On Chris Hardwick, Comic Conventions, and the Presumption of Innocence
(Trigger Warning for discussions of rape, abuse, sexual assault,etc)
In this article I’m going to attempt to deconstruct what’s happening around allegations of sexual harassment and abuse in various areas of nerddom. Rather than try to prosecute the facts of each individual case, I want to talk about systems and how we got to this point, and what we can do about it.
It is as predictable as the sun rising in the east that whenever there is an allegation of harassment, rape, abuse, or other predatory behavior that these are the responses we’ll hear first. So let’s talk about these ideas and where they fit in with our current cultural conversation.
First (and this may surprise you I’m starting here) these are good standards. They have served us well in western civilization because they are standards with specific intents.
For instance, it’s ENTIRELY VITAL that in the criminal justice system, a person have a complete presumption of innocence. It is the government’s job to prove beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury of your peers that you committed a crime in order for you to be deprived of your freedom or property by being put in jail or having to pay a fine. In the case of the law, innocent until proven guilty is sacrosanct. Hence, the legal proceedings against Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, etc.
But then there’s the court of public opinion. Who says that in this case a person must be given the presumption of innocence? Does literally anything else get this same standard? Does science? (I wish, right?)
No. Because that’s not how it works. So why should what is appropriate for due process in a criminal case be applied in the case of a victim coming forward? Do we apply other similar legalisms in our daily lives?
And so then a lot of people will say, when all the evidence comes out, it comes down to a “he said / she said” situation (or another variation based on the genders of the people involved– as abuse and harassment occur among all people — but in this case I’ll keep with the colloquial “he said / she said” because we’re talking about specific instances of alleged abuse).
The end point of this, though, is that a person is supposed to throw up their hands and just say “Well, I guess we can’t know. There’s two sides to this story and the only people who know are the two of them.” It’s the societal equivalent of a hung jury– we just don’t know — OR an acquittal where we say the victim never proved their claim beyond some standard of reasonable doubt.
So, what happens? The net effect of “innocent until proven guilty” and “two sides” is that the accused is always advantaged. There is a seriously high bar to overcome to be able to prove an allegation– and the more prominent and powerful a person is, the higher that bar gets.
And so we wonder why victims are afraid to come forward? BECAUSE OF THIS. Because prima facie we are conditioned to not believe them. Because it’s important to understand that “innocent until proven guilty” and “two sides” are systems created by western patriarchal order specifically for the judicial system — which have served us well in terms of balancing government tyranny vs law and order — but which do NOT protect victims and were never created for society at large. Using legal standards in place of a broader sense of morality and justice is not only foolhardy– it’s why Jesus hated lawyers. (Apologies to my friends in the legal profession. Jesus loves you very much.)
We face an epidemic of rape and sexual assault– 1 in 4 women will be assaulted. That is sickening and MUST change. But rape cases are unlikely to be prosecuted because we have to convince a jury of 12 individuals a rapist is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Get ONE person on that jury who holds sexist attitudes about “She was leading him on.” “She was wearing the wrong clothing.” etc, etc, etc and the accused will not be punished. Get a judge who believes we shouldn’t ruin a person’s life over one mistake, and the person will not be punished. Innocent until proven guilty is a high bar. And is it intentionally so, because the basis of our law is “It is better for 1,000 guilty men to go free than one innocent man be punished.” Emphasis on “men.”
It is the systems of presumption of innocence and hearing both sides that have created the situation we are in. They were tools of a patriarchal western culture which, intentionally or not, have always advantaged men over women. They are the petri dish in which rape culture flourished and grew. And we will not, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, be able to tear down the master’s house using the master’s tools. And so “presumed innocent” and “both sides” will never get us the justice we need.
JFK wrote “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” We have made solving these cases nearly impossible through our criminal justice system. And so instead we have to turn to the callout, the public shaming– the vague article on Medium that doesn’t directly name your accuser but we all know who you’re talking about. These are also imperfect systems, but they’re basically all we have.
