Why neutral is not the logical position on Dylan Farrow’s allegations

dylan farrow and woody allenI have actually lost a lot of Facebook friends over the Woody Allen molestation story, because I side very firmly with Dylan.  I recently shared an article about how what you believe is based on your personal experiences – people who have been mistreated by those in power, especially sexually, tend to believe Dylan; people who have been in power and fear false accusations, tend to believe Woody or claim neutrality.

Michael Hawkins offered this dismissive response to the article:

I stopped reading after the article repeated the same illogic as your last one: Saying we don’t know what happened is not also saying Farrow is lying.  It’s saying we don’t know.  That’s it.  Claiming otherwise is the same as dismissing the importance of evidence, a dismissal of the scientific view of the world.  We don’t know if her claims are true.  We don’t know if Allen’s denials are true.  That’s it.

The question is not whether we know what happened – we cannot know what happened — it’s whether we believe the claims of the victim.  We spend a great deal of time believing things that we don’t know – even in science, we operate off of assumptions and tentative conclusions about the world to be able to test claims.  Oftentimes, “knowledge” just means the claim with the best evidence.  Demands of necessary neutrality in response to a claim of sexual abuse is hyperskepticism, not scientific skepticism.

Michael makes the claim that neutrality is the only logical position.  That would only be correct if we lived in a void, where the rest of the world didn’t exist around the claims being made.  In the same way, legal language is inappropriate when discussing how people who are not judge or jury are forming opinions.  The standard for conviction is necessarily far stricter than the standard for forming rational opinions.  Let us look at the world beyond the “he said, she said.”

Woody Allen has a history of not respecting sexual boundaries and taking advantage of massive power imbalances between himself and his sexual partners – his history with his son’s sister, the child of the mother of his children, is enough to show a complete contempt for appropriate age relationships and the incest taboo.  He also has made jokes about how he has no sexual boundaries and no one would be surprised to find him in bed with several 12-year-olds.

Dylan Farrow, on the other hand, has nothing to gain from sharing this information except the chance of being believed, something that is part of the healing process for abuse victims.  Importantly, belief is all she’s asking for – not remuneration, not penalties for Woody Allen, just that people believe her.  Believing her costs Woody Allen nothing, while not believing re-victimizes her.

There are witnesses on who’ve come forward on both sides.  Those who have eye-witness testimony of inappropriate behavior from Allen to Dylan, and those who claim that Woody would never do something like that and there wasn’t sufficient opportunity.  Eye-witness testimony is imperfect, but it’s significant that there are people besides Dylan who corroborate the story.  There was also an investigation, which was inconclusive.  They were willing to prosecute Allen, but declined because they didn’t want to put Dylan through it.  This speaks to an inability to rule out that it happened, if not evidence that it did.

But even if you think that those who witnessed things and felt the case was tryable should be held in equal weight to those who deny the possibility of abuse and felt Dylan was not being honest, neutrality is still not the appropriate position.  Statistically, false accusations of sexual abuse by children are very rare.  Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence – a rape is not extraordinary, a false accusation is.  Dylan Farrow is making a claim that should only be doubted if there is good evidence that she is lying.  No such evidence exists.  Neutrality is denying the reality of how common abuse is in the world in which we live and how rare false accusations are. The default position, outside of a legal context, is believing the victim.

Furthermore, claiming neutrality is a betrayal of the victim, even if you’re not calling her a liar.  Not believing her, even if you don’t think she’s necessarily lying, is hurting her and not hurting Allen.  From a cost/benefit analysis, extending the benefit of the doubt to Dylan is the most logical conclusion, as it offers the most benefit with the least cost.

I’ve found the response to Dylan’s letter revelatory.  There are many people in the world who value skepticism over humanism; being not wrong over being probably right; being neutral over being kind.  Kind not just to Dylan, but to the many survivors of abuse who are finding it hard to see the cruel treatment of a woman who is bravely coming forward with what happened to her, something many other survivors wish they had the ability to do.  Demanding neutrality from others, many of whom may be survivors of experiences they’ve not shared with you, is neither logical nor kind.