Due process or #BelieveWomen?
To whom do you think these tweets were directed?
“You’re sounding like a rape apologist!”
“TELL ME AGAIN THAT THIS IS A SAFE PLACE FOR WOMEN IN LITERATURE, ART, MEDIA WHEN PERPETRATORS ALWAYS HAVE FAMOUS ALLIES TO DEFEND THEM!”
“All victims deserve to be believed!
“She’s re-victimizing the women all over again!”
Hillary Clinton, who threatened and smeared both her husband’s mistresses and the women who accused him of sexual harassment and sexual assault?
No. It was feminist literary icon Margaret Atwood, author of award-winning speculative fiction classics such as The Handmaid’s Tale.
The answer sheds light on much of the disconnect surrounding the charged term “rape apologist" and how being accused of defending due process can be almost as damaging as actually being an accused rapist.
In late November, Atwood (among other Canlit giants) came under fire for openly criticizing University of British Columbia’s lack of due process and transparency when investigating sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations against Steven Galloway, acclaimed author of The Cellist of Sarajevo and The Confabulist, who is also Chair of UBC’s Creative Writing Department.
The criticism against UBC was entirely just. In 2015, one of Galloway’s students -- a 40-year-old married woman known only to the public as “MC” -- accused him of rape. UBC immediately released a public memorandum announcing that Galloway was suspended without pay pending the investigation of “serious allegations” and urged students who had concerns “about their safety and well-being” to come forward.
No other details of the accusations were released to the public or to Galloway himself. Galloway was forbidden by the university to even speak publicly on the issue. As the nearly year-long investigation was conducted, Galloway suffered under a cloud of suspicion with no means to defend himself, and at one point, was briefly committed into a mental hospital as a suicide risk.
Nineteen women came forward with complaints, mostly of how Galloway played favorites with some students who were among his inner circle of drinking buddies while freezing out others. If you ever took a class with a rock star literature professor in college you’re probably rolling your eyes.
At the conclusion of the investigation at the end of November 2016, Galloway was fired… not for rape, but for conducting a consensual affair with MC, which was against university policy. None of the other sexual misconduct claims against him were substantiated.
In the open letter to the university, Atwood and others rightly said that justice requires “due process and fair treatment for all” and that an independent investigation should be launched to evaluate how UBC handled the case. And for this, Atwood was called a “scumbag” and “rape apologist.”
To take the position that the members of a group called “women” are always right and never lie—demonstrably not true—and that members of a group called “accused men” are always guilty—Steven Truscott, anyone?—would do a great disservice to accusing women and abuse survivors, since it discredits any accusations immediately. Those accusing Joseph Boyden, Madeleine Thien, and all the other signatories of the letter in question, of rape culture and intimidation of young people because they have objected to a university’s flawed and high-handed process should give some thought to the consequences. And they should note that the university’s flawed process, if not amended, could well—in future—be applied to them.
The point that Atwood astutely makes is that by conflating advocacy for due process with victim-blaming and normalization of sexual violence, UBC (and, indeed, universities throughout North America) are creating a cultural climate akin to the one that spurred the Salem Witch Trials, where simply being accused was enough to be condemned and questioning the system was evidence enough of guilt. As Atwood has now learned, even bonafide leftists like herself will hang if they dare to take a step back and be reasonable.
The counter argument to this is always that false rape accusations are rare; some might even say mythical. There is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Tawana Brawley, afraid of getting punished by her stepfather for staying out all night, falsely accused NYPD officers and prosecutor Steven Pagones of brutally beating and raping her, inflaming the city’s racial tensions and costing Pagones his marriage. The Duke Lacrosse Team became pariahs after stripper Crystal Gail Mangum (who went on to murder her boyfriend in 2013) lied about being gang raped by them. And, most recently, Rolling Stone magazine was sued and forced to retract its award-winning Rape on Campus story after law enforcement revealed that its principle source “Jackie” lied about being raped by the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity to get attention from a boy she liked.
Yet despite the prevalence of these high-profile cases, why are those accused of rape the exception to the presumption of innocence? Why are those who say that guilt must be proven labeled enablers of sexual abusers?
First, in the past, universities were notorious havens for sexual abusers, especially powerful men who brought money and prestige to their campuses, like Jerry Sandusky. UBC is no exception. Over the course of a year and half, UBC refused to take action when six women accused PhD student Dmitry Mordvinov of rape. But instead of taking a serious and conscientious approach to investigating rape allegations (or dare we say get out of the business of criminal investigations altogether and let the police handle it), universities like UBC have taken the hard-line stance of punish now, maybe find out what happened later.
Second, the leftists who dominate university and popular culture do not have the patience or intellectual rigor necessary to combat competing ideas on any issue (racism, economic disparities, gender equity, etc.) through fair debate and consensus-based solutions; therefore, policing speech and thought is their go-to tactic for achieving their goals. It's not surprising then that the approach they would take to combating sexual harassment and rape is to create an environment where everyone (especially “privileged” straight white males) must live in fear of being an accused rapist or rape apologist, whether or not they’ve committed any offense. This is far more expedient than due process, which can be slow, difficult and the desired outcome is not guaranteed.
The most deeply unfortunate consequence of denying due process is that actual cases of rape and harassment are increasingly minimized or treated with skepticism, to the point that many men’s rights activists want new and more severe laws to prosecute who make false allegations of rape. While I believe that charges of perjury and false reporting should be pursued where there is evidence that such crimes were committed, creating new laws that specifically pertain to rape would no doubt have a chilling effect on genuine victims. It possible to be respectful and compassionate toward alleged victims of sexual harassment and sex crimes without sacrificing due process.
Another result is that accusations of sexual misconduct are increasingly used to deflect attention away from one’s own criminal acts and personal misdeeds. President-elect Donald Trump spent close to 40 years as a public figure and was never accused of sexual harassment or rape until he ran for president against Hillary Clinton. His alleged victims didn’t come forward until the final months of Trump’s presidential campaign, as more evidence of Clinton’s criminal activities continued to mount, and Bill Clinton’s notoriously lecherous past came to forefront of public interest once again.
All of Trump's accusers rapidly disappeared into the ether after Trump’s victory, never bothering to pursue their cases in civil or criminal court. If Trump lost, here’s the terrifying lesson Americans would have learned: if you want to get away something, particularly rape, all you have to do accuse anyone who might call you out on it of doing the same thing.
What’s the solution for those among us who still believe in due process and rule of law? Follow Atwood’s example and don’t allow yourself to be bullied into silently accepting injustice.