Monday, 10 February 2014

On Allenegations

Since people I otherwise very much respect seem to be getting this wrong, a few comments on the Woody Allen/Dylan Farrow story currently in the news.  I'll be steering clear of references to Allen's alleged actions, but even so, those for whom this subject acts as a trigger might want to skip this post.

We'll start off with the obvious: I have absolutely no idea where the truth lies here. I do know that if you assume every accusation of child abuse is true, you'll be far more right than wrong (bastion of dispassionate fact Wikipedia suggests the false accusation rate is under 10%; for example), but that doesn't translate into the suggestion that we should automatically dismiss Allen's claims of innocence.

But it is one thing to privately take an agnostic position on the matter, and another to start pushing that publicly, and lecturing those more inclined to believe Farrow than you are that they are participating in mob justice.

It is a fact somewhere between inarguable and indescribably obvious that our culture does not respond well to those who make allegations of sexual assault against people we happen to find entertaining.  Even for those who aren't fortunate enough to be internationally respected and sitting atop huge piles of cash, the chances the majority will side with your accuser rather than you are pretty damn small. A significant majority of people will either ignore a victim's claims, or actively persecute them for speaking out.

Given that the clear majority of those making accusations are telling the truth, and given that the clear majority of people who hear those accusations do nothing positive with them, why on earth would you want to spend your time haranguing those people who haven't dismissed what they've been told? Why  would you conclude that the biggest problem in sexual abuse cases is that the accusers are given too much support and benefit of the doubt? Why would you spend your time worrying about how the rich and powerful must feel about nasty twitter messages?

If it comes to it, Allen deserves the presumption of innocence in court.  Out of court, that principle no longer applies.  It's fine to remind people that no-one should prepare themselves for a bout of vigilante justice here, but simply beating the shit out of Allen's reputation hardly counts as taking the law into one's own hands. No-one is under any obligation to assume Allen's innocence. Indeed it's ridiculous to expect people to hold to the presumption of innocence in general. If your friend tells you she's sure a garage stiffed him over car repairs, and you take your car to that same garage, guess what? You're a fucking idiot. You don't haughtily tell her she has no proof and so you must assume the garage is run honestly. You go to a different garage.

The same is true here, magnified a thousand fold.  If someone risks social ostracism and vicious attacks (Farrow had to change her name to escape being hounded over her claims) in order to label someone as a predator, the reflexive desire to argue no-one can be sure it's true runs the risk of silencing the voice of genuine victims, and making it easier for predators to pick up their next victim, secure in the knowledge that those who don't ignore the next accusation will actively smear their target.

Yes, Allen might be innocent. Yes, his description of events might be the correct one.  He is managing perfectly well to get that story out without your help. If you're not sure who is offering the true version of events, you're more than welcome to keep your mouth shut. Otherwise you risk making things more difficult for the victims of sexual abuse because you want to make it easier for victims of unpleasant Twitter-storms.  That's a prioritisation you might want to reconsider.

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