Carol Tavris takes a look at the Dylan Farrow-Woody Allen matter at Michael Shermer’s Skeptic.
The first part is good. I agree with all of it; it’s why I was careful not to say I “believed” Dylan Farrow or that I thought all claims of rape or sexual assault should be believed, just like that no matter what. It’s why I pointed out that DF’s memory could be wrong, without any intention or malice.
I was also dismayed to read claims by many of Dylan Farrow’s supporters that have long been scientifically disproved:
- Children never lie about sexual abuse.
- If a memory is vivid, detailed, and emotionally laden, that is evidence that it is accurate.
- In the case of Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow, one must be “lying.” As Aaron Bady posted in The New Inquiry, “If one of them has to be lying for the other to be telling the truth, then presuming the innocence of one produces a presumption of the other’s guilt. And Woody Allen cannot be presumed to be innocent of molesting a child unless she is presumed to be lying to us.”
Same here. But then, toward the end, things go slightly wrong.
The problem, as studies of cognitive dissonance show, is that as soon as we take sides, the brain sees to it that we will justify and solidify our position by seeking only the information that confirms it, and deny, ignore or minimize evidence that we could be wrong.
That is the reason for the vehemence with which many of Farrow’s supporters are shouting down the opposition. (The title of a research paper captured this phenomenon perfectly: “When in Doubt, Shout.”) Given a choice of whom to believe, they say, we must always side with the accuser in a rape or molestation case; otherwise we are supporting the patriarchal “rape culture.” As Bady writes, “if you are presuming his innocence by presuming her mendacity, you are rape cultured.” Anyone who asks skeptical questions of Dylan Farrow’s story is a pedophile or a sexist who is abetting the abuse of children and women. That kind of self-righteous certainty shuts down thoughtful inquiry. It does not help the cause of feminism or justice.
How, then, should we think about Dylan Farrow’s allegations? It’s relevant that they occurred during a bitter custody dispute, when Mia Farrow’s understandable rage at Allen over his affair with Soon Yi was going at full blast. We might ask why Dylan is making her story public now. We might wonder whether she has been influenced by recovered-memory therapists or, as her brother Moses writes, by an angry and vengeful mother. We would want to take into account that this family remains bitterly divided. Most of all, we have to accept the most difficult lesson of critical thinking: tolerating uncertainty.
What we should not do, as my coauthor Elliot Aronson has said, is “sacrifice our skepticism on the altar of outrage.” Outrage is good when it leads to constructive, mindful efforts to promote justice—for innocent children and for innocent adults. But outrage without skepticism and science is a recipe for hysteria and witch hunts.
Notice anything? She forgot to follow her own instructions. That’s odd, isn’t it, since she had just given them. In one paragraph she said “as soon as we take sides, the brain sees to it that we will justify and solidify our position by seeking only the information that confirms it, and deny, ignore or minimize evidence that we could be wrong,” and in the next three paragraphs she discusses only Dylan Farrow’s allegations and not Woody Allen’s claims. It’s relevant that he’d been seeing a therapist because of his obsessive possessive relationship with Dylan; we might wonder whether he had some strange views about adoption and siblings and suitable sex partners; we would want to take into account that he never did see anything wrong with secretly fucking his long-term partner’s daughter.
So, yeah. Tavris is right that we don’t know, and that excess certainty is just that. But she’s quite wrong that that applies only to what Dylan Farrow has said.