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17 November 2017

In sexual misconduct cases, we must not confuse accusation and proof

When it comes to the serving of justice, how appropriate is it to demand a quick fix?

By Yo Zushi

A few years ago, a Pew Research Center study warned of the need for “instant gratification” and “loss of patience” associated with the hyperconnected lives we live today, in which immediacy is expected almost as a right. This sort of haste is now our minds’ default setting, according to Darrell Worthy of Texas A&M University, who studies decision-making and motivation. He told the Boston Globe in 2013: “It’s difficult to… be patient and wait for things to come over time.”

Impatience is good for business – it accelerates buying and selling – and useful for the media, which can exploit it to generate more clicks. But when it comes to the serving of justice, how appropriate is it to demand a quick fix?

Since the publication of sexual harassment claims against the film executive Harvey Weinstein in October, many people have come forward with their own accounts of alleged misconduct; as well as Weinstein, the actors Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Piven, the Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore and British MPs such as Charlie Elphicke, Damian Green and Clive Lewis stand accused. Our political parties have launched welcome investigations and police are looking into several of the accusations. One instance of such harassment or abuse is one too many, and the recent acknowledgement of a need for higher standards across all sectors was long overdue.

But these positive developments have been accompanied by the equation of accusation with proof, and a tendency to dismiss those who question this as patriarchy-defending victim-blamers. And now that a narrative of widespread sexual misconduct has been established, it has become dangerously easy to filter out the denials of some of the accused.

Weinstein has, in effect, admitted that he was a creep, but he insists that he never engaged in “non-consensual” sex. Spacey says he has no memory of lying on top of the then 14-year-old Anthony Rapp at a party in 1986 and has apologised if this was indeed something he did – but he “absolutely” denies other allegations, such as one involving the actor Richard Dreyfuss’s son, Harry. Piven, accused of sexual misconduct by three people, has dismissed the claims as “completely fabricated”.

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Sexual misconduct should never go unpunished, but any system in which even one innocent could face the same consequences as the guilty is manifestly broken. Misogynistic myths of massing ranks of pretend victims are fuelled by citing the exceptions – such as the former TV presenter John Leslie – who are found to have been innocent all along. And “exceptions” is the correct word, since few formal complaints result in findings of false claims.

The informality of the #MeToo school of allegations is what makes it so troubling. It’s a good thing if a mass movement has emboldened victims to take action, but this seems to have come at the cost of abandoning the presumption of innocence.

Even if Spacey is eventually found to be guilty of sexual harassment and assault, there’s little noble about Netflix’s decision to ditch his projects, including House of Cards, or the director Ridley Scott’s replacement of Spacey with Christopher Plummer in a forthcoming movie, on the basis of unverified accusations. All that has been established as fact so far is that Spacey can be a very unpleasant guy. The sentence: the execution of a long and successful career.

This kind of instant delivery of “justice” may suit the hyper-accelerated media and online readership, but it’s starting to look less and less like the real thing. We can’t replace rigour with speed. Many progressive movements, especially online, seem to choose sides based on narratives of goodies v baddies, easily digestible on a smartphone screen.

But life is complicated, and everyone – including those accused of the worst douchebag behaviour – should be treated fairly. Our duty is not to believe accusers automatically, but to take seriously their claims. To accept any allegation as fact before due process is not so different from believing the denials of offenders based on their gender, their status, or their power. 

This article appears in the 15 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit