Something in our body politic is troubling me. I do not think it is possible to have a just society without understanding that every member of society bears the same potential to harm or heal. I do not think we can have just laws and processes without imagining how we would ourselves be treated as either the accuser of wrongdoing or the accused. Yet I hear so many people exempting themselves from these deep truths, advocating positions conditioned on understanding their own virtue as unimpeachable, on seeing themselves as incapable of serious wrongdoing.
The antidote I think we need is perspective, the ability to see our own virtue, accomplishments, or status as subject to change, to braid empathy and imagination with justice.
A few days ago, I wrote about conflicting views of how best to respond to abuse charges leveled against a respected person. As a case-in-point, I explored progressive responses to the charge that Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison had abused his former partner, Karen Monahan. Since then Ellison has won the Democratic nomination for state Attorney General. It remains to be seen how whatever unfolds will affect both him and Monahan, but whatever happens, that won’t end the discussion. I could have picked a different example in which any man long regarded as dedicated to equity and justice is publicly charged with abuse. The choice is appallingly plentiful, the debate ongoing.
To reduce the two perspectives I discussed to a few words, I’d characterize them as “Believe Women. Period,” leading to immediate calls for the accused to step down; or “Investigate Before Action,” in which charges are taken seriously, but the call for punishment is conditioned on obtaining full information. In my previous essay, I wrote at length about the values and understandings behind each of these positions. They come into high relief when the accusation and denial involve two respected individuals talking about unwitnessed moments. If there is documentary evidence—as with video of football player Ray Rice punching Janay Palmer in an elevator—or if there are multiple corroborating accusers as in Ronan Farrow’s coverage of Harvey Weinstein’s many offenses, the conflict isn’t so clear.
The debate between adherents of these two positions has grown more and more heated until, in one online group that provided a platform, the moderators put it on hold. I’ve been following it with great interest on account of the underlying issues.
What do these conflicting positions say about our notion of justice?
People who place themselves strongly on the “Believe Women. Period” side have expressed outrage and betrayal that people they thought were allies have counseled investigation before action.
Many say it is clear that the dominant system has failed women who’ve come forward to report harassment, rape, and abuse. With such a flawed legal system in place, women cannot expect justice—in fact, it would be more accurate to expect shaming, discrediting, retaliation. “That is why,” wrote one attorney,
I’m so inspired by #MeToo and the large number of individuals who have responded to their harassment by subjecting themselves not to the legal system, but the court of public opinion. The remedies granted by the court of public opinion include resignations, apologies, vindication, community, the widespread public airing of allegations that have long been suppressed, the ability to support and assist others, new platforms, careers, and other remedies that are much better suited to healing and moving forward positively than a system that requires secrecy, nondisclosure agreements, suppression, and reliving harm at every turn, where you cannot tell and assist others, where employers and harassers do NOT admit liability or apologize, and where that part of your career and your life continues to be treated as if it never happened.
Many adherents of the “Believe Women. Period.” position cite the statistical rarity of false claims as well as the many disincentives to come forward, compounded by the fact that the system is rigged to protect the powerful, those possessing high-priced legal teams and friends in high places. And given this broken system, they cite the benefit to the person who comes forward in the court of public opinion—who may not be able or willing under this legal system to pursue a trial or money damages—of being heard and believed, even of receiving an apology.
They understand the choice as between risking harm to the few men who are falsely accused, who may suffer loss of reputation, livelihood, and well-being; versus harming the many women who do speak out by ignoring their pain and suffering, privileging an abstract principle over taking action to call out and correct injustice. Adding up the numbers, they find the right path clearly set out: “Believe Women. Period.” Call for immediate admission, apology, stepping down from public office or private position.
In the debates I’ve followed, approximately equal numbers of adherents of both positions have prefaced their remarks by detailing their own experiences as victims of sexual abuse. I don’t know the demographics of those who’ve added their own observations and opinions to the conversation, but male- and female-sounding names have been represented more or less equally on both sides.
The difference that strikes me in the “Believe Women. Period.” position is that none of the people advocating it described imagining themselves in the place of the accused. Their statements were formulated from the perspective of a virtuous person confronting a likely evil-doer. The implicit certainty that their own virtue will put them on the side of right came through very strongly.
Adherents of the “Investigate Before Action” position keep pointing out the ahistoricity of the opposing argument, describing times in history—from 17th-century witch purges in New England to lynchings in the post-Civil War south to the McCarthy-era Red Scare—when false accusations led to terrible punishments, drawing from these examples the need for caution, such as this woman’s words:
It is true that false accusations are rare, under our current system. If we move to a system where all someone has to do is make a claim, and that is enough to find find someone guilty, or dole out serious consequences, those false allegations would skyrocket.
How do I know? Because we have already lived that system as a society under Jim Crow. History is also littered with examples, from the Salem Witch Trials to the Spanish Inquisition.
They can also imagine the shoe on the other foot. The following sentences are from a man who described doing his best to be conscious and fair in the treatment of those he’s worked with, and has sometimes fired a woman. He asked how he would be treated if an accusation were to be made against him:
So here’s what haunts me: if a woman who has worked for me someday accuses me of something I didn’t do, with no evidence, is my reputation dead among all of you who think we should always believe the woman? Do all the good works, all the women I have hired and mentored, does it all amount to nothing because of one accusation? Do all the women who know me and stick up for me get accused of enabling the abuser?
I am moved by the thought-experiment of the philosopher John Rawls, who counsels judging a society from the perspective of what is called the “original position.” Imagine for a moment designing a social order without yourself knowing what gender, orientation, cultural identity, race, religion, wealth, position or other circumstances you would occupy in that society. Not knowing where I would stand in a social order, I would advocate the social arrangements that would guarantee the best possible living conditions and circumstances at the lowest end of the scale of power and privilege. I would support the social order that followed the golden rule, refusing to prescribe for others conditions that would be hateful to myself.
#MeToo signals a tidal wave of refusal to stand for a social order that discredits abused and misused women to preserve the disproportionate power of men. #TimesUp, as another hashtag goes, and so it should be. But if the new social order is conditioned on a belief that there are angels and devils abroad in the land—rather than merely people, capable of good and evil acts—and that the camp of angels should be trusted to mete out Twitter justice for the rest of us, it won’t be much of an improvement.
The person who had the greatest impact on my spiritual understanding was Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank. Today is the twentieth yahrzeit (anniversary) of his death at 47 in an auto accident. As Rosh HaShanah, the new year, approaches, we are counseled to perform a cheshbon hanefesh, a soul inventory, in preparation for healing the places we’ve missed the mark in the year gone by and setting a course for the year to come. I’ve just been reading some of David’s Rosh HaShanah teachings and want to share a tiny bit with you:
The Talmud [Tamid page 32b] says, “Who is wise? The one who sees ‘hanolad‘- what is being born.” The more we become able to watch the emerging moment, the closer we are to the perspective of Khokhmah (wisdom).
May we have the wisdom to see what is being born and help it see the world with open eyes. And to embrace it with all our gifts, like Aretha Franklin, here in a 1967 performance of “Do Right Woman.” May her memory be a blessing to all who are sustained by the beauty of the human voice.