The Ease of Accusation and Biased Belief
We want to believe both the best in ourselves and the worst of everyone else. We want to believe that someone claiming to be robbed or beaten or assaulted, by the simple proximity of our own possibility of being robbed, beaten or assaulted. We want to believe that when someone declares they have been harmed that they have been, indeed, harmed because we want others to believe us when we make the same claim.
It is the reductive, simplistic painting of the pathological male and his abhorrent treatment of the innocent female that smacks of either much needed over-correction or ugly propaganda depending on who you are and what your personal experiences entail. We want to believe the narrow hype that something explosive reveals, but belief without the weight of proof is the cause of so much ill in this society, from the unproven damage of Her Emails to the almost endless parade of false confessions that have led to wrongful convictions, that taking a step back before lighting things on fire has merit.
It was my first full-time teaching gig. I was in a new middle school just a few blocks from the Chicago Public School headquarters on Pershing Road. It was a brand new school so I was its first music teacher and I was the youngest teacher there. I had a desk in the corner of the gymnasium on the third floor—the gym also had a stage on the east side of the room, so it served as the auditorium when we had the whole student body in for assemblies.
This first year, I found myself teaching to the approved curriculum—students learning to read music, play recorders and simple percussion, and lots of singing. I quickly discovered how much like babysitting it was, how little like teaching it became. I was a prep period for the home room teachers and that was about it.
It was, however, a job and I did my best to teach when I could. I decided to see if there was interest in an after school choir program. There was in spades. In fact, there were far more kids interested in staying for two hours after school three times a week to sing than I could reasonably handle so I had to hold auditions. I figured 80 singers was pretty much my limit. I still had no experience or management tools at the time and that seemed—seemed—reasonable.
Christine was a 13-year-old with no singing ability, crippling self-esteem issues and an intense desire to be a part of something. She knew she wasn't a great singer but she begged me to let her be the Choir Helper. I decided we'd call her the Choir Manager (because titles matter at that age) and put her to work collating the music, setting up the chairs before choir and putting music on all of them, taking roll. She was a really good kid and I recognized her need for inclusion in something—those three days a week were an oasis for her where she could be of use and feel appreciated.
"There are claims by U.S. intelligence officials that the Russian government hacked e-mails and used social media to help elect Donald Trump, but there has yet to be any corroboration. Although the oft-cited January intelligence report “uses the strongest language and offers the most detailed assessment yet,” The Atlantic observed that “it does not or cannot provide evidence for its assertions.” Noting the “absence of any proof” and “hard evidence to back up the agencies’ claims that the Russian government engineered the election attack,” The New York Times concluded that the intelligence community’s message “essentially amounts to ‘trust us.’” That remains the case today."
After choir each day, Christine and I would put everything away—80 chairs that don't fold but stack take a bit of time to put away along with all the music because we sang a lot of different songs just to keep the choir's interest—and she would take the opportunity to ask me questions. About life, about jobs, about driving—whatever she could think of. I'd answer as candidly as I could and I felt like I was teaching, although not the subject matter I was employed to teach.
One winter day, another, more experienced teacher who had taken me under her wing that school year, asked me to come see her after school. She was concerned about Christine's attachment to me, had heard her talking about me to other students and decided she needed to caution me—a young, popular male teacher—from encouraging anything more than scholastic stuff. I was caught off guard. I didn't see this attachment, this "heavy crush" as my mentor called it. I asked her what I should do given I had never been in the situation before. She told me to gently but firmly stop having Christine stay after school and help with choir.
I decide the best way to go about it was to suggest that Choir Manager was an important enough duty that we need to have the choir elect someone—along with a Choir President, Vice President, and Secretary. I further suggested that, since Christine had been the Choir Manager since the beginning of the year, it would be a good thing for her to let someone else take over and she could just be a part of the choir. I also explained to her that I was no longer allowed to have any students stay after to help out after choir because of "new rules." It was the best I could come up with at the time and my mentoring teacher thought I was handling it well.
Christine did not handle it well. She cried, she begged, she yelled. She was inconsolable. She missed the next couple of days of school and then, three days after I broke the news to her, I came into school and my classes had been given to a substitute and I was told to report to the office immediately.
