First: yes, the title is plural. I’ll get to that. Trigger warnings for discussion of sexual assault and rape.
I’m fairly certain I have a grasp now on why exactly there’s so much pushback against even the merest inkling that these allegations of serial sexual harassment might be true, most especially with regard to the allegations against Michael Shermer hosted presently at PZ Myers’ blog. It’s complicated, and nuanced, and will take a lot to unpack. Starting, of course, with human beings.
Humans are social animals. Every interaction requiring any level of trust therefore requires a commensurate history of social interactions one can rely upon that this trust will not be broken. Some small interactions like transactions at a marketplace use money as a proxy for that trust — exchanging money for goods and services suggests that you’re a contributing member of society by having obtained that money to begin with. It’s for that reason that so many people get hung up on the idea that if you’re poor, you’re morally failed somehow.
We are also political animals, and each of us wants our personal viewpoints on the world to spread and to fight for our respective causes. Every interaction we participate in is political in some way, even if not explicitly so. You participate in forums that involve topics you care about; you argue for or against viewpoints that are brought up. Even simple actions like buying media can be politically charged — you could buy games from indie developers in defiance of the big-budget ones which are often calculated to pander to the widest audience but that invariably ends up propagating societally-damaging memes, like that women are objects to be rescued and not autonomous entities. You could give money to movies that are otherwise terrible, just because they happen to star an actor you like; you could boycott movies by actors who do demonstrable harm to the world by espousing blinkered and antiscientific claptrap like Tom Cruise or Jenny McCarthy. Or even something as simple and seemingly apolitical as choosing one soft drink over another just because it tastes good, and you would be sad if it disappeared. Someone next to you might convince you to do otherwise, because of that soft drink manufacturer’s stance on gay marriage, for instance; overriding the one political message for another more important one in your mind. The politics of each interaction might be subtle but they’re there, always.
In computers, there’s a concept regarding privacy and encryption that uses a decentralized model for trusting one another’s private/public encryption pairs. Rather than having an authority storing all the keys that pair with a person’s personal encryption codes, each person you communicate with under the PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) method shares the keys that that person trusts, and eventually by being trusted by a lot of people, you can be reasonably secure in the knowledge that newcomers into the network will already have trust for your keys. The better connected you are, the more trusted your keys are. However, like in meatspace, that trust could be violated by any one person, and the more trusted that person, the greater the breach of the trust web.
The entire concept of morality is based on trying to improve humanity’s lot without inflicting undue suffering on its members (or any other entity, to a lesser extent). The reason that sexual assault and rape are morally repugnant is that it is an abrogation of a person’s self-direction, and it does violence to another person in exchange for the aggressor’s pleasure. Even if that violence happens in such a way that the person is not physically harmed, it’s still violence — it’s the overriding of one person’s will for another’s pleasure, and it often comes with a gross violation of trust.
Humans place a high priority on preventing breaches of trust in interactions — the script goes, if someone is a known scam artist, we take pains to inform people to watch out for their tricks (and thus the entire skeptic movement was born). If someone is a known thief, we take pains to inform people to stow their valuables in their presence. But for some reason, when we talk about rape and sexual assault, the desire to warn people to be wary around them is superceded by fears that any particular warning might be *wrong*, because then you’re doing damage to a person without good cause. And when that person is popular, there’s a lot of trust, no matter how small the interactions individually are.
Except, that person may have done grievous damage to someone else, abusing that high level of trust. The saying “power corrupts” springs to mind. They may even have violated people’s autonomy, and we put a very high priority on discouraging that sort of action.
Only, somewhere that script got flipped: it’s more grievously harmful to name the person on the off chance that they fall into the ~6% of false rape claims than it is to screw up that person’s chances at harassing or raping even more people. The cries of “innocent until proven guilty”, which are appropriate in a courtroom or when facing jailtime, are brought up — which are never brought up when someone tells you to watch out for that person who picked your pocket. The cries for physical evidence drown out the testimonial and corroborative evidence that are brought forward. The victim-blaming for putting themselves in the position they were in where they got raped flow freely, where in a parallel situation where someone’s car is hotwired nobody blames the person for choosing an inviting colour of car.
