I think the #MeToo movement is a net positive—I think it’s good that women are feeling more comfortable about speaking out about sexual assaults by people in positions of power. I want people to feel like they can talk about abuse, and that when they do, to know that they will be taken seriously, with consequences to the abusers.
But at the same time, I’m wary of witch hunts. The challenge is that an allegation seems like it’s enough to destroy careers, and it seems to be difficult to find a balance between justice and mob rule. Thus, I’m confused about how, over the long term, #MeToo should all shake out.
Guilty because accused
I’d say that it’s almost certainly true that, overall, the media and the people are on the side of women who speak out on this topic, so I won’t speak too much about that except to say that we should take all allegations of sexual assaults seriously.
But the more interesting side to look at now is whether it’s fair and reasonable that mere allegations should ruin people’s careers? Margaret Atwood penned a good essay on this subject talking about how problematic a “guilty because accused” attitude is.
I think Atwood raises valid points, to the extent that I’m uncomfortable with Justin Trudeau’s argument that it is “essential” that women be believed when they raise allegations. To me, that seems dangerously close to the “guilty because accused” line.
The other side
To me, it’s reasonable to say that most women who accuse people of sexual assault are truthfully expressing their view of the situation. But there are two big problems with taking that stance and continuing on to the natural conclusion of “therefore the accused is guilty”.
First, perspectives of the same event can be different, and there’s no reason why one individual’s perspective should be given more weight than another. Being uncomfortable with a sexual advance doesn’t imply that the sexual advance was necessarily inappropriate in any way.
A large percentage of romance movies have an attractive man persistently stalk and harass a woman until she falls in love with him, while many thrillers have an ugly man stalk and harass a woman until she’s eventually forced to kill him. The main difference between these two types of movies seems to be the lighting, the music, and the attractiveness of the man (i.e. differing perspectives). One could argue that in both situations the man is in the wrong, but society don’t actually seem to believe this because it comes up again and again in the most beloved romances.
The second issue is false accusations. I think the vast majority of accusations are true (and, in particular, accurately portray the woman’s perspective), but I don’t believe that all accusations are true. And ruining someone’s career over a false accusation is really bad. I don’t think it’s reasonable toss the falsely accused in a “collateral damage” bucket to be ignored simply because most accusations are true. To do so would be akin to saying school children being murdered every few days by the rare psycho is acceptable collateral damage in return for gun rights.
More than an academic argument
And I think that this argument is more than just a theoretical argument. I certainly have a very negative impression of Jian Ghomeshi, and he lost his career and several years of his life to sexual harassment charges, yet he was acquitted of all charges. What it just that he lost his career? I’m not sure.
Patrick Brown is even more extreme. Within five hours of sexual assault allegations, he was made to resign as leader of the Ontario Conservative Party. Yet the worst accusation—that he was propositioning a minor—has turned out to be false. The less serious accusation was that he invited an intern to his bedroom, but took her home when she said she didn’t want to do anything. Then, he occasionally made sexual comments to her afterward. To me, the only problem there is the alleged sexual comments afterward. Mostly, it sounds like Brown was guilty of being an awkward guy who made women feel uncomfortable.
But in this case, the accusations were enough for Brown to lose his position as the future Premier of Ontario (according to polls). There was no court, no hearing. Just a career instantly cut short.
So where’s the balance?
Maybe it’s unavoidable that people who chose jobs where they’re in the public eye can be brought down in hours by an unproved allegation. If I could arrange the world in any way I liked, I would still have no idea how to create a system that both allowed the concerns of women to be taken seriously without destroying the lives and careers of the accused based only on allegations. Even so, a swing toward “guilty because accused” doesn’t sit well with me.