Women, like men, lie sometimes

The Australian, 29 September 2018

I have found myself wondering if today’s feminists, if they had been around 60 years ago, would have worn badges saying: “I Believe Carolyn Bryant.”

Carolyn Bryant, later Carolyn Donham, is the white woman who in August 1955 accused a young man called Emmet Till of sexually harassing her.

She said Till entered the grocery store in Mississippi that she worked in and touched her without her consent.

Apparently he said, “How about a date, baby?”

When she walked away, he apparently followed her, put his arm around her waist, and said: “What’s the matter baby?”

What happened after this alleged incident is one of the darkest moments in modern American history.

Ms Bryant told people she had been sexually harassed by Till, a black boy, then just 14 years old. He had made her feel sexually vulnerable, she said.

And these people hunted Till down and murdered him.

They beat him, shot him, and dumped his body in a river.

This horrific crime lives on as a terrible stain on the American conscience.

The photograph of Till’s mutilated corpse galvanised Americans – black and white – to change their society. And so was the civil-rights movement born.

Of course, no modern feminist would support such a barbaric act of racist violence.

And yet they would have presumably believed Ms Bryant’s accusations.

After all, according to modern feminists, women never lie about such serious issues as sexual harassment.

As reflected in the widely shared hashtag of #IBelieveHer, today’s feminists encourage uncritical acceptance of all – literally all – accusations of unwanted sexual attention.

Indeed, just this week, American feminists have been wearing badges saying: “I Believe Christine Blasey Ford.”

Ford is the woman who has made accusations of sexual harassment against Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump’s pick to join the US Supreme Court.

Ford, a professor of psychology, alleges that 36 years ago Kavanaugh, then just 17 years old, held her down and grinded against her.

Kavanaugh says this never happened.

But #MeToo activists have said they believe Ford. They always believe women. Instant belief in accusations of sexual assault has become a central feature of modern feminism.

As the feminist commentator Melissa Silverstein says, “There are a few fundamental beliefs that I hold… one of them is that I believe women”.

Kneejerk belief is a central feature of #MeToo. One of the most vocal leaders of #MeToo – actress turned activist Rose McGowan – recently instructed the media to stop using the word “alleged”.

“I would challenge the media to stop using the word ‘alleged’”, she said. This is the “first time in history women are being believed”, she said, and the word “alleged” encourages doubt.

A feminist reporter agreed with McGowan that “the qualifier ‘alleged’ should be removed from the media parlance”.

In short, every accusation made by a woman against a man should be presumed as gospel.

This is why feminists believe everything Ford says. And by the same token, they would have believed Carolyn Bryant. She claimed she had been sexually harassed. She said she had been victimised by a male.

The truth, right? I believe Carolyn Bryant, yes?

Well, that would have been a moral error – a serious moral error.

For Ms Bryant later admitted to a professor of history that her accusations had been false.

In 2017, she told Timothy B Tyson, a professor at Duke University, that on the matter of Till being “sexually crude” towards her, “that part was not true”.

In short, she lied. And someone suffered, unimaginably, as a result.

Of course, Kavanaugh runs no risk of enduring what the young Till endured at the hands of racist scum.

But the principle – or lack of principle – that guided their belief in the accusations of sexual impropriety against Till is the same one that guides 21st-century feminism.

Namely, that women must be believed. Always. They never lie. They never misremember.

The extent to which instant belief has become a central feature of contemporary culture was captured in a headline at NBC News in the US at the end of last year.

“Why Are We Still Teaching To Kill A Mockingbird In Schools?”, it said.

The piece claimed that Harper Lee’s classic – long the moral anchor of American education – is now problematic because it “complicates the modern ‘believe victims’ movement”.

Virtually everyone knows that Lee’s novel tells the story of 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.

But Mayella lies. It was her who made sexual advances towards Tom, for which she was punished by her father, and so she and her father concoct a story about Tom raping her.

Atticus encourages people to disbelieve Mayella. And in the current climate of instant belief, that is bad. Really bad. Atticus, in today’s view, is a misogynist.

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 piece. It makes us think there is “reason to doubt” rape accusers.

But there is reason to doubt – surely?

Of course, everyone who makes an accusation of sexual assault – or of any kind of crime – should be treated sympathetically and openly. We should aspire to believe them.

But we should also be sceptical.

Indeed, the civilised principle of “innocent until proven guilty” – which is what Lee was defending – demands scepticism.

It demands that we insist on proof before we rush to condemn an individual – whether it is Tom Robinson or Brett Kavanaugh.

It doesn’t matter if it is a lowly black worker or a Supreme Court nominee: a principle is a principle, and everyone deserves the assumption of innocence.

Today’s rush to believe is bad for everyone. It is bad for men, because it threatens to condemn them before they have been justly tried. It is bad for justice, because it rubbishes key ideals of due process.

And it is bad for women, too. As Margaret Atwood said earlier this year, “women are human beings, with the full range of saintly and demonic behaviours this entails”.

Women are “not angels”, says Atwood.

Indeed. Women lie, just like men do. Or they forget, like men do.

Instant belief in women actually infantilises women.

Worse, it is an invitation to lie. If we believe every accusation of sexual impropriety, we encourage women to use such accusations as weapons. To use them to defeat their opponents.

Is that really the world we want to live in? I don’t. I would rather live in a world of scepticism than credulity.

I would rather live in a world in which what happened to Emmet Till – instant punishment following instant belief – can never, ever happen again.

This column appears in the 29 September 2018 edition of The Australian.

I only Instagram: @burntoakboy