The importance of believing the victims of sexual misconduct prior to, and even in lieu of, hard evidence in support of their allegations has become something close to a consensus view. Yet some commentators have gone a step further, and argued that we must tolerate a few innocent men taking a hit along the way. When Emily Lindin of Teen Vogue expressed a version of that view last week, she took so much heat that she had to temporarily lock her Twitter account:

The extent of the backlash to Lindin’s tweet was perplexing. That some innocent men will occasionally suffer from false allegations seems like a direct implication of the otherwise uncontroversial view that we should believe the claims of victims. All Lindin did was take it to its logical conclusion — namely, that there are certain consequences, costs and benefits, that come with assigning a particular epistemic status to the claims of victims that we must learn to live with, including occasional false positives.

An alternative perspective says that, rather than believing an allegation by default, we should take each allegation case by case, withholding judgment until all the evidence has been brought to bear through some simulacrum of due process. This view has an inherent air of reasonableness to it, and yet it fundamentally misses the point by treating a default stance in support of victims of sexual misconduct as a purely epistemic imperative, rather than also a normative one.

The Power of Belief

Beliefs are not inert. Economists, and game theorists in particular, have long understood that beliefs have a direct impact on behaviors we collectively converge to in part or in whole due to mutual expectations. Knowing that others believe we ought to drive on the right side of the road, for example, is sufficient to make me drive on the right side of the road; to converge to the normative consensus through awareness of the epistemic consensus. Likewise, the rule “believe the victim” simultaneously generates the mutually shared expectation “victims will be believed.”

It’s easy upon reflection to see how that rule impacts the returns to sexual misconduct in a salutary way, while in contrast, the norm of “innocent until proven guilty,” however appropriate in a legal context, helps facilitate further victimization.

Reputation is a key feature of any “repeated game,” from trading goods and services in the market to interacting with co-workers. Reputation becomes all the more important in the presence of significant information asymmetries. Indeed, the downfall of high-profile abuser after abuser in recent weeks has been the serial nature of their misconduct. And yet the bad reputation of Weinstein, Spacey and Moore, while apparently well known within certain “whisper networks” and local communities, needed to become common knowledge before it had any great impact. The norm of believing the victim is valuable not because women never make false allegations (granted, the rate of false reports is exceedingly low), but because it changes the rules of the game in a way that preempts potential abusers with the credible threat that their bad behavior will become common knowledge, immediately, and with all the attendant consequences.

Leveraging Common Knowledge

As Noah Smith pointed out in a recent tweet, most men are not sexual abusers, and yet most women have experienced some form of sexual misconduct, ranging from casual harassment to violent sexual assault, because a small minority of unsavory men are able to repeatedly get away with it.

Fortunately, that asymmetry works against abusers in the long run. Just as a relatively small percentage of men account for the majority of misconduct, if it becomes common knowledge that victims will be believed when they come forward (with or without another 29 other victims for corroboration), then a critical mass of women who commit to call out sexual misconduct when it happens are capable of exposing the vast majority of serial abusers.

Unfortunately, the very nature of sexual misconduct, the settings in which it tends to occur, and the plausible deniability predators often attempt to inject through innuendo and other forms of misdirection, too often results in a game of “he said, she said.” We can approach each allegation like Pyrrhonian skeptics, announcing our agnosticism in light of little hard evidence one way or another. Or we can recognize how the inherent challenge of effectively monitoring sexual misconduct makes the precommitment to believe victims all the more important as a strategy to stop abuse from occurring in the first place.


Samuel Hammond

Samuel Hammond is a Poverty and Welfare Policy Analyst at the Niskanen Center. His research interests include the political economics of the welfare state, aviation regulation, and social capital theory.

Comment

  1. Anonymous December 8, 2017 at 1:08 am - Reply

    This same argument applies to all crime and sets up a classic dystopian odyssey.

  2. Robert Landbeck December 5, 2017 at 2:56 pm - Reply

    There is no solution to sexual misconduct as male sexual response is without fidelity of boundary. More often fueled by phantasy, and able to override either common sense or self imposed moral limit, this ‘gift’ of an evolution remains the very source of toxic masculinity. Feed the ‘beast’ and the hunger only increases. That ancient and all wise Bard seemed to have had an insight that human nature itself prevents our species from learning. From his poem Venus and Adonis:
    Call it not love for love to heaven is fled
    Since sweating lust on earth usurp’d His name.
    Under who simple semblance man hath fed
    upon fresh beauty blotting it with blame,
    which the hot tyrant stains and soon bereaves
    As caterpillars do the tender leaves.

