Friday, 12 January 2018

Predator Shaming: Where Due Process Rights Go To Die

Rape Culture icon by Wendy Cockcroft for On t'Internet
I'm a communitarian conservative with a fair amount of sympathy for some progressive positions. That said, this blog post is going to offend someone one way or another so if you're likely to be triggered, etc., hit the back button and look at pictures of adorable kitties instead.

There's a spreadsheet list floating about on the internet called "Shitty Men in Media" in which men who work in a variety of popular publications are "outed" as perverts and weirdos. Some of the allegations are of serious criminal activity, e.g. rape. I've linked it so you can see for yourself what's being said there. I was surprised to see noted liberal David Corn there but there are no details, just the words "sexual harassment." At the the top of this is a disclaimer:

DISCLAIMER: This document is only a collection of misconduct allegations and rumors. Take everything with a grain of salt. If you see a man you're friends with, don't freak out.

Ah, so that's okay, then.

No it flippin' isn't, okay? This is why:

  • Men are being accused anonymously with no way of defending themselves
  • There are often no details, just weasel words (sexual assault apparently includes cat-calling)
  • This was being circulated in secret until someone let the cat out of the bag*
  • There's a reasonable chance that some of these allegations are unfounded

It doesn't help that, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, letters like this are being published in the press:

Men, for their part, are called on to embrace their guilt and rack their brains for "inappropriate behavior" that they engaged in 10, 20 or 30 years earlier, and for which they must now repent. These public confessions, and the foray into the private sphere or self-proclaimed prosecutors, have led to a climate of totalitarian society. - Full Translation Of French Anti-#MeToo Manifesto Signed By Catherine Deneuve on WorldCrunch. Original here.

The predictable backlash has begun in a fraught socio-political atmosphere in which nothing but complete conformity is acceptable — but to what should we actually conform? Deneuve's laissez-faire "It was only a pat on the knee, get over it" attitude or the feminist "Keep your hands to yourself, perve!" mindset?

Three questions now present themselves:

  • Is it okay to publicly out a man without giving him a chance to defend himself?
  • Should accused people quit or be driven from their jobs?
  • How can a woman get justice when her abusers are too powerful to confront directly?

Okay, let's dig in.

Is it okay to publicly out a man without giving him a chance to defend himself?

Fast Company has published a list of entertainment figures who have been accused of assault, etc., following the Weinstein allegations. Many of the accused men are said to have engaged in unspecified acts of sexual harassment but that could mean anything from "You've got great legs!" to constantly soliciting sex. The trouble with this is that trial by media over trivial acts like a finger brushing a knee (was it okay when Russell Harty did it because he was gay?) incites the likes of Byron Crawford to trivialise the subject of sexual abuse itself. His blog is a cesspit of misogynous hatred in which comments like this are to be found — and go unchallenged:

Arguably the worst crime? The only time it's the worst crime is if it's done to a heterosexual man by a man. It's a wrong either way and rightfully a crime, but any woman who tells you that she'd rather get stabbed in her eye than take a dick she doesn't want is lying. - Citizen Sane comment on Top 5 allegations from the Shitty Media Men list on Byron Crawford's blog.

What a sweet guy! Basically, we're caught between two extremes due to the polarisation of our society: we're either excusing or condoning abusive behaviour or we're shouting "Witch! Witch!" and dragging accused men to the metaphorical stake on the say-so of anonymous accusers.

Due process is not an impediment to justice

Get that tattooed to the inside of your eyelids and repeat it till you die of it. I blame decades of pop culture glorifying maverick law enforcement officers who eschew procedure in favour of taking out the trash because they got away with a crime on a technicality, kind of thing. Yeah, about that... whenever some punk criminal gets away with a crime on a technicality it's because the cops didn't do their damn job. They're supposed to gather evidence and prove their case within the limits of the law, not beat up random Joes because their gut feeling said they were guilty, or something.

Due process for all

Hold that thought; I'm a big believer in due process for all, in which both the accuser and the accused should be treated as neutral parties and carefully investigated to discover whether or not the allegations have any merit, in which case a prosecution should be brought. Names should be withheld from the public till the innocence or guilt of the persons involved has been established. This doesn't happen in the real world. Result: people's lives get messed up by false allegations. That this is rare is not the point: people's lives are either messed up by false allegations or they are not. And this, my friends, is why we do not immediately accept the veracity of every accusation ever. Be sympathetic, yes. Be willing to listen without judging, yes, but as the sane conservatives used to say, "Trust, but verify." If she's willing to name names and try to turn people against a given individual, she should be willing to go to the police and make a formal complaint.

RE: the accused

I've been on the receiving end of unfounded accusations, you can see this in search results on my name, so believe me I've got a dog in this fight. Therefore, if you read allegations against a given individual but there are no specifics, you shouldn't take it seriously. Which leads me neatly to my next point:

Should accused people quit or be driven from their jobs?

The continuing allegations against Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein and others are giving us a lot of things to think about, mainly "Pass the popcorn." That said, what should we do about people facing such allegations? Is it right that Republican Roy Moore was pilloried in the press for his alleged cradle-snatching ways? The Pro argument goes that these people are untouchable until someone speaks out, then the trickle becomes a flood. Weinstein apparently enjoyed a reign of terror until he was outed. Basically, because it's so flippin' hard to prove that someone groped you at the office, you have to either put up with it or quit until someone plucks up the courage to tell a journalist what happened. It seems that there are institutional roadblocks to women who want to report crimes against them. The Pro side also argues that where the accusations are credible the accused should definitely be removed from positions of influence.

