When Believing Women Means Silencing Victims
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I promised myself I wouldn’t jump in the Amber Heard / Johnny Depp discourse, but I read this New York Times piece from Michelle Goldberg and it really got my goat.
First, she sets the stage for Depp’s victory by reminding us that Americans are terrible. “This is the country that elected Donald Trump”, she writes. A deplorable verdict, from a deplorable peoples.
More specifically, she blames the verdict on a reaction against #MeToo.
So far, so predictable.
Six weeks of trial, countless pieces of evidence, tons of witnesses — and op-ed after op-ed can only manage to come up with the same, skin-deep analysis. “America is hateful”, but specifically, it is sexist. We (the good few) made progress for women, but hateful Americans just want to take it away.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll find this is the go to explanation for any culture war incident that doesn’t align with woke preferences or otherwise subverts their narrative. If you can paint the opposition (which in this case, appears to be all of America) as irredeemably evil, you do not have to spend any effort trying to charitably understand their motives. Evil people do evil things, end of story.
She does raise an interesting point about the verdict, though. The jury ruled that Heard had defamed Depp when she described herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse”.
“As a First Amendment issue, the verdict is a travesty,” says Goldberg. “By the time Heard wrote the essay, the restraining order she’d received had been all over the news, and a photo of her with a bruised face and bloody lip had appeared on the cover of People Magazine. Even if Heard lied about everything during the trial — even if she’d never suffered domestic abuse — she still would have represented it.” (emphasis mine)
What Goldberg means by this is that whether or not the statement was defamatory should have been judged by whether that representation was believed to be true, not whether that representation was actually true.
Now, I don’t think this is the worst logic, and I actually share some of her concerns about the First Amendment implications. But that begs the question: Who believed her to be such a figure, and how did she achieve such a representation, long before any evidence came to court? Who instantly cast Heard as a victim in need of uplifting and support? Who approached the story with extreme credulity, making Depp a pariah overnight and Heard a feminist heroine?
That’s right. It was our famously objective media class.
They set up the representation before they could know whether it was true or false.
Then, when reality broke through and exposed the representation as at least partially exaggerated, if not outright false — they whitewash their role.
The problem is never the media or their actions — the problem is always those hateful Americans.
Right from the beginning, it took very little digging to find that the real story might be a tad more gray. Depp’s exes came forward in his defense -- vouching that physical violence was not in his character. Meanwhile, Heard’s history of hitting her ex-girlfriend in front of two cops and getting booked for it was on the records for anyone to find.
Then, Depp came out with his own allegations of abuse — claiming that he was the victim, and she the abuser.
What happens when two people both claim to be victims? Absent conclusive evidence, who do we believe?
If one actually cares about justice for victims, then the only answer can be: Neither — until we know more. But some of the loudest #MeToo voices advocated for the opposite — for believing the woman, regardless of the scant and occasionally contradictory evidence.
But a cause that cares about victims must necessarily care about the evidence and about due process — without which we cannot reliably recognize a victim when we see one and run the risk of creating more victims through a miscarriage of justice.
This obvious point had occurred to Michelle Goldberg, if dimly, in the midst of Al Franken’s MeToo reckoning back in 2017.
“I worry that there will be overreach and then a fierce and ugly backlash, as men — but not only men — decide we can’t just go around ruining people’s lives and careers by retroactively imposing today’s sexual standards on past actions.”
So her first instinct, she declares, “is to say that Franken deserves a chance to go through an ethics investigation but remain in the Senate, where he should redouble his efforts on behalf of abuse and harassment victims”.
But then the fever breaks, and she concludes that if Democrats eased up on Franken, Republicans will use that to deflect abuse on their own side - and the political ramifications would not be worth it.
“The question isn’t about what’s fair to Franken, but what’s fair to the rest of us”, she says. “I would mourn Franken’s departure from the Senate, but I think he should go, and the governor should appoint a woman to fill his seat. The message to men in power about sexual degradation has to be clear: We will replace you”.
Reminds me of a similar sentiment from Ezra Klein back in 2014, when California was considering its “Yes Means Yes” bill (now law), which requires that college students obtain verifiable and ongoing consent throughout the course of a sexual encounter. This is, of course, an impossible standard that is bound to either be flouted regularly, or cause more anxiety and unease in our already sexless youth. In other words, it is a terrible law.
Klein admits this readily — but still comes to the insane conclusion that “its overreach is precisely its value”. Sometimes bad things are good, actually!
He explains: “Critics worry that colleges will fill with cases in which campus boards convict young men (and, occasionally, young women) of sexual assault for genuinely ambiguous situations. Sadly, that's necessary for the law's success. It's those cases — particularly the ones that feel genuinely unclear and maybe even unfair, the ones that become lore in frats and cautionary tales that fathers e-mail to their sons — that will convince men that they better Be Pretty Damn Sure.”
In other words, the side that will shout from every corner that “women’s rights are human rights”, admits that, well, sometimes it really is women’s rights versus men’s rights — and you’d better pick the right side, if you know what is good for you.
Of course, to normal people, this is straightforwardly bs. Plain as day, they are justifying injustice in the service of what they assure us is the greater good for womankind.
But I don’t believe them. They definitely don’t care much about the well-being of men — but I don’t think they care about improving the lot of women either. Instead, I think they care about scoring points for their team. As “intellectuals”, they serve their tribe best by rationalizing away wrongdoing.
I’d go further: what they support isn’t true to the essence of #MeToo. #MeToo began as a movement about victims airing their stories, in the hopes that such a display would change the culture — making people more aware of the problem, and thus creating fewer victims in the future.
But #BelieveWomen doesn’t create fewer victims — it replaces female victims with male ones. It is not the case that “#MeToo has gone too far”, but that it was swiftly hijacked by a movement that fundamentally undermines it.
What journos like Klein and Goldberg pretend not to understand is that if you give human beings (male or female) a license to behave badly and get away with it, some of them will do so, more than we would like.
Anyone who has spent time in progressive activist spaces knows that they contain a surprising amount of petty tyrants, bullies, and even actual sexual predators. Surprising, until you understand the rules of such spaces. Here, membership in any number of marginalized groups can grant one power to flout rules, squash dissent, and silence critics. Why wouldn’t abusers take advantage of the free pass?
And while personalities of this sort are rare in any population, their ability to operate with impunity means they leave long and bloody trails of victims. And those victims are not only men — it is any one who stands up for the accused, or for whatever reason doesn’t automatically “support” the accuser (that is to say, submit to all demands). I’ve witnessed countless careers ruined, healthy communities fall, and organizations crippled — all due to accusations without a shred of evidence to support them.
And of course, there are other consequences too. How can we, as men and women, relate to each other in a healthy, positive way under such circumstances? There is already evidence that this has affected men’s willingness to mentor women in the workplace, but there are bound to be more indirect consequences as well.
And this, THIS, is what fuels backlashes. Not the patriarchy, not stupid, sexist, America that hates victims — but THIS. Americans live in the real world, and cannot be gaslit into pretending that women cannot ever do wrong, or manipulate a climate of credulity in their favor.
And I would bet that unless this climate changes — and soon — this is the first of many course corrections to come.