Stephen King really put his foot in it. Commenting on Dylan Farrow’s revelation that she’d been sexually abused by Woody Allen at the age of 7, he wrote:
@marykarrlit Boy, I'm stumped on that one. I don't like to think it's true, and there's an element of palpable bitchery there, but…
— Stephen King (@StephenKing) February 3, 2014
I don’t like to think it’s true, and there’s an element of palpable bitchery there, but…
Everyone is focused on the “bitchery” comment — you know, outspoken women are “bitches” while outspoken men are “Brave Heroes” — and I agree, that was an awful choice of words. But it’s the first part that bothers me: the “I don’t like to think it’s true”. In a trivial sense, none of us like to think about bad things happening in the world. I don’t like to think that we’re bombing people in drone strikes, I don’t like to think that children are going hungry in America, I don’t like to think that it’s uncomfortably cold outside right now. But what we would like and what is real are two different things.
He doesn’t like to think that Woody Allen has done awful things to kids and is getting off scot-free because he’s rich and influential. But the alternative is to think that Dylan Farrow is a lying fabulist; does he like to think that? Or not? Because that’s really the situation here, either Allen or Farrow are lying, and it always seems to be that we’re made more uncomfortable by the thought that a popular film-making man might be lying, than that a woman might be.
Read this essay, Woody Allen’s Good Name. It makes the excellent point that in all of this tut-tutting about Allen, nobody seems to be considering Dylan Farrow’s good name.
What is the burden of proof for assuming that a person is lying? If you are a famous film director, it turns out to be quite high. You don’t have to say a word in your defense, in fact, and people who have directed documentaries about you will write lengthy essays in the Daily Beast tearing down the testimony of your accusers. You can just go about your life making movie after movie, and it’s fine. But if you are a woman who has accused a great film director of molesting you when you were seven, the starting point is the presumption that, without real evidence, you are not telling the truth. In the court of public opinion, a woman accusing a great film director of raping her has no credibility which his fans are bound to respect. He has something to lose, his good name. She does not, because she does not have a good name. She is living in hiding, under an assumed name. And when she is silent, the Daily Beast does not rise to her defense.
In a rape culture, there is no burden on us to presume that she is not a liar, no necessary imperative to treat her like a person whose account of herself can be taken seriously. It is important that we presume he is innocent. It is not important that we presume she is not making it all up out of female malice. In a rape culture, you can say things like “We can’t really know what really happened, so let’s all act as if Woody Allen is innocent (and she is lying).” In a rape culture, you can use your ignorance to cast doubt on her knowledge; you can admit that you have no basis for casting doubt on Dylan’s statement, and then you can ignore her account of herself. A famous man is not speaking, so her testimony is not admissible evidence. His name is Woody Allen, and in a rape culture, that good name must be shielded and protected. What is her name?
Which happens more often? That men unchecked will take sexual advantage of young women? Or that women will lie about being abused? Those Bayesian priors ought to be considered when evaluating a claim like this.