Last week the New York Times reported details of Tara Reade’s assault allegation against Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Reade’s claim that Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993 could not have come at a worse time for Democrats who have all but nominated the man to run against Trump. What is the sensible thing for Democrats and Never Trumpers to do? Is there some way to defeat Trump without betraying the #MeToo movement? Are charges of hypocrisy inevitable?
A Hierarchy of Horribles
Sam Harris, one of the New Atheists and author of The End of Faith had the following to say about Biden vs. #MeToo on his podcast: the Democratic nominee would have to have killed and eaten Reade in order to affect Harris’s vote. Sexual assault does not rank compared with four more years of Donald. Harris credibly disavows hypocrisy, however. Only when the backup candidate is otherwise acceptable do we have the luxury of attending to a candidate’s sexual assault history. Beggars cannot be choosers.
Furthermore, Harris might have pointed out, we are living in the trolley problem, with sexual assault rather than death on both sets of railroad tracks. Donald Trump bragged about sexual misconduct in the infamous Access Hollywood tapes. And his ex-wife Ivanna, in a divorce deposition, spoke in graphic detail of Donald’s having raped her (although she later claimed not to have meant the accusation in “a literal or criminal sense,” whatever that means). Can one take note of and strike sexual assault from both sides of the ledger without expressing disrespect for “Believe All Women”?
How “Believe All Women” Misleads Us
The slogan “Believe All Women” is misleading in a couple of ways that can shed light on the Biden dilemma. First, it suggests that every single alleged victim is telling the truth. That suggestion is unsupportable and easy to refute. One could cite specific false accusations, such as those against UVA fraternity students that appeared, rather uncritically, in the pages of Rolling Stone magazine in 2014. And for critics on the left, the long history of white women falsely accusing black men of rape could also handily defeat the “Believe” slogan, taken literally.
In addition to suggesting that every single accuser tells the truth, Believe All Women is misleading in another respect as well. It implies that if only people believed women (a stand-in for men and women alleging abuse by an acquaintance), things would improve dramatically for women. That too is inaccurate, so long as many react with a shrug to revelations of abuse. People who disbelieve credible accusers often do so because they minimize the nature of the alleged conduct; if the facts are beyond dispute, some will simply minimize directly. For intrepid readers, you can find my theory of denial and devaluation by judges here.
Believe All Women, as I understand it, is a plea for equity in hearing the stories of women who say they have suffered abuse. It is a reaction to the tendency we have to bring a special skepticism to the table when a woman (or a man) reports abuse by a partner or other acquaintance. By contrast, when someone tells us that a stranger robbed him at gunpoint, we quite reflexively Believe Victims. We may ultimately surrender this instant presumptive faith we place in a crime victim’s report. If other evidence pokes holes in the story, we let go of what we previously believed. We could likewise come to question an account of domestic or other acquaintance abuse that we initially accepted when presumptively believing all women. We can best understand the “Believe All Women” plea as one asking that we defer the disbelief that ordinarily greets accounts of abuse even before anyone has contradicted them.
After overcoming denial, we need a second term for the indifference that many exhibit to intimate violence, even on the assumption that it did happen. In another Verdict column, I talked about it as devaluation. We can hear devaluation in reactions like “She asked for it,” “what was she wearing?,” “she stayed with him so she was okay with it,” “she’s a whore/slut/fill in the blank.” Though sometimes offered as evidence that the crime never happened, these phrases suggest as well that perhaps it did. If so, the speaker offers the possibility that the victim deserved what she got. At the very least, it regards what happened as unworthy of moral outrage.
Hope and Hate
I hasten to note that despite the persistence of denial and devaluation, we have made progress in this area. We have mostly left behind the days when police (like those whom Nicole Brown Simpson summoned to O.J.’s home) persuaded victims of intimate violence to work things out with their respective partners and not involve law enforcement. And the #MeToo movement has compelled people who might otherwise have looked the other way to take allegations seriously and to consider penalizing misconduct that previously received no attention.
The #MeToo movement has inspired hope and hate. It has done so in virtual lockstep with the phrase “Believe All Women.” Many men fear the false allegations that will roll in like a wave, sweeping their reputations and livelihoods away. Such major losses may rest, moreover, on what “she said,” words that come from a woman who may be a liar, an insane person, or both. Others have placed great hope in the expressions and imagine that believing all women will do more than it probably will. No one will ever literally “believe all women” any more than they will “believe all men.” No one need worry about (or celebrate) a refusal to disbelieve a complainant ever again.
Instead of dwelling entirely on female credibility, I have suggested that devaluation is at least as significant a phenomenon as denial. I hope we can begin a conversation about the devastation that intimate violence wreaks on the lives of its victims. Suffering such abuse from a trusted partner, friend, or acquaintance can change the chemistry of a victim’s brain, causing catastrophic psychological consequences. We need to take in the weight of her suffering so we react with outrage when her attacker receives the sort of leniency that a stranger attacking a victim never would.
I began with Sam Harris’s quote about Biden, so I will close by saying a little more about that statement. A moral hierarchy is not the same thing as devaluation. I would agree with Harris that killing and eating a woman would be worse than sexually assaulting her. I would also agree that if the only choices for President are Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the sexual assault allegation against the latter will take second fiddle to the need to defeat the former.
That does not mean that Harris is or that I am indifferent to sexual assault or other intimate violence or that we are hypocrites for previously opposing Republicans accused of sexual assault. It means only that the welfare of the only superpower left on the planet must not continue to lie in the hands of a man like Trump who has himself allegedly engaged in intimate violence. Sexual assault can be a grave offense without driving every decision in the same way. We must take it seriously even as we simultaneously remain aware of the other matters before us. Doing so in what many regard as an emergency is less devaluation than it is survival.