Government is supposed to have a monopoly on the use of violence in society. And shunning, isolation, shaming– those are acts of violence. It’s why we should react so viscerally to The Scarlet Letter, The Handmaid’s Tale, to women being beheaded for adultery or acid thrown in their faces– BECAUSE extra-governmental forces (in these cases, religion masquerading as law or individuals acting under a faux religious mandate) are enacting violence. Also, government is not acting as it should with the necessary due process. And the violence is horrific. But even in the more subtle violence of these– the shame circles, the public labeling — we see what we don’t like about callout culture. Because it is a form of mob justice, and one which does not have norms or rules around it.
And because they can be misused, people are skeptical, and begin trying to rationalize against it. And we retreat back to “innocent until proven guilty” and “he said / she said”– all of which serve to protect the accused and indict the victim. And, it should be noted, the closer you are to a person who is accused, the more you might depend on them for something, the less likely you are to believe they are capable of this. And so we say, “we don’t want to harm someone over unfounded allegations.”
Some have even called this “the internet lynch mob.” Let’s unpack that for one second. Thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of people, mostly African Americans, were lynched in the US. People were murdered. It was done to incite terror and uphold white supremacy. For me, it rings just as hollow to talk about women working to stop sexual violence — especially when it is women of color (and queer women of color) who are the largest victims of sexual violence and harassment in the US — as a “lynch mob” as it does for Richard Paul Evans to talk about being a white male being like a Jew during Nazi Germany. It rings hollow because it destroys the historical paradigm of oppressor and victim and flips it on its head– now the historical victims of oppression are suddenly the bad guys? And to talk about someone being called out for bad behavior as being morally equivalent to taking someone’s life? Spare me.
Because it harms literally no one to believe a victim when they come forward. What will the consequences be for Chris Hardwick? At most, it will be a loss of reputation which will almost certainly be temporary.
Chris Brown is still making albums. So is Dr. Luke. It’s unlikely that even if they lose their civil suits they will be living on the streets, having lost everything. Devin Faraci, who was accused of assault, got a job with Alamo Drafthouse/ Fantastic Fest less than a year after the allegations came out against him — and he would have continued in that role if it had not been exposed. Even Bill O’Reilly is mounting a comeback tour. So let’s not pretend that people are going to be ruined.
For those not following the controversy around sexual assault and harassment at Salt Lake FanX (previously Salt Lake Comic Con– the third largest con in the country by attendance after San Diego and New York) here is a primer. But it’s bad. If the con’s owners, Dan Farr and Bryan Brandenberg, were to sell Salt Lake FanX or convert it into a non-profit (as many of their critics are calling for, pointing to toxic behavior on their part as well), they stand to gain more than can be imagined– and more than they stand to lose if they continue to let this drip drip drip continue about the harassment and abuse they have covered up. If we choose too believe the victims who have stepped forward, they will still be millionaires no matter what. Same with Hardwick.
So, again, it DOES NOTHING to simply believe victims when they come forward. In fact, every argument of “innocent until proven guilty” and “hear both sides” insulates abusers and harassers. It prevents victims from coming forward because they know the people around the accused will rally around them and prosecute the victim– call her unreliable, question her motives, ask why she didn’t just leave the situation in the first place (obviously you have no idea how abusers operate and can’t see the pathological ways they all work).
In the case of gaslightng or calling into question the accuracy or motives of victims, above all others, there is actual harm perpetrated against people who have already been victimized when we choose to hide behind “we can’t know” or “innocent until proven guilty” or “the internet lynch mob.”
There is a massive change trying to happen in our culture right now. There are people who have been oppressed in order for us to make the progress we’ve made. There are people who are still disadvantaged by the status quo. Our choice is whether we decide to side with the status quo as “good enough” or whether we want to break down systems of oppression and side with the disadvantaged. And if you’ve decided to stay neutral in this fight, or ignore it and pretend it isn’t happening, you’ve already chosen a side.
Believe victims. It doesn’t harm anyone, except the patriarchy.