The problem with “automatic” belief

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:

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.

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18 thoughts on “The problem with “automatic” belief

  1. “… and quite often false accusers use a big stage to do it.”

    Kind of like Munchhausen by Proxy, some women have a sick desire for attention. Look at Tawana Brawley and the national fervor surrounding her false allegation.

  2. Nice piece. Wish THIS was published at The Washington Post.

    There IS of course no taking back the damage, and perhaps that’s why they don’t even try:

    “U.Va. pursuing sexual assault reforms despite Rolling Stone apology”. “The Inter-Fraternity Council told CBS News it has not asked the university to lift the suspension of all fraternity activities, in place until January.”

    After the execution, a trial would just make everyone feel bad.

  3. I was falsely accused of rape by a client I was assigned to investigate for abusing her children. The HR rep who investigated the case told me that she intended to get me fired almost before beginning her investigation. By the time the woman admitted she had lied the damage was done. My eputation was ruined. I had to change units (from investigations to case management) and was never going to be promoted. My new positiion was one I disliked, but there was no going back. I stuck around for about 4 years after that but the damage was done and could never be undone.

    What activists like Maxwell seem to forget is that just, fair, and equitable treatment for the (alleged) victim of a crime is completely seperate from just, fair, and equitable treatment of the accused. It is possible to do both even when the outcomes are not consistent. You can provide therapy, counseling, and othe resources to the alleged victim and also decide there is not enough evidence to convict (or perhaps even prosecute or arrest the accused. Perhaps Maxwell needs to be reminded that the last words in the Pledge of Allegience are “…and justice for all” not “only justice for victims.”

  4. There is a huge tension here. I’m a victim of spousal abuse by the hands of my then wife. No one believed me at all. But, then we do get false stories also. How do we move forward with the tension of helping those who are true victims and yet weeding out the false.

    I remember the relief I had when finally I was told – mate, I believe you!

  5. Craig, as I noted in my post, it is important to believe people when they seek help. It is a different matter to say we should believe people by default, no matter what, including in the face on gross inconsistencies.

  6. When someone reports that they where a victim, we should believe they are a victim with out question. What should be questioned and investigated thoroughly is everything else. (This investigation will expose the instances where they really aren’t victims) The memories of people suffering trauma are exceptionally unreliable and untrustworthy. The very accepting of someone’s trauma makes their cloudy and distorted recollection of that trauma suspect.

    In short, Mate, I believe you, but need to investigate and verify the details because memories of domestic violence survivors are unreliable.

  7. I agree that memories can be distorted with Trauma. In my case, my experience started in late 2007 (when I collapsed at work and was hospitalized) I left the home in early 2009 because of being advised to by police.

    I started this blog on the 18th of May 2010. The following blog post are excerpts from my journal. I have consistently kept a journal since 1999.

    The police should have records of their coming out to my home and advising me to move out. Also the school where the deputy head got it out of me, as to what was happening at home has it on record, as my sons were acting out at the time – and it was they who notified docs / Burnside.

    http://mencanbeabusedtoo.wordpress.com/2010/07/10/an-excerpt-from-my-journal/

    It is true that my memory is shattered because of what the viral encephalitis did to me. As a result, I don’t remember dates and lists very well.

    However, as I said, I have some journal records of some of my journey – while they are scant through out that time – they are there.

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