Feminists are scrambling following Rolling Stone’s apology for their recent article about a gang rape. Rolling Stone issued an apology for the article after other news outlets revealed serious inconsistencies in the accuser’s story. This led feminists to attempt to dodge the obvious problem: the accuser’s credibility and feminists’ credibility in regards to their theory of “rape culture” is in question.
Several feminists wrote articles concerning that issue, although none received as much backlash as Zerlina Maxwell’s piece. Maxwell’s argument is bizarrely problematic, yet also troubling is what happened in the 24 hours since the Washington Post published it.
The initial title of the article was “No matter what Jackie said, we should automatically believe rape claims”. It now reads “No matter what Jackie said, we should generally believe rape claims”. No one needs to take my word for it. Here is the evidence.
Maxwell’s argument is absurd. It was Sabrina Erdely and Rolling Stone’s automatic belief of Jackie, the accuser, that resulted in the apology. Had Erdely taken Jackie at her word but fact-checked her story, Erdely might have caught the inconsistencies and been able to question Jackie before the article reached print. Had Rolling Stone’s fact-chekcers bothered to question Jackie’s story, they too might have caught the inconsistencies.
What makes Maxwell’s argument particularly moronic is that this is not an instance of Jackie telling only Erdely the story. She told the story to her friends, to activists, and spoke about it on campus. Jackie has likely told the story dozens of times, each time repeating elements that appear to be untrue.
This does not mean that Jackie was not raped, yet it does mean that the story she told everyone appears to be partly untrue, to which Maxwell replied:
In important ways, this is wrong. 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.
Wait. That is inaccurate. This is what Maxwell originally wrote:
This is wrong. We should always 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, UVA should have taken her word for it until they could have proved otherwise.
Following much criticism on Twitter, Maxwell (or an editor) edited the text to reflect Maxwell’s new position that she was making a moral, not legal, argument:
I REPEAT: I’m not making a legal arg abt why we should believe survivors who come forward, I’m making a moral one http://t.co/8ipSzuiImN
— Zerlina Maxwell (@ZerlinaMaxwell) December 7, 2014
Let us look at that moral argument:
The accused would have a rough period. He might be suspended from his job; friends might de-friend him on Facebook. In the case of Bill Cosby, we might have to stop watching, consuming his books, or buying tickets to his traveling stand-up routine. These errors can be undone by an investigation that clears the accused, especially if it is done quickly.
Can they? How can you undo the damage to their reputation? How can you undo the damage to their relationships? How can you undo wrongful imprisonment if no one will listen even when the alleged victim states she lied? How can you undo decades spent in prison for crimes they never committed? How can you undo four, six, eight, ten, 19, or 20 years in prison for a crime that never happened? How can you undo someone’s suicide? How can you undo someone’s murder?
What is shocking is that this comes not only from a lawyer, but a black social commentator who has been a good deal of time talking about the injustice young black men face in our legal system. Would you like to know one the worst injustices black men have faced in this country throughout its history?
False accusations of rape.
I agree that most people who claim abuse are not lying. However, it is difficult to tell when someone is lying, so it would be prudent not to assume, as a matter of default, that everyone who claims abuse is telling the truth.
I agree that if one is providing psychological support it is best to believe a person’s claims. However, that is not the case here. This is about whether we should automatically believe women (Maxwell did not, and to my knowledge has never, acknowledged male victims) making a rape claim simply because they made the claim. It is illogical to argue that we should. What happens if we are wrong? Unlike Maxwell, I do not think ruining someone’s life can be easily fixed.
I also do not believe something as stupid as this:
The lasting psychological wound left by sexual assault is unique — and makes justice less likely. Survivors’ memories are often blurry, and they tell conflicting stories about what happened to them.
Only victims of rape suffer from blurry memories following a traumatic event? No one else experiences this? Not victims of physical abuse, victims of terrorist attacks, victims of torture, victims of war, or people who survive disasters? Only female rape victims suffer from fragmented memories?
She went on:
Disbelieving women, then, not only compounds their trauma (often by making them doubt their own stories), but it also lets a serial rapist go free.
It is more immoral to send an innocent person to prison because you wanted to prove you believe all women who claim rape than it is to allow a rapist to walk free. This is the foundation of our legal system. You do not put an innocent person in prison. That is not negotiable. You simply do not do it.
It not only taints the process and makes it difficult to trust any other convictions, but it destroys the innocent person’s life. It subjects them to an injustice that can never be undone. It is as if the person has been raped, not only by the false accuser, but by society itself.
Maxwell ended with:
Discrepancies in a survivor’s account are common, but we must be able to offer our hand of support to survivors without requiring them to have a video record of what happened to them as proof. We constantly wax poetic about how seriously we as a society take the dignity-crime of sexual assault, and yet we never seem to want to believe that anyone who has been accused is actually capable of committing it.
I have been raped several times. While I do consider some of those instances undignified, I am certain that the violation to my dignity is not what makes those acts criminal. That is definitely not what bothered me about them.
Discrepancies are common in any account because people’s memories are fluid. Memories change with time. Some details are lost, others remembered, and others altered by frequent recollection. That is the very reason why you ought to question a person’s story, particularly if they make a public accusation.
This does not mean we should ignore people’s claims, only that we should acknowledge that sometimes people do lie about rape, quite often the lies are believable, and quite often false accusers use a big stage to do it.