. Anyone that’s been to a party college knows that the concept of getting girls drunk to take advantage of them is pervasive. This is masculinity as we’ve shaped it. It is not hard to imagine a particularly brash man, gifted with power, taking these social norms even further; it just needs a light push.

Conversely, for a woman to lie whole cloth about being victimized by a powerful man is an extraordinary and rare jump into sociopathy. It is akin to lying to the police that someone is a murderer. That’s not to say it would never happen, but to assume that this is the default says a lot about one’s broad belief about what women are like. In the same way we believe only a small percentage of people are criminals, it should follow that only a small percentage of women would publicize grandiose lies for personal gain or revenge.

But what, then, to do in even those rare situations? First, I would want to clarify that the overt concern about this particular aspect is itself a form of prioritizing men’s comfort and power. Detractors would say we can’t revise the standard of conversation because some small number of innocent men will be caught in the system and even one innocent man is too much of a penalty to bear. But this belief inversely says that any number of innocent women silenced and victimized in the old system is just the cost of doing business. Acceptable casualties. I would ask people to ask themselves why it’s easier for them to accept the old ways where women were casualties but are scared of a new one where men could theoretically, potentially, be vulnerable as well.

The idea that to be accused is a public execution with no recourse is overblown. Accused men still operate in the halls of power. One was just admitted to the Supreme Court. Another is the President. The fruitful careers of David Letterman, Dan Harmon, Conor Oberst, and Kobe Bryant should show that no one’s being executed. What these people actually want is for no one to dislike them or speak out against them, which is just not possible in the modern interconnected world.

Still, the question remains, what are we to do if someone does abuse the new way we talk about and understand abuse? Admittedly the discourse is still developing; I don’t think we’ve been tossed enough instances of this to get the reps in and really create social norms around this stuff. But it seems to me that if a person is falsely accused, and the public turns against them, and then it is shown with near certainty that they were innocent, then it should be possible for the public to say “We got this one wrong, sorry,” and move on. It might be hard to do that emotionally — I know the taint can linger and the same level of trust may be hard to regain. But that’s the part I think we can work on developing in the culture. We have a stigma against shifting opinions, and its created a mental block that has denied us the flexibility to do this. If we can remove it, we create a path back for the possibility of false accusations.

Not that we should issue a societal corrective. The lesson of a hypothetical false accusation shouldn’t be, “We should never take the women at their word ever again.” When someone is revealed to be innocent of something like murder, we don’t issue a corrective like “From now on we won’t believe any witnesses to murder.” We understand it as a rare, extraordinary circumstance.

I don’t think we have all the answers, and I don’t think this vision for the future will proceed without speed bumps. Given enough time, there will undoubtedly be a high profile cases where someone grifts the public discourse. It will be unfortunate. But what we used to have was worse than unfortunate, and it ran the length of human history. This is a new project. We shouldn’t shut it down because it’s challenging. Making a better world should be worth it.