Always — but especially in these bewildering, disorienting times. These times of polarized political views and shortened attention spans. These times of viral slogans and runaway memes.
The trouble with catch phrases that are boiled down to hashtag-friendly nuggets of wisdom is that they can and will be easily misunderstood and misconstrued.
On both sides.
I recently got into a debate here on Medium, in the wake of the Ford/Kavanaugh Senate hearings, with a friend who shares my affinity for history and for poetry, and who unlike me happens to be a social Conservative.
His essay argued that postmodern progressivism, and the “Believe Her” mantra in particular, represent the abandonment of liberal principles and — facts be damned — threaten to rob accused men of due process.
I responded by saying that I continue to identify with the liberal-progressive wing of public opinion on this topic, and that in my view, the scales of justice continue to be tipped in favor of the accused in positions of power.
I added this bit of rationale in support of the “Believe Her” principle:
Believing the accuser of sexual harassment should be a simple matter of statistics, since historically, 2/3 of victims never report, and of those who do and whose incidents are investigated, less than 10% turn out to be false accusations.
Soon thereafter, an unsolicited commenter joined the conversation. Let me rephrase that in modern parlance: I was trolled. (Par for the course on the Internet today — nothing surprising about it.) He latched onto my suggestion that we err on the side of believing the accuser, and he was off to the races:
in America, we believe in the principle of innocent until PROVEN guilty
[…] Better that 10 guilty men go free than 1 innocent man be locked up unjustly. Because YOU could someday be that innocent man.
(A quick side note: I don’t use the troll label casually, but it seemed appropriate here. The commenter’s user account had some telltale signs of having been set up for political agitation, including the terms “former Dem” and “#IntellectualDarkWeb” in the profile blurb. The author didn’t disclose his real name, and a quick scroll through prior posts confirmed that he was likely a self-appointed culture warrior / men’s rights activist.)
Here’s the thing.
I thought about the points and counterpoints made by both my friend and by the troll, and I realized that they did in fact have a legitimate ax to grind with the “Believe Her” slogan, on face value. Not because of what the words state explicitly, but because of what they could be taken to mean implicitly.
“Believe Her” as a Call to Action
For me, the phrase “Believe Her” implies a call to action, rather than a hasty jump to a conclusions. It is a timely and necessary reminder to not dismiss, not turn away from those who come forward with personal accounts of past events that make us uncomfortable. Especially in the case of sexual assault allegations, “Believe Her” is a conscious counterweight to attempt to level the playing field after decades (and centuries) of wholesale shaming and silencing of sexual assault victims.
I take the act of believing to be a good faith starting point — we should take all accusers seriously, give them the benefit of the doubt, and then investigate their claims within the boundaries & conventions of the legal system.
At the risk of triggering Conservative culture warriors: “Believer Her”, to me, is a mental Post-It note to be less judgmental and more woke.
“Believe Her” as a Free Pass to Condemn
Others see the “Believe Her” mantra as something else entirely. For them, it is an ultimatum to the outside observer: I we believe the accuser, we must condemn the accused. We must deny him the status and recognition that society would afford him in absence of the alleged crime. We must dole out punishment severe enough to deter future transgressions. We must “Lock Him Up”.
You and I may think that this point of view is disingenuous, as it requires a logical leap from a premise to a particularly rigid set of conclusions.
However, it is precisely the simplicity of the premise that makes it rife with ambiguity and open to interpretation.
“Believe Her” as Indirect Victim Blaming
There is yet another angle of critique of “Believe Her”. As chloe schwanz argues, also here on Medium, merely by pleading with third party observers to believe the accuser, we are subconsciously reinforcing age-old biases against victims of sexual assault:
the words “I believe her” are by proxy bolstering the broader, historically-stubborn stereotype that women are liars.
The burden of proof has always been on the victim in sexual assault cases. […] The victim must prove they didn’t provoke the assault, fought off the assailant, never had previous relations with the assailant.
In brief — everyone and no one. Simple, familiar phrases tend to take on all sorts of color and nuance as they pass through the prisms of our cognitive filters. They might work well to quickly establish what side of the debate we stand on — but they rarely win over those on the other side.
If we are to step outside of our echo chambers, and move beyond merely triggering members of other tribes in our culture wars, then we need to dispense with rallying cries, slogans, memes and hashtags. We can stand firmly under the banners of the causes we support, but we should be ready to spell out to our sparring partners and inquisitors exactly what the words inscribed on those banners mean, to us.
I chose the ambitious subtitle “reconsidering the language of the culture wars” for this essay. Here I am in my concluding paragraphs, having devoted most of the ink to one pivotal phrase that has been trending in the national dialogue. There are many others like it — #MeToo, #TakeAKnee, Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, Make America Great Again, #WalkAway, etc. The points I make above apply to them as well. Each can be interpreted and spun positively or negatively, and each deserves to be debated and explained by those who feel triggered or impassioned by them.
Here’s to keeping the conversation going. And here’s to ratcheting down the culture wars with civil discourse.