The danger of belief

NBC News published an extraordinary article this week. One of those articles where the headline’s enough to make you want to resign from the human race and live out your days in a yurt in the arse-end of nowhere. ‘Why Are We Still Teaching To Kill A Mockingbird In Schools?’, the headline asked. Or rather baited. The piece is full of the usual guff, about how Harper Lee’s classic is an “adult fairytale” unfit for younger children, how its use of the N-word could make black schoolkids feel insecure, etc, etc. But there’s something else in the article, too, something that makes it noteworthy in the current, rape-culture-obsessed moment: its concern that Lee’s book might discourage people from believing women who say they’ve been raped.
It says one of the big problems with Mockingbird is that it “complicates the modern ‘believe victims’ movement”. As most people educated in a school in the Anglosphere over the past 30 or 40 years will know, Lee’s tale focuses on siblings Scout and Jem and their dad Atticus, a lawyer who defends Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman called Mayella. Mayella is lying. She made sexual advances to Tom, for which she was severely punished by her father, and so she and her father concoct a story about Tom raping her. Atticus encourages people to disbelieve this woman who says she’s been raped. And that’s bad, apparently. These days anyway. Letting schoolgirls read this book will fuel their “growing suspicion that people don’t believe girls who say they have been raped”, says the NBC News piece. It makes us think there is “reason to doubt” rape accusers.
So the NBC piece isn’t as eccentric as it first seems. It speaks to a now mainstream view: that women (and children) who claim to have been sexually assaulted must be instantly, uncritically believed. “I believe” has been the rallying cry of feminists and journalists and others for years. “Believe the women”, they say, just as anti-abuse campaigners in the 1980s and 1990s said “Believe the children” about children who claimed they had been taken into forests and ritually molested by men in black cloaks (they hadn’t). Frowning at Lee’s tale of disbelief, of scepticism in the face of a rape accusation, its celebration of a good, righteous man who effectively says “Don’t believe this woman”, makes perfect sense today. We’re likely to see more agitation against, or at least discomfort with, Lee’s novel.
But here’s the thing: there is “reason to doubt” rape accusers. Just as there is reason to doubt everyone who makes an accusation of a crime, be it rape, assault, harassment, or whatever. Indeed, doubt is written into fair justice systems. We treat accusers sympathetically, yes, but not religiously. (“Is the accuser always holy now?”, a character asks in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, to indicate how horribly wrong things can go when accusers are treated religiously.) Our belief in the innocence of the accused, our insistence that his guilt must be established beyond reasonable doubt, our affording to him of numerous opportunities to scupper the accusations against him — all of this is designed to indicate scepticism towards accusations, and make it difficult to turn accusation into conviction. Why? For one simple reason: the accused stands to lose something incredibly precious — his freedom. It is right that that should not be easy. It is right that we should be doubtful towards those who say things that could remove liberty, the stuff of life, from another person.
It is not accidental that Mockingbird’s focus is a false accusation of rape. Accusations of rape were a key weapon in the armoury of racists in the American South. As everyone will know, black men were frequently lynched on the basis of accusations of rape. Others were lucky and were only imprisoned. What is less well known is that the culture around this racist weaponisation of rape accusations was strikingly similar to today’s “Believe Victims” movement. It likewise frowned upon scepticism, sought to protect women from cross-examination, and created a climate in which accusation alone was enough to destroy a man (a black man, in any event).
The accuser was always believed. In the words of Ida B Wells, the early 20th-century African-American journalist and activist, “The word of the accuser is held to be true”, meaning “the rule of law [is] reversed” and the accused must “prove himself innocent”. Then, as now, it was considered cruel to examine women or ask them to substantiate their accusations. In 1899, a writer for the Atlanta Constitution expressed his horror at “the very thought of a delicate woman being forced to go into the publicity of a court and there detail her awful wrongs in the presence of the brute who had inflicted [them]”. The woman’s goodness was proof enough, he said. This idea finds terrifying echo in Rose MacGowan’s insistence today that she doesn’t need to prove that Harvey Weinstein abused her. “I am the proof”, she said
And then, as now, women were deemed to be vulnerable to a rape culture. In the words of Jessie Daniel Ames — a white woman, Suffragette, anti-racist, and founder of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching — the obsession with black rapaciousness was built on “assumptions as degrading to white women as they were oppressive to blacks”. She argued that the hysteria over black rape was pursued under the “guise of chivalric protection of white females”, which “actually demeans women and reinforces the myth of female vulnerability”. Today, media feminists have extended this further, presenting women, including themselves, as requiring chivalric protection not only from black men but from all men. I guess at least this is an equal-opportunities culture of fear.
This is why Lee elevated righteous scepticism: she was addressing a culture in which instant belief had replaced fairness. As it has again today. This is not to say modern-day feminists are racist. Of course they aren’t. But there is a thread that ties the old racist hysteria about black male rapists and today’s supposedly progressive panic about “rape culture”: an astoundingly dismissive attitude towards due process and the rigorous establishment of guilt. What both these moments share in common is an insistence that we believe the victims. No questions, no scepticism, no interrogation — just belief. But belief in cases like this has caused untold damage throughout history. Black men were hanged because of a cult of belief. In the Satanic Ritual Abuse and paedophile panics of the 1980s and 90s, families were torn apart as a consequence of a cult of belief. What damage is being done now by the elevation of almost-religious belief over cool, just scepticism? Our cry should not be “I believe you”; it should be, “I respect you and I want to believe you. But I need proof. Strong proof. Because I prefer civilisation to barbarism.”

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