It seems there’s a drive to create a false dichotomy where, because of the grievousness of the crime of breach of trust and breach of someone’s autonomy that rape represents, either the person is completely innocent and free of all charges, or is thrown in jail. Most rape and most assault and most harassment — while criminal — never results in true justice where the perpetrators are put behind bars, even if the victims do go to the police and even if there is physical evidence and even if there is a known suspect. Therefore, most rape and assault and harassment is entirely unpunished, and grossly underreported because everyone knows how the system is skewed.
People forget that there are not merely two options here. There’s not just “jailtime” and “completely innocent”. There’s not just “guilty” and “witch-hunts”. Another possibility is for people to be made aware of these creepers and to know that they cannot trust them as much as they might other people — to warn them that the trust placed in them might not be warranted.
Our ability to trust one another is built on a series of interactions with one another. Over time, you build up a reservoir of trust and if you trust someone enough, when they are faced with a claim that they are untrustworthy, it might be hard to swallow. It might cause you to backlash against the accusations. And when others trust a person, it can amplify that trust. If enough people trust a person despite the alleged breach, no consequences might come of a claim about a person — it might be dismissed as “so much locker room banter” or people “regretting their sexual exploits”. Or it could even legitimately have been an attempt to tear down the trust a community has in a person for no other reason than simple spite.
I understand this dynamic well. When I was 16, my first girlfriend accused me of rape in order to preempt any acrimony over her sleeping with someone else, and the only things that saved me — unpopular kid as I was — were the facts that she’d repeatedly and demonstrably lied to a lot of people about a lot of things very often, eroding anyone’s trust in her, and because she happened to tell a lie integral to her accusation that I could disprove.
Her accusation ruined her own reputation amongst her then circle of friends, but she moved on, built new trusts, violated them as well, and generally made a wreck of her life as far as I cared to follow.
I vowed then to be as honest as humanly possible with people, to the point of it becoming a character flaw. I have a reputation for being blunt with people. I can be short with people. I have no patience for people intentionally abusing one another — and I’m not talking about namecalling, I’m talking about advocating for ideas I deem genuinely ruinous for society, like religion, bigotry, or unchecked greed. I walk away from people who are damaging, even at great personal cost.
This has earned me trust and it has cost me trust with a lot of people in a lot of ways.
In that respect, I am a good deal like PZ Myers to a far smaller degree (in that I am less popular, and therefore have less interactions with which to build my web of trust). I have never seen him flinch or skulk away from a fight over what he believes to be right, nor — more especially — over what he believes to be wrong. Even where I disagree with him, he is a man with the courage of his convictions in my experience. He has earned a good deal of my trust in him to deal with certain issues with ferocity and calm rationality in equal measure. And as far as I can see, he is slow to come to trust others, having likely been burned a number of times by a number of people over the years. My own personal web of trust includes him as a result of my own dealings with him over the years, as do many other folks’. He has built up a strong reputation amongst most of us for being unflinching and self-sacrificing when faced with difficult decisions.
Except, some of these convictions come in direct conflict with some other community members’ own convictions. Some of the actions he has taken — disagreeing publicly and loudly with people over seeming trivialities (which are nonetheless important to him, and evidently important to people who agree with him on the matter), or banning people from his blog for harming the (rather free-for-all) discourse he governs there — each earn him enmity, cost him trust for some folks, even where it earns him trust with others.
There are people who are doggedly determined to prove that he is the secular Antichrist for daring to disagree with certain secular Saints, for daring to (extraordinarily infrequently) ban people from his blog. And these people think that those of us who’ve dealt with him and found his dealings to be fair, well, they think he’s hoodwinked us and that we’re hero-worshipping him in the same way that they hero-worshipped some of the people of whom he’s been critical. They think there’s some kind of cult like hivemind groupthink at play, when what they’re really describing is the fact that we trust him to act in accordance with our own personal beliefs. That we trust him to vet and thoroughly corroborate any claims he makes in public, that he would not stake his hard-earned reputation without damn good cause.