    Love comforteth like sunshine after rain
    but lust effect is tempest after sun.
    Love’s gentle spring doth always fresh remain.
    Lust’s winter comes, ere summer half be done.
    Love surfeits not, lust like a glutton dies,
    Love is all truth, lust full of forged lies.
    https://onthenatureofmarriage.wordpress.com/

  3. Peter December 3, 2017 at 6:18 pm - Reply

    The same logic was used in the Jim Crow south. Sam, you’re obviously a male and you could be a target of a witch hunt yourself. Has this never passed your mind?

  4. Jay Jeffers November 30, 2017 at 2:21 pm - Reply

    Interesting post. Rather than @ you on twitter over and over, it may be better for me to lay it out here where I can have more than 140 or even 280 characters.

    First, while I disagree, I don’t think I could talk you out of your view, and you likely couldn’t talk me out of mine. No shock there on either count. After we peeled away all the arguments and counter arguments, at the core we’d each probably just have different intuitions, and in disagreement over values, like Milton Friedman said, we can only fight (fighting here is arguing on the internet).

    The line I would like to pursue is how you’re able to fit your view into a liberal framework, particularly a classical one. My understanding of liberalism as a historical movement and phenomena is that the individual’s rights are prized. It’s true that we don’t (and shouldn’t) have to copy legal norms in any 1-1 corresponding sense, but it’s also true that legal norms are often continuous with moral norms. This topic seems to touch on the continuity of law and morality rather than the differences between them.

    So while you might not be to the right of me here (since that, like you pointed out, can get scrambled as varying actual cases roll in), the value you’re advancing seems more communal or justice oriented than classically liberal (with its emphasis on individualism, etc). I imagine there are all sorts of defaults we could set differently that would yield a better outcome for many historically victimized, marginalized, and discriminated against groups, but we don’t. The reason we don’t is often that there are other values that we’ve decided to prioritize, and setting a process value/legal norm is the best way to secure those over time. The left and right often see this as a BS cover for either neoliberal patriarchy or for the rule of the coastal elite rule or something, but some of us take the commitment to liberalism seriously (as I’m sure you do as well). I take this tact as I think we’re both probably versed enough here to “fight” to a draw with neither view able to overtake the other, so I’m focusing on the framework we share.

    So, “reputation consequences” almost doesn’t do it justice. The range of actions we’re presuming presently unknown men to be guilty of are rightly thought to be seriously immoral. Rape, assault, harassment, etc. sometimes with underage girls. A society of people wrongly presuming that you’re guilty of these things with nothing more than 1 accusation would be a horrid and mortifying experience. Now there is no doubt that being a victim of these crimes is also a horrid and mortifying experience, and the presumption against the word of victims is doubly traumatic. But I didn’t do those things, and I don’t presume that accusers are lying, so I didn’t cause the anguish and suffering. I believe in legal systems and social norms that punish this awful victimization, and consider any charge in this area to be very serious.

    However, changing the default presumption to “believe women” and away from addressing neutrally and case-by-case involves a proactive and conscious decision to cause harm against an individual with no regard to whether the accusation against them is true (since most everyone can admit that false accusations will occur). In this way, it’s not so easy to separate epistemic and moral norms. For these reasons, I just can’t participate in the #BelieveWomen movement to any serious degree, which is just my core raw intuition that has no real intellectual cogency, it being a thick moral value. But I wanted to stress that it’s not like getting a bad reputation for being flaky in keeping appointments or something. It is just not possible for one’s peers to view him as a deeply moral person and guilty of something like rape, and I can’t imagine myself saying to a person that he’s guilty in this regard with nothing else besides an accusation from another person I also know nothing about, and that’s exactly what this version of #BelieveWomen (Emily Lindin’s) is asking us to do.

    Now, classically liberal defaults also contribute to further harm on the other side, but again I can’t help that horrid suffering occurs. What I can do is to commit to not contributing to it in particular cases. And my neutrality shouldn’t be taken as siding with victimizers in any more than in an incidental and accidental sense, at least not without re-evaluating the foundations of liberalism. A leftist view in this regard might be tougher for me to argue against, perhaps because of it being more incommensurate. I often get to fudge the difference between two of the value-systems I identify with – progressivism and liberalism – but this seems like one I can’t finesse. And in cases like these, at least when they involve how we relate to one another, classical liberalism usually wins.

    It just seems a huge exception to historically liberal process values, and in my case something I really couldn’t do. So, am I a liberal because liberalism seems to affirm my already existing intuition, or has liberalism itself shaped my intuition? I don’t know, but again my strong presumption is that our movement has already offered guidance in this context and it’s prima facie neutrality. What am I missing? A twist, a turn, etc?

