When Two Truths Collide

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Minnesota holds primary elections today. One of the most prominent candidates is 11-year congressional veteran Rep. Keith Ellison, running for state Attorney General. A few days ago, first the son of a former partner and then the partner herself, Karen Monahan, accused Ellison of “narcissist abuse,” a term that has come into use fairly recently to describe a pattern of emotional manipulation and bullying in which someone pressures another to ignore one’s own needs to satisfy those of the narcissist, for example. Ellison has denied the charge. Here’s a quick recap.

The charges have ignited a passionate debate among progressives. Many people like Ellison, who has taken consistently progressive positions on issues and who, as the first Muslim elected to Congress, has withstood considerable personal attack himself. So the first contested point is whether the good done by someone accused of bad acts ought to weigh in the balance of judgment.

On one side is a civil libertarian argument that counsels bringing the same commitment to the presumption of innocence that shapes legal proceedings to the court of public opinion. The controversy comes with a raft of text messages and tweets made public by Monahan, some of which allude to a damning video which so far, no one has seen. These voices say that no one should be condemned purely on another’s say-so, that false accusations are possible and to avoid harm, all accusations should be investigated before a determination of culpability and punishment can rightfully be made.

I absolutely understand this passion. In fact, I share it. The presumption of innocence—the requirement that guilt must be proven—is foundational to almost every extant justice system, even when it is honored differentially (from the shameful history of lynching to the trial of the Rosenbergs and beyond, the Moscow show trials and their counterparts elsewhere, vigilantism has often trumped due process).

This principle was devised to protect the innocent from false accusations, understanding that human beings sometimes lie to gain advantage, to protect themselves from the consequences of their own actions, or to exact revenge. Indeed, the principle that at least two credible witnesses are required to condemn an evil-doer is a longstanding spiritual teaching (see Deuteronomy 17:6) conditioned on this awareness.

There is good reason to construct a legal system that presumes innocence. False accusation of sexual assault is what got the “Scottsboro Boys” incarcerated in 1931; it wasn’t until 2013 that Alabama granted posthumous pardons to those who hadn’t been freed earlier. False accusation led to the conviction and lynching of Leo Frank in 1913 Atlanta. False accusation led to the internment in camps of loyal Japanese Americans during World War II. The novel To Kill a Mockingbird is based on a false accusation of rape in which a black man’s life is seen as collateral damage by a white woman who fears her own abusive father. From the Salem witch trials to the witch hunts of the 1950s Red Scare, I would need many pages to list all the examples of false accusation that have marred U.S. history alone. Suffice it to say here that the bulk of false accusation has been deployed against members of vilified groups: African Americans, Jews, Asians, communists, and so on.

So when on the eve of an election accusations are made against an African American and Muslim elected official, many civil libertarians counsel against a rush to judgment.

I see their point.

On the other side is an argument also firmly grounded in U.S. history and experience: that women who accuse men of sexual assault and abuse have been ignored, falsely discredited, or simply not believed for a very long time, and that with the rise of the #MeToo movement, it is imperative to adopt the position taken by Ultraviolet in its statement calling for Ellison to step down: “We believe women.”

Advocates of this position point out that false accusations are rare, that it is far more common for legitimate accusers to be doubted and shamed than believed and supported. They point out that placing the burden of proof on a victim perpetuates a power imbalance that benefits perpetrators and requires a victim to share material that may be re-traumatizing. The timing of an accusation may be politically motivated or coincidental, but that doesn’t automatically render the accusation untrue.

So when a public figure accused of sexual misconduct is defended on the grounds that the individual has been a stalwart advocate of progressive values and adequate documentary evidence of wrongdoing has not been produced, many #MeToo advocates decry a double standard that penalizes the abused.

I see their point.

The hard part is where the two positions conflict. In a framework of perpetrator and victim, believing Karen Monahan cancels the presumption of innocence for Keith Ellison. Careful investigation is impossible if Ellison is successfully pressured to step down as soon as the accusation is made, to voluntarily accept the penalty of loss of position, profession, and respect, even though he denies the charge. Some stressed a distinction between due process in a court of law and the responsibility of private citizens: “As for due process, our response as a movement is a political question, not a legal one. This moment is about choosing to normalize and uphold rape culture or prioritizing working to end it.”

What has struck me about the conversation as I’ve watched it unfold has something to do with pitch. Many of those who’ve weighed in on the “I believe women. Period.” side offer strong condemnation of those who counsel investigation, accusing them of complicity, cowardice, or worse. As one person put it in an online discussion, “I’m very opposed to our movement and community pivoting to proof before believing survivors. It plays into the existing power structures that uphold rape culture and a culture of abuse.”

In the end, I find myself standing with the person, herself a victim of assault, who wrote to caution against silencing those who question Twitter justice:

I will never be comfortable with saying that as a movement, all someone has to do is make an accusation (of any kind of abuse or toxic behavior) and we as a movement will drum them out, call on them to resign, etc.
What is wrong with saying, ‘I believe this person, xyz organization must investigate these allegations without delay?’…
[I] fail to see how fostering a culture that can be so easily abused and then shaming people who question that culture is supposed to help me or make me feel supported.

Evidence shows that women who charge sexual misconduct are almost always telling the truth. But not always. I’ve been lied to by women and men, regardless of the topic. Haven’t you? To ignore that possibility does women a disservice, treating them as less than fully human and capable of full human possibility. But the critical question to me is not whether charges should be believed and therefore treated as true and warranting immediate punishment. It is that historically the automatic and sexist dismissal of such charges has preempted actual investigation. The necessary antidote is to believe that charges warrant full investigation. To begin to undo the harm eons of malignant sexism and rape culture have done, accusations such as those against Ellison must be given enough immediately credibility to conduct an immediate investigation with the aim of a price to pay—and an attempt at restorative justice—if they prove true.

Another participant in the discussion put it well:

When I say: “I believe women” that means I reject the decades or centuries of dismissing women’s claims and not investigating them. It means understanding that there are careful and important ways of investigating stories to bring justice. It does not mean, anyone can make a claim without any clear basis and bring someone else down. If that is what it means, we are in real trouble. Whether or not Keith is guilty of something.

Bettye LaVette, “Your Turn to Cry.”

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