So when someone whom PZ trusts, who also trusts PZ to do the right thing, comes forward and tells PZ her story of having been coerced into sex by the big-name and well-trusted Michael Shermer, and he realizes that to do anything at all about it he has to risk taking a hell of a lot of splash damage to his own reputation in bringing it to the world at large. He’s fully aware that even putting it forward to the degree that he has, stripped of any identifying details that might result in retaliatory harassment of the victim by Shermer’s fans, he’s not only risking his reputation but he’s giving ammunition to the people who want his reputation to evaporate entirely, who will not hesitate to use this event to destroy him and everything he stands for.
There’s a lot of people complaining that these anonymous claims are ruining people’s reputations without sufficient cause or evidence. The deck is actually stacked against people ever coming forward with rape claims, though, and lowering the bar too far can make an environment that’s easily gamed by people who like the system the way it is.
Things like the anonymous tumblr “More Will Be Named”, which was deleted and replaced with a parody by someone who snapped up the domain when it became available after the deletion, actually are damaging to the cause of preventing these big names from taking advantage of the trust they themselves have built. These tiny and untrusted-because-anonymous voices coming forward and being given a megaphone to say what they will about big names might serve as innoculation against anyone ever believing the claim against a well-trusted person. The trolls time and again try to make sure that it’s impossible to ever come forward with a rape case by providing the very false rape claims they decry as the reason we can’t trust people to be honest about their rape claims. They fulfill their own prophecies to throw up chaff and keep people from taking rape claims seriously.
But there’s always another option, as I suggested. There’s “trust implicitly”, there’s “distrust”, and there’s “trust but verify”. And in “trust but verify”, you can know to be wary of certain people without necessarily pointing at them in horror and shrieking “rapist” every time they’re nearby; or throwing them in jail on the least unsubstantiated word.
This is all I, or anyone else fighting for victims rights with regard to rape, have ever advocated. The repercussions in this case are not that Michael Shermer will end up in jail — seriously, even if all six victims were to provide ironclad evidence that he did what they said, at this point so distant from the crimes, it’s grossly unlikely he’ll ever face any jailtime for it. All he has to do is throw up doubt that sex with an inebriated-beyond-consent woman is not actually rape, or that they only decided it was rape after they decided he was skeezy after the fact. He’ll get off on the charge of getting off on someone without their permission.
So the best we can hope for as far as repercussions are that because his name is so popular, the accusations against him will give his potential future victims pause against trusting him enough to drink with or spend time alone with him. This might hurt his feelings, but it will not ruin is career or his life.
And the reason I’m willing to trust PZ to have vetted his claims before making the accusation public like he has, is exactly because I know he treats these accusations seriously and trusts the victims but verifies the stories before putting his own sizable bank of trust on the line.
That’s why anonymous trolls’ stories against people, unverified and unvetted and impossible to corroborate, don’t gain as much traction as the big ones like this. The problem is, the same effect happens with regard to any claim that any rape victim might bring forward — there’s massive public pressure against ever coming forward with your own name, because you will face all the consequences of that interaction. People who don’t trust you will be horrified that you’re impugning the motives of the good decent person they trust, and they’ll rake over your life history looking for any shred of misdeed by which to dismiss you and the entire story. So most rape victims never come forward.
When rape victims DO come forward, it’s because they’ve found someone they can trust. And sometimes the person they trust with the story trusts them back, and sometimes they’re willing to fight that fight on their behalf. Remember, this anonymous accuser is only anonymous TO US.
That’s why PZ can’t give more details than he has; and that’s why the people who don’t trust either PZ or the anonymous (TO US) rape victim are fighting back so hard against the very idea that maybe, just maybe, Michael Shermer actually did it.
And as for the strength of the evidence at hand, the fact that PZ received post-hoc corroboration of the events in question, from someone well-placed within the community enough to be trustable themselves and to have been in a position to know the truth of the statement, from someone, I note, who even admits that they don’t much like PZ and the strength of their belief in the events is strong enough to override that distrust, is excellent evidence that the events actually happened. That’s why there’s a plural. It further cements in my mind that I was right to trust PZ, and that I’m right to trust Jane Doe, at the expense of the reputation of yet another so-called pillar of our community.
Sure, it’s not photographic evidence, but you know how well even THAT works amongst those primed to deny any rape allegations ever brought forward.