A false inequivalence

15 May

Consider this: someone is accused of murder, and 60 other people step forward, offering as a defense of the accused that they themselves weren’t murdered by this person.

Does that sound absurd? 

How about if someone is accused of sexual harassment or assault? Because that’s what’s playing out in the accusation—now three accusations—against Tom Brokaw. After one woman spoke up, 60… 65… (and perhaps still counting) women have publicly and collectively vouched for Brokaw’s “decency and integrity.” 

The rationale seems to be that if he didn’t harass them, he couldn’t have harassed the other women. And in the court of public opinion, the fact that there are more women whom Brokaw hasn’t allegedly harassed than there are women whom he has allegedly harassed, well, it’s all the more proof that he couldn’t have harassed anyone. Ever.

And this standard seems to be unique to sexual harassment and assault claims. Think about it: when someone is accused of arson, do their defenders point to all the buildings that person hasn’t burned down as evidence that they couldn’t have burned down the building in question? Or, in a more pointed case, when Wells Fargo was accused of opening over 2 million accounts in customers’ names without the knowledge or consent of those customers, was the fact that other clients didn’t have accounts opened fraudulently on their behalf considered proof that no crime had been committed?

A different twist on this “proof is outside the pudding” logic, there was the defense of Sean Spicer’s treatment of journalist April Ryan: apparently, since Spicer was rude to lots of people, that was evidence that he wasn’t racist or sexist.

What the Brokaw and Spicer situations have in common is the perceived insufficiency of not just the claims made against them, but who made them: women, and in Ryan’s case, a woman of color. The idea being that they are inherently untrustworthy because, you know, they’re prone to “playing the [insert identity] card,” possibly hysterical and have “an agenda” that could irreparably damage the good names of the professionals whose “decency and integrity” we can all rely on without a petition.

Now, you’re thinking: don’t forget that those are 65 women who’ve spoken up in Brokaw’s defense. Yup. Like all people, they each get to make up their own minds about what and whom they believe. It’s just that whether or not we believe them depends on the side they pick. 

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