Thank you for your response and for your thoughtful question. As I state in the article, I think the line between the legal (criminal or civil) response and our social response is the tightrope we all must confront head on. Though the second responder to this story clearly assumes that any effort to tackle these difficult questions is equal to an effort to minimize incidents of sexual harassment or instances of physical and sexual assault, I feel very strongly that ignoring the difficult legal and philosophical issues surrounding this issue will ultimately only result in the undoing of the #MeToo movement and set victims in general and women in particular back.
With that said, the legal question of whether a criminal charge is warranted requires a thorough investigation and a determination of whether the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. A civil lawsuit only requires a preponderance of the evidence to support the plaintiff. In many cases the former test isn’t met while the second one is. I won’t presume to know whether pursuing a civil case is wise in any given instance given there’s a psychological price to be paid as well as issues of accountability to consider. Therefore, the pursuit of the second path is a decision that can only be made by the accuser.
However, whether we as individuals think the “preponderance” test has been passed or not should determine whether we respond on social media or in other public/semi-public forums. Whether this test is met or not depends upon our own individual definition of what qualifies as a “preponderance” of the evidence. While my test may differ from yours, as long as you and I each have a test we are at least acknowledging some minimum amount of evidence is needed in order to make an initial judgment.
There’s no perfectly objective standard here one can point to. For example, there’s no obvious reason why someone who thought two accusations was insufficient circumstantial evidence should think three is sufficient. Obviously, the more allegations that are made against someone the more difficult it is to argue that enough circumstantial evidence hasn’t piled up to reasonably conclude — as in the Bill Cosby case, for example — that innocence is just as likely to be true as guilt. At some point every reasonable person would have to admit that it’s extremely unlikely so many women would be accusing the same person of the same criminal behavior.
In addition, there’s the accuser’s reaction to the charges to be taken into account. Again, a certain amount of intuition or sixth sense comes into play here. Brett Kavanaugh’s reaction (and the way the accusations against him became public) are different than the Justin Fairfax case. Perhaps to you these differences aren’t significant while to me they are, but for either of us to reach that conclusion we must at least consider them first. Likewise, the charges made against Al Franken reflected one documented and some alleged instances of bad taste or poor judgement, not full blown sexual assault, so to my mind at least some proportionality and even forgiveness seems in order. So all I can say is we need to take each case that becomes a matter of public discussion individually. This necessarily requires a slower and more reflective response than we tend to see in the press or on social media.
The main point I wanted to make isn’t that there is only one conclusion that it’s possible to reach when an accusation is made. There isn’t. However, rushing to judgment is always unwise. At some point we may very well find it necessary to reach a conclusion and to make a statement publicly through social media or other means regarding what that conclusion is. However, “Believe Women” asks us to make a conclusion immediately solely on the basis that it’s a woman making the accusation. That’s wrong. It’s not wrong because it’s a woman we’re being asked to believe. It’s a reasoning error. It would be just as wrong to say “Believe men” or “Believe in the innocence of the accused”. The statement “believe X” taken by itself with no regard for context or evidence is always wrong and dangerous and should be treated as such.
Ultimately, these things shouldn’t be a matter of belief but of informed conclusions reached because the evidence has accumulated in favor of one side or the other to a certain minimum point. That means conducting an investigation of some sort. Every charge that a crime has occurred should be taken seriously, but especially those involving allegations of physical or sexual violence. Perhaps you would set the bar much lower (or higher) than I when it comes to the amount of evidence you would accept before reaching some conclusion and beginning to make clear where you’ve come down on the matter. I readily admit that the bar isn’t fixed, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a bar at all. While where we individually set that bar will necessarily depend upon a variety of contingent circumstances that vary at least somewhat from one instance to the next, our personal standards should include evidence and we should take the time to develop some standards when it comes to where we draw the lines we do. That’s true (or should be) for all allegations, not just ones of sexual abuse/assault.