After watching Leaving Neverland, the harrowing HBO documentary about two men who allege Michael Jackson sexually abused them, I felt a pit in my stomach. I was sickened by the horrific details of what these then-children experienced, and heartbroken by their clear emotional trauma.
But the feeling I really couldn’t shake was something else: fear for what will happen to these men, now that they’ve told their stories.
The backlash from Jackson’s fans and estate has already begun, replete with Twitter harassment and YouTube videos claiming to prove the men liars. In an interview with Oprah, one of the accusers talked about getting death threats.
For shining a light on child sexual abuse and how powerful people get away with it — an act that will help innumerable other victims — these men will likely face harassment for years to come.
Social progress has relied on people sharing their most difficult and intimate stories: childhood abuse, sexual assault, abortion, gender identity. Our most pressing social issues have moved forward, in part, because individuals have been brave enough to come forward about their experiences.
When the new public square is a place where conspiracy theories spread unfettered, I don’t know that it’s still possible to rely on people “telling their truths” for progress.
In the age of the internet, though, those who tell hard truths are more likely than ever to be attacked. How can we possibly expect people to continue to tell their stories — the stories that move us forward — if the consequences are so steep?
Consider Christine Blasey Ford — she came forward to tell her story and help the country understand exactly what kind of man Brett Kavanaugh is. Since testifying, she has been unable to return to her job as a professor, has moved multiple times, and pays out of pocket for private security.
And it’s not just run-of-the-mill harassment and death threats that she has to contend with: a quick Google search reveals hundreds of videos claiming that Blasey Ford is an actor, or a CIA agent. The same kind of frenzied conspiracies exist about Jackson’s accusers.
Right now, one of the top books on Amazon is written by a QAnon conspiracy theorist. (They believe the world is run by Satanic child murders, led by Hillary Clinton and others.) Another is by a man touting the healing effects of celery juice; the author is a self-professed “medical medium.”
When the new public square is a place where conspiracy theories and misinformation spread unfettered, I don’t know that it’s still possible to rely on people “telling their truths” for progress on certain issues. At least, not without asking them to pay a very high price.
We live in a time, for example, when Republicans have created such a nefarious lie around abortion — claiming women are committing infanticide — that women have to write articles in the New York Times with headlines that plead, “I Didn’t Kill My Baby.”
People telling their stories has always been brave, but now it requires a different kind of strength. One that I’m not sure is fair to ask of anyone.
The personal will always be political, but so long as the internet allows people to become human targets of harassment, we’ll need to find alternatives to people laying themselves bare for broader progress. Or we need to figure out a better way to protect those who share their most difficult stories. Because right now, we are failing them terribly.