Accuse Everybody

Content note: brutally racist and anti-semitic language

In a recent Pharyngula thread, it was suggested by billyjoe that, “We can’t go about accusing people,” so long as some people accused incur disproportionate or otherwise unjust consequences.

On that thread, I made it clear that it is not the accusation that is the problem.

Paxoll then chimed in to support this statement, simultaneously saying that others can’t know whether or not an accusation is true and that billyjoe was only speaking of false accusations (despite being unable to tell them apart … and despite billyjoe doing nothing to mention truth or falsity as  important in deciding whether or not we actually can go about accusing people).

Although I replied to Paxoll in that thread, I thought the concept might need its own post here even before I finished up my comments and opened up RawStory to find this headline:

Fraternity leader whines that his members are ‘endangered’ after racist, homophobic video emerges

The Syracuse University chapter of that leader’s fraternity engaged in some truly horrible shit. “Racist, homophobic” is really just the tip of the iceberg here. You can watch the recorded ceremony yourself at that link, though I wouldn’t recommend it. There is nothing redeeming at all in the RawStory video that collects together several clips originally published separately:

In it, members enact the “origin story” of a rival fraternity. Theta Tau members are shown simulating masturbation and fellatio on others, disparaging “n*ggers, sp*cs and most importantly the f*ckin’ k*kes,” and making jokes about disabled people.

The actual quote recited by at least one of the fraternity pledges, btw, is this:

I solemnly swear to always have hatred in my heart for niggers, spics and most importantly, the fucking kikes

Please note that there were no asterisks in the pledge’s words. I violate recent tradition by writing them out longhand, but I think it’s important to report what was actually said, in all its brutal, hateful stupidity.

But what is the fraternity leader’s concern? According to the NY Post, it’s not that statement:

“The behaviors described are not representative of our very diverse organization, locally or nationally, nor rational or comprehensible for the multiethnic Syracuse chapter itself,” said Abraham. “While the language that has been described is troubling and inconsistent with our values, we tend to distinguish between words and deeds as well as between individuals and groups when determining appropriate remedies and penalties.”

No. The fraternity leader is upset that information about these horrible actions is available to the public:

The fraternity members who appear in the videos have yet to be named, but Abraham claims they are now scared for their lives.

“They have been identified on social media, and due to the university having leaked this video to the press, they are now endangered,” he explained.

Pay careful attention to my bolding here. Abraham isn’t saying that people issuing death threats should be punished (as they should, although note that there’s no reference to any threats being made, just that members are “scared for their lives” with no specific reason attached). And let’s not get distracted by the fact that the university didn’t leak the original video clips to the press: the fraternity put the videos on facebook where they were noticed by the press who then reported them to the university (though the university may have heard about the videos through other channels as well).

In Abraham’s formulation, the university is wrong to let people know that racism, sexism, ableism, anti-semitism, and heterosexism are being acted out by one of its fraternities because other people might take wrong action. It is the public announcement that someone has performed a bad deed that is in the wrong, according to Abraham. And in this case, there is no disputing that the allegation might be false. We are talking bout a definitively true allegation – that a certain fraternity posted to facebook certain video clips of themselves engaging in horrifying behavior.


People really do insist that it is wrong to accuse others of bad behavior. People really do insist that whether the allegations are true or false. They insist it whether or not there is hard proof of the bad behavior. They do it in ways that are praised (Cops “reasonably” withholding evidence in yet another shooting of an unarmed community member in order to “avoid inflaming tensions”) and ways that are derided, see Trump’s statement condemning those who would accuse alt-right marchers of participating in something morally wrong in Charlottesville that included the warning that there were “good people on both sides” of the Nazi/anti-Nazi divide. Although hardly pithy or on point, Trump’s comments in context were clearly attempting to make the case that we should not accuse the alt-right marchers of supporting racism and harmful ideological positions.

But if there are reasons to distinguish “good” Nazis from “bad” Nazis, those can only come to light after we make the accusation that joining the Nazis is bad.

Given all this, is it reasonable to assume that people like billyjoe who assert, “We can’t go about accusing people,” are actually assuming that we can and should go about accusing people, except in certain limited circumstances?

No. Of course not. Abraham’s attack on the (innocent, might I remind you) Syracuse University administration, Trump’s attack on those who would assert the alt-right is racist as fuck, and cops’ routine withholding of evidence and failure to file charges where warranted for things like lying under oath all show that there is a strong movement to silence allegations and accusations of wrongdoing even before we get to the famously outrageous and famously numerous statements asserting that #metoo has “gone too far”.

There is a constant backlash against true allegations, even though accurately identifying the nature and frequency of the wrongs done in our societies is essential to creating effectively policies both to remedy and to prevent harms.

So yes, as the same people who attack accusations as inflammatory and unhelpful might say in another context: if you see something, say something. The world does not get better if we don’t make our best attempt to bring to light every injustice we find. We have to make every accusation for which we believe we have good evidence.

If you accuse recklessly, you can be rightly challenged for your recklessness, not for your willingness to stand up and make an accusation.

If you accuse dishonestly, you can be rightly challenged for your dishonesty, not for your willingness to stand up and make an accusation.

If others act recklessly or unjustly on information contained in your accusation, that’s on those others, not on you.


Some like to say that accusations are particularly horrible when false. Others, like Abraham, like to say that accusations are particularly horrible when there is overwhelming evidence that serious allegations are true. But this is all bullshit. The accusations are the necessary first step in identifying and curing injustice.








  1. tiredtexan says

    This is such an important point. The accusation, whether true or false, should be weighed on the evidence presented for it, not by the alleged harm it causes to the accused.

    I wonder where all the concern is for those falsely accused by overzealous detectives and cops. I just researched cases involving the Innocence Project and was horrified to find multiple cases where detectives beat and charged people to get them to implicate others in murders, rapes, drug dealing, etc. These are published cases, with judges writing lengthy opinions excoriating cops and prosecutors for these false accusations, and for the loss of trust in the justice system arising from the misconduct.

    I have to wonder where are the demands that cops and prosecutors stop making accusations to avoid making false ones? Obviously, that is such an absurd premise that no one makes it. But why is it any less absurd to demand victims of serial assault stop making these allegations because someone else’s allegations may be false?

    It’s not the accusation. It’s about who has the right to make them. And, women just need to shut up according to billyjoe who are so much more concerned about the 3% falsely accused than the 97% victimized.

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