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Can we take sexual misconduct seriously without every accusation meaning instant ruin?
Somewhere between a badly needed reckoning and a moral panic. We'd better figure this out.
Louis CK admitted it was all true. Kevin Spacey did so by implication. Mark Halperin copped to some bad behavior but said some of the charges against him weren't quite the truth. Roy Moore denied the main charge but seems to be allowing for the fact that he did try to date teenagers when he was in his 30s, which is pretty dang creepy.
Harvey Weinstein? He went for "treatment." You know what that usually means.
And we're being pelted with accusations against all kinds of other people too. You've seen the headlines. You know the names. It would feel like piling on to simply list them here out of context, especially when we can't say for sure if all of them - or any of them for that matter - are totally true.
One very big star was publicly accused of doing a terrible thing to a fellow star. The mother of the alleged victim said publicly it wasn't true. Who knows? But once the names and the charges are linked publicly, there's really no putting the notion back in the bottle.
And that brings us to a tricky challenge of balance that we have to find a way to master, even as we acknowledge that the breaking of this dam has been a necessary thing.
Look at the speed with which the Louis CK thing developed: On Thursday, five women accused him of sexual misconduct. By Friday morning, every project he's currently working on had been cancelled, and major companies like Netflix had completely dissociated themselves with him. Now given CK's admission that the charges were true, you might say the outcome was just and deserved. But I'm more concerned with the speed of it all than I am with the righteousness of the outcome.
I'm not talking here about "due process," so don't run and tell David French I need a legal lecture on that. The court of public opinion has its own process, which is little more than nonstop saturation followed by sheep doing what sheep do. The charge of sexual misconduct is toxic, and it should be. When people have actually done the things these people are accused of, they deserve the comeuppance we're seeing with startling regularity these days.
What is there any check at all on an accusation that might turn out to be false?
CK's entire career was brought to a halt on the basis of one news story. So was Spacey's. So was Roy Moore's Senate candidacy. And Moore's is an interesting case because merely pointing out that the charges are unproven gets you labeled as a partisan tribalist who applies different standards based solely on party. Yet they're totally unproven. There are legitimate reasons to think they could be true, but there's also the possibility that we don't have the whole story or that some of the story we've been given isn't entirely accurate.
The fact that the charges are troubling apparently means that you're a partisan hack if you want to wait on a nicety like proof, or if you think it's better to be circumspect and see how the story plays out for a few days or weeks rather than jumping to a conclusion solely for the purpose of proving your intellectual and moral consistency.
The current environment says that every charge leveled against a prominent person must be believed, 100 percent. What's to stop anyone who simply has an axe to grind from leveling revenge charges and bringing a person's entire life and career to heel? When the charges alone can end your career inside of 24 hours, simply by scaring away anyone associated with you, it scarcely matters if you can come back a week or two later and show that none of it was true. This is the environment at the moment. You're too toxic. You're done.
That cannot and should not be allowed to happen, not only because of basic fairness but also because sexual misconduct is a serious matter, and it deserves to be treated seriously. When a man has really committed such acts and a long-ago (or recent) victim musters up the courage to say so, the victim deserves respect and the perp deserves to pay a price. Society at large needs to sanction such behavior. One might even suggest the word stigma here.
But when every accusation equals instant and automatic guilt, and everyone caught in that net has to be instantly ostracized from society because of cultural pressure, we're neither being fair nor taking the issue itself seriously. It's only a matter of time before we see a backlash because someone did level charges falsely and irresponsibly, and was shown to have done so. That will be the end of the whole "always believe the accusers" thing, and legitimate accusers will find themselves back in the shadows.
So yes. Speak up. And yes. Take it seriously. But there's a reason we subject accusations to the test to make sure they're true. Let's not stop doing that because we're dealing with such a serious matter. Let's do it all the more. A moral panic is not going to make this right.
Dan's new novel, BACKSTOP, is a story of spiritual warfare and baseball. Download it from Amazon here!