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:
Here's an unpopular opinion: I'm actually not at all concerned about innocent men losing their jobs over false sexual assault/harassment allegations.
— Emily Lindin (@EmilyLindin) November 21, 2017
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.
I bet humans tend to commit the fallacy of thinking that because most men aren't harassers, most women haven't been harassed. But harassers have very high throughput.
— Noah Smith ? (@Noahpinion) November 20, 2017
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.