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As the Johnny Depp domestic abuse claims reveal, we are too quick to make excuses for men we admire

The backlash received by Amber Heard for claiming she suffered abuse by her estranged husband is yet another reminder that men are always given the benefit of the doubt over the women they are said to have hurt.

Maybe he didn’t do it. Maybe that man you care about didn’t do that awful thing to the woman you don’t care about very much. Maybe this time, of all the times, is Gone Girl in real life and that man you like – the sports star one, or the actor one, or the musician one, I’m not going to specify – really is the victim of a vicious feminine plot to destroy him. After all, you’d know the real thing if you saw it, wouldn’t you? You’re no rape apologist. You’d never harbour liking or admiration for a man who was abusive or violent to women. We all know that this is at the core of your moral thinking, because you’ve been extremely careful to say so, explicitly, before declaring that this time – this one time – is different.

Well, maybe he didn’t do it. We know that 1.4m women in England and Wales experience domestic violence. We know that one in five women has been the victim of a sexual offence since she turned 16. We know that the volume of violence against women is under-represented in statistics. None of that means that this one man – sports star, actor, musician – did what he has been accused of. Perhaps you have excellent and compelling reasons to believe in his innocence. But, just so we’re completely clear: the fact that you like him is not an excellent and compelling reason to believe in his innocence.

I will let you in on a secret now. A sensational true fact about abusive men. Here goes: pretty much every man who has ever harmed a woman has been liked by someone. Even the ones who aren’t famous have someone to have a pint with. Extraordinary I know, but the ability to be popular with other men – or with other women – has never stood in pristine opposition to the ability to go home and shove your girlfriend against a wall, taking care to focus only on the parts of her body that will stay clothed and covered. Or the ability to tyrannise your girlfriend by jealously monitoring to whom she speaks and what she eats. Or the ability to take a woman to a hotel room and neither know nor care if she’s saying yes or no, or is even capable of saying yes or no.

All the men I’ve known who’ve harmed women have had friends. Sometimes, I’ve been their friend: because one of the strategies of abusers is to isolate the women they victimise, it’s actually easier to be friends with an abuser than with his victim. Unpleasant, I know, but true.

And even when we know what men have done, we don’t like to talk about it. It seems crass somehow to say “that man hurts women”, when he is surely a fascinating and admirable character in so many other ways. William Burroughs shot his wife in the head and Leo Tolstoy raped his wife repeatedly and Roman Polanski sodomised a drugged 13-year-old, but weren’t they geniuses, and wouldn’t it be a shame to let these sad lapses overshadow the genius?

And then, wouldn’t it be an injustice to restrict such generosity to brilliance and condemn the ordinary man? So that guy you work with gets the benefit of the doubt besides.

Because it’s not really about the fact that they’re talented or charming or successful. It’s about the fact that they’re men. There is a quiet conspiracy of power compelling us to preserve every crevice of doubt where a man’s reputation can hold on. It’s true that women are not believed when they come forward with allegations, but even the disbelief has an insultingly shallow quality – if her story becomes impossible to deny then the criteria for her dismissal can be easily changed, and the charge of “liar” replaced with one of “slut” or “gold digger” or “asking for it”. The reason women’s words count for so little is that women are counted for so little.

Hating women is a bonding ritual for men. The locker room chat about who they would and wouldn’t do. The communal rite of shared pornography. The trips to strip clubs, where men perform their pleasure in having women submit. The stags in brothels urging each other to feats of penetration.

Being liked is not just compatible with misogyny: misogyny can be the social code that cements the liking. Patriarchy would have fallen apart a long, long time ago otherwise. So maybe this time, this sports star or actor or musician didn’t do it. It’s possible. And maybe this time, like so many other times, she’s telling the truth. Maybe her life matters at least as much as his career and reputation. That is possible too.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.