August 9, 2013

More Internet Vigilantism as Shermer Accused of Rape

Skeptic Michael Shermer
Skeptic Michael Shermer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
PZ Myers (Pharyngula) recently published an email he allegedly received from a woman accusing Michael Shermer of raping her at a convention. PZ says that too much time has elapsed since the alleged incident for law enforcement to be a viable option. He also notes that he has "no personal, direct evidence" that the alleged incident occurred as described but says that he knows the author "and she has also been vouched for by one other person I trust." Evidently, that is enough to let us bypass any sort of investigation to determine whether the allegations have merit and proceed directly to damaging Shermer's reputation. Mob justice at its finest.

Can PZ's decision to publicly disclose this information in this manner be fully separated from the ongoing conflicts some of his colleagues on Freethought Blogs have had with Shermer? Can it be fully separated from the sort of call-out culture, public shaming, and Internet vigilantism being modeled by some of these bloggers and their fans? I don't think so. It is difficult for me to imagine that someone without a history of conflict with Shermer would jump the gun like this in a public disclosure that seems calculated to harm his reputation. It is similarly difficult to imagine that PZ would have done this had the accused been someone with whom he had no prior conflict.

If Shermer raped someone, he deserves to be punished. I think we can all agree with that. If there was no initial investigation and now too much time has elapsed for there to be one, that really sucks. I believe we can all empathize with the alleged victim and imagine how difficult that would be. And yet, I am not convinced that this even comes close to justifying PZ's behavior here.

I know we don't like to acknowledge it, but there have been cases in which allegations of harassment and even sexual assault turned out to be false. Are we willing to destroy Shermer on the possibility that these particular allegations might be true? Does he not deserve the presumption on innocence until the facts are in? Do we not grant that right even to serial killers and sexual sadists?

There are good reasons for having a legal system instead of relying on mob justice. I am not ready to label someone as a rapist without due process.

You can read Al Stefanelli's more colorful take on this situation here.

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