    • Samuel Hammond November 30, 2017 at 3:33 pm Reply

      Thank you for the thoughtful reply, Jay. I will need time to process it and get back to you with a fuller response when I have more time.

      Let me first say, though, that my views are not impervious. They’re actually pretty weak on this issue. This post is me mulling some ideas, and trying to highlight the incentive effects of norms of belief, which I thought was being missed in the conversation.

      I see a big distinction in liberal theory between law / justice and society / ethics. A liberal society still has norms; indeed, norms are important if you want to avoid juridification, or the process by which norms unravel and are replaced by codified laws, which tend to be less flexible and more draconian.

      I also see liberalism as not only a set of values or political philosophies, but also tied-up with a variety of ways of thinking about the world, including interpretive lenses like game theory, methodological individualism, and “the economic way of thinking” more generally.

      • Jay Jeffers November 30, 2017 at 7:18 pm Reply

        Well hey at the end of the day I guess I’m for big tent liberalism as well! Hopefully this little rift won’t reemerge and break apart the ruling liberaltarian coalition in 75 years.

    • Jay Jeffers November 30, 2017 at 3:26 pm Reply

      Obsessive addendum: I’ve been out of the game for a bit, so I grabbed for “thick” when in fact the concept of a thin moral value is what I was going for. When looking for a link I realized I’m not sure which one mine is. In any case, it’s one that’s hard to adjudicate against others –

      http://www.princeton.edu/~msmith/mypapers/Thick%20and%20Thin.pdf

  5. John Thacker November 28, 2017 at 3:07 pm - Reply

    It’s not really knowable that “98% of claims are true,” as you claim on Twitter. What is known is that around 2-5% of claims are determined to be false by police investigators according to recent studies. There are a large number of cases that police don’t believe to be false but don’t believe that they have sufficient evidence, cases where a prosecutor declines to bring charges, and cases where a prosecution is undergone but a defendant is not found guilty.

    To claim that “98% of accusations are true” one has to believe that all the latter cases are really guilty, that the police are always right. (Or that their mistakes are outweighed by the other sort of mistakes.) It’s quite subjective – older studies with similar methodology found larger levels of “false claims” simply because the police were less likely to believe. I believe that the current police belief is much closer to the truth than police beliefs from decades ago, but you’re just assuming the conclusion.

    There are other areas in life where I am reluctant to assume that the police are always correct, so I am leery to do so here. I think that it is reasonable that at least some of the “not sufficient evidence to convict” cases may well be innocent, regardless of the police.

    • Samuel Hammond November 28, 2017 at 3:13 pm Reply

      I’m not an expert in sexual assault statistics, and all the concerns with data you point out are valid. I’d include the high rate of non-reports that go uncounted precisely because women fear they won’t be believed, or have insufficient evidence to win in court.

  6. John Thacker November 28, 2017 at 2:47 pm - Reply

    “Unfortunately, the very nature of sexual misconduct, the settings in which it tends to occur”

    This is also an argument for reducing the sorts of settings in which it tends to occur. The parallel to your argument here is the argument that it is missing the point to say “rules like what Pence does are ridiculous, since I won’t be an abuser. People should simply not abuse.” Rules set societal standards about what is and is not permissible and expected. A widely held social rule that minimizes the most sort of dangerous situations – and gives people the right to opt out of them instead of being told by abusers that “this is just how the industry works” – may indeed inconvenience the vast majority of people who wouldn’t take advantage of a situation, but may be necessary to limit the opportunities of the worst. Ironically perhaps, it makes little difference whether one favors some kind of explicit consent (perhaps even combined with recorded evidence) typically associated with the Left or the tactic of simply avoiding such temptations associated with the Right.

    Given the dilemma in question, I would certainly prefer a limitation on social standards of behaviors of all than sacrifice a few innocents to worse consequences. The latter is far more unequal.

    If you are going to discuss game theory and norms, then what you say is true. As you say, it is equally true that according to game theory under a rule (which we do not have) that all accusations are automatically believed without any corroboration or additional accusations, we should see an increase in the rate of false accusations. It is irresponsible to extrapolate from the current estimates of false accusation rates in a climate where accusers are doubted to a different climate.

    The same presumably goes for other crimes as well, but the key part of the argument is how the particular situations that are exploited by abusers often make evidence difficult.

    • Samuel Hammond November 28, 2017 at 3:00 pm Reply

      Thanks for the comment. I agree with you on the need for changing the social setting in which abuse occurs. I have a thread on that subject here:
      https://twitter.com/hamandcheese/status/924296169571934208

      I also think that, if we raise the reputation stakes of an allegation, it has to be symmetric. Being caught making a false report deserves its own intense stigma.

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