June 3, 2015

'Listen and Believe' is Not Consistent With Freethought or Skepticism

Listen and Believe
Some contemporary feminists have argued that we should all "listen and believe" whenever a woman accuses a man of harassment, abuse, or even rape. We should do this rather than seeking evidence, adopting an attitude of skepticism or being patient as the criminal justice system does what it was designed to do. The core of this argument seems to be that a woman who makes such accusations (especially with regard to rape) faces such an uphill battle in terms of unwarranted skepticism, a high burden of proof, poor treatment by the news media, and a variety of other negative attitudes that it is better for us to "listen and believe" even if it turns out that she was mistaken or made knowingly false accusations. That is, even if it turns out that we were wrong to "listen and believe," doing so is preferable to the alternative.

I see a few problems with this argument. Let's start by briefly mentioning and then setting aside the obvious one that has undoubtedly occurred to you. "Listen and believe" is not going to convince most skeptics and freethinkers. In fact, many atheists are bound to have negative reactions to the suggestion that we accept personal testimony as sufficient evidence of someone's claims. Anita Sarkeesian famously said, "One of the most radical things you can do is to actually believe women when they talk about their experiences." How about if the experiences they are talking about are religious experiences (e.g., feeling the presence of Jesus, demonic possession)? If we were willing to believe this sort of thing, we would all be religious believers. We'd believe all the personal revelation nonsense about which we hear so much every day of our lives. "Listen and believe" asks us to discard skepticism, critical thinking, and freethought.

The second and far more relevant problem involves the fact that people - even those few who are fair-minded and free from malicious intent - make mistakes. Eyewitness testimony has sent many people to prison, people who have subsequently been freed after DNA evidence made their innocence undeniable. Not only is eyewitness identification often seriously flawed, but the confidence of the witness in making the identification often has little relationship to his or her accuracy in real-world contexts. There is no need to assume the accuser is lying; she may simply be mistaken and not know that she is mistaken. Elizabeth Loftus and many other scientists have demonstrated the fallibility of memory. The prospect of sending an innocent person to prison is something we should seek to avoid.

This brings us directly to the third problem: due process and the presumption of innocence. The person who has been accused of rape has various due process rights, including the right to a trial and all that entails. "Listen and believe" essentially says that we are going to side with the accuser and decide that the accused committed the act without any due process. We are going to take her word for it, and that means that he did whatever he was accused of doing. With that mindset, who needs a trial at all? Get the torches and pitchforks. Criminals are supposed to be presumed innocent until such time as the prosecutor meets his or her burden of proof (e.g., beyond a reasonable doubt). When we ignore this presumption and pursue mob justice, we are undermining the foundation of our criminal justice system.

Most of us are willing to concede that there are such things as wrongful arrest and malicious prosecution. Take the case of the Black man who is arrested after a "driving while Black" incident. He's done nothing wrong except for being in what some police officer considered the wrong place for him to be. Upon questioning, the officer decides that he does not like the man's attitude and arrests him. The case moves ahead because the prosecutor is trying to send a message of some sort. Most of us understand that this sort of thing does happen from time-to-time. And we hope that the case goes to court so that the man has the opportunity to present his side. We hope that justice is done as it becomes clear that the prosecutor cannot meet any acceptable burden of proof. That is, we hope that due process and the presumption of innocence will work like they are supposed to.

Regardless of how we feel about the man who is accused of rape, we have to remember that he too may be innocent. He too deserves his day in court. If we assume that he must have done it because he was accused and arrested, we are forgetting about the Black man mentioned above. Plenty of people would love to claim that he must have been doing something wrong or he never would have been arrested, but we know that is not the case. We need to remember the same when it comes to the man accused of rape. His guilt or innocence is for the court to decide.

Feminists are correct to point to the hell many women who accuse a man of rape end up enduring in the process. They lose even the pretense of privacy as the news media descends on them and their families. We end up learning way too much about their sex lives during the trial. They must feel like they are being put through the ringer. This is a problem and an area where legal reforms, changes in media practices, and shifts in public attitudes are welcome. But "listen and believe" is not the solution; it only creates other problems.

To be clear, I recognize that many feminists find the "listen and believe" mantra every bit as problematic as you or I do. I am not suggesting otherwise, and this is why I referred to "Some contemporary feminists" in the first sentence of this post. I am unwilling to equate the whole of feminism with what some third or fourth wave types (or those often referred to as social justice warriors) are doing.
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