When due process is sidelined

I have a problem with "credibly accused" because of my own experiences. The fact that they were obviously troll posts is not the point; I was either called into the office (twice!) and asked to explain what was happening or I wasn't. The second time I was responding to questions about my attempt to prove my innocence (I acted like a cornered rat, to be honest). Before that I'd been subjected to a campaign of harassment by drama trolls who drove me off the internet community I'd been a part of. They used snarky comments I'd made as ammunition to "credibly" accuse me; that I'd actually made those comments didn't help my case. The point is, whether you're innocent, guilty as hell, or what you did wasn't really that bad, when due process is sidelined you are hung out to dry with the world and his dog judging you using whatever your accusers are repeatedly, determinedly, and noisily waving in their faces. Anything you say to try to defend yourself will most likely be used as evidence of your guilt. It's a horrible thing to be at the mercy of a mob on account of the fact that mobs don't tend to be merciful, as a rule. Do I believe the accusations against Roy Moore? It's possible they're true but until they come to court I'll keep an open mind. Is that fair?

RE: the accused

If someone is accused of a crime or of bad behaviour they should, in my opinion, be given a chance to defend themselves and they should know who their accuser is so they can challenge them. No exceptions. Remember, the rules that protect the odious and downright evil also protect the rest of us. Which leads me neatly to my final point:

How can a woman get justice when her abusers are too powerful to confront directly?

The number one reason that spreadsheet has been floating about is because the women who took part in compiling the list apparently feel too intimidated by the men they're trying to warn each other about to confront them directly. It doesn't help that many of their complaints are trivialised when they try to bring them up. The trouble with shutting down public discussion of grievances is that it drives them underground. Of course, the fact that anyone could edit the spreadsheet means, it seems, that anybody did. Does Corn's name really belong there? What exactly did he do?

What is abuse?

Citizens Advice has got a page on this that's worth reading:

Sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature which:
  • violates your dignity
  • makes you feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated
  • creates a hostile or offensive environment
You don’t need to have previously objected to someone's behaviour for it to be considered unwanted. - Sexual harassment, Citizens Advice

Look, if you're a regular reader of On t'Internet you'll know I've suffered unwanted touching, etc., myself. Result: I'm not a mad fan of the Patriarchy. It's why there's a Rape Culture tag on this blog — we need to discuss this in a calm and considerate manner instead of either freaking out or pretending it's not real.

It's subjective

What we learn from the Citizens Advice page is that sexual harassment is subjective. When I first started working in facilities I lived in London. On one site the engineers had put up posters of topless women in their break room. The manager asked me if I was going to complain about them as someone else already had and he wasn't happy about it. I promised not to while mentally adding "as long as they don't lead you to think it's okay to grab my bum, or anything." Nothing happened except that I cleared a backlog of filing and got a load of admin done. The lads were okay with me, no complaints there. My predecessor had all but turned and run away when she saw the pictures.

It's emotive

As I explained to a fellow 38 Degrees member once, all women live with a constant tickle of fear at the back of their consciousness that they will be raped. Those of us who have already been subjected to unwanted touching, etc., tend to be more aware of this. It's what makes us sensitive to images, words, and behaviours that indicate sexual aggression. Mind you, rabid feminism can do the same thing. I don't know what drove my erstwhile colleague to complain about the topless girl posters, to be fair. I wasn't personally offended by them because they were in the men's break room, not in the office. Had I been surrounded by leering men comparing my tubby bod to the lean ones in the posters it would have been a different story. I have no idea whether the threat my predecessor felt was real or imagined, but it was evidently real enough to her that she felt compelled to leave the position that fell to me.

What makes it abusive?

At this point I might as well mention every incident at the office (or office party) where I work in which a man has indicated that he wanted to kiss me. In each case the man leaned forward and stopped, Hitch-style, his arms poised to embrace me should I lean forward to indicate acceptance. I accepted; these were my friends and colleagues and they meant no harm, 'twas but a peck on the cheek and a chaste hug. I also like being told I look like a princess when I've got my glad rags and makeup on.

Rule of thumb: it's abusive when they go the whole hundred without giving you a chance to refuse the advance.

These guys would have been fine if I'd backed away and knowing that made me feel more inclined to accept the affection.

What can we do about abuse?

Well it seems that celebrity and power create and enforce institutional structures in which predators can prey on us with impunity. We need to break them down. There needs to be a safe place to report abuse without risk of reprisals or of hurting an innocent party. And there needs to be swift and certain justice when somebody crosses the line. We just need to decide where and what the line actually is. Personally, I'd draw it at persistent, unwanted touching like that creepy guy I worked with years ago who was always grabbing my colleagues by the bum or the thigh. Leaning in too close, talking about one's body... ugh! My body is my own and if I want a running commentary on it I will let you know.

So what do we do?

Well first of all, tell someone. A friend, a colleague, the HR officer... tell someone. Then decide how serious it is. If it's a criminal offence, contact the police. Rape and sexual assault are criminal offences. Harassment has got to be continuous and provable before you have any hope of getting it to court. We also need to keep on talking about this so we can draw parameters around what is or isn't acceptable. I don't mind the odd off-colour joke, etc., as long as it's just harmless banter, but one person's joke is another person's trigger point and that's what the discussion needs to be about; where to draw the lines to create a world in which women don't have to tolerate behaviour and attitudes that make them uncomfortable. We also need to be willing and able to set and enforce boundaries socially and sexually without expecting people to read our minds.

If we're going to eradicate rape culture and all the nasty tropes that go with it we're going to have to learn to deal with it in a grown-up, responsible way that takes due process into consideration. You wouldn't like to be accused of something you hadn't done and you certainly wouldn't like to have a trivial act you carried out used to beat you over the head decades later. So don't do that to other people even if they are all creepy and weird, okay?

*NEVER put anything on the internet, even in in a private area, unless you want the whole damn world to see it.

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