False Allegations of Sexual Harassment: Misunderstandings and Realities
Over the years, labour arbitrators have cautioned against using subjective impressions to decide the merit of workplace grievances of harassment. They have emphasized that objective standards, not solely the subjective impressions of the alleged victim or alleged harasser, must be applied in determining whether harassment or abuse has occurred. A famous photograph illustrates this; conduct occurred, but does it constitute sexual harassment?
American Girl in Italy by Ruth Orkin is one of the best-known street photographs. Taken in 1951 in Florence, Italy, the photo shows a woman walking along a sidewalk while men look at her. My description is carefully worded. I could have said “young woman” or “girl,” a “gauntlet of gawking men” (as some have said), or “ogled by 15 men,” or “hassled” or “harassed.” I could describe the body language of the woman, the look on her face, or that of the men, especially the man sitting on a motorcycle and another man with pursed lips who has his hand near (on?) his crotch. The latter has been described by some as “grabbing his junk” or “that not-so-innocent-looking gesture with his hand.” Some describe the men as “leering and lascivious,” the woman representing “either stoic independence or sheer vulnerability.”
In interviews this year, on the 60th anniversary exhibition of this iconic photograph and other works by Orkin, Nina Craig, who is the subject of American Girl in Italy, says, “Some people want to use it [the photo] as a symbol of harassment of women, but that’s what we’ve been fighting all these years. It’s not a symbol of harassment. It’s a symbol of a woman having an absolutely wonderful time!” Craig describes the street behaviour of the men (in the photo, in Italy, and elsewhere in Europe) as making her feel “appreciated.” And what of the gesture by the man in the photo? Craig explains her experience and interpretation of his behaviour and of the other men this way: “That young man is not whistling, by the way; he’s making a happy, yelping sound, and where you see him touching the family jewels, or indicating them, with his hand—well, for a long time that was considered an image people should not look at. That part was airbrushed out for years… But none of those men crossed the line at all.” Were the men harassing her? “I can tell you that it wasn’t the intent of any man there to harass me.”
It was the first time I met a Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) rep. She was pretty cold and all business. Apparently I had done something serious. After a few cursory questions from her, she informed me that Christine had accused me of touching her inappropriately after school one day. More specifically, she accused me of telling her I loved her and tried to have sex with her after choir. To the point, the union rep explained, I was fucked. Christine's guardian, her grandmother, was in the principal's office at that moment and it looked like my principal was going through the motions of hanging me out to dry.
I was 24 years old and had no idea of what proper protocol was in that situation. I knew the accusation was ridiculous and untrue. I knew I had done nothing but be encouraging and supportive to this student and now she was trying to destroy me. So, instead of freezing up and staying seated, I got up and went into the principal's office to talk to Grandma.
She looked at me with a withering stare that, if eyeballs were able to kill upon sight, I'd have burst into flames. Mr. Laz, the principal, got up and demanded I leave. I told him to sit down—he obviously was not there to help me so he needed to get out of the way. I sat down across from Christine's furious grandmother and explained that I had never done these things I was accused of, that I had only been supportive and professional with her granddaughter and that, if she would only ask Christine for the truth, this whole mess could be cleared up.
Christine was in another office. I left and went home, scared out of my mind that I was going to be fired, pilloried as a sex offender, left out to hang. Frankly, despite knowing I was innocent of the accusations, I was terrified. I sat in my apartment and plainly freaked out.
Speaking to The Village Voice while promoting her upcoming New York tour, [Jen] Kirkman took the opportunity to clarify her comments. “I thought people would understand the nuance of what I was saying, and they didn’t,” she said. “There are rumors out there that Louis takes his dick out at women. He has never done that to me. I never said he did, I never implied that he did. What I said was, when you hear rumors about someone, and they ask you to go on the road with them, this is what being a woman in comedy is like.”
The author notes that Kirkman and C.K. have been close for many years, and she counts him as a mentor.
“Sometimes there’s nothing there. I think this might be a case of there’s nothing there,” Kirkman said. “If I’m wrong, I’m wrong, and if any women want to come forward and say what he’s done, I’ll totally back them, because I believe women. But I just don’t know any.”
I got a phone call that afternoon from the union rep. Christine had come back into the office, the union rep insisting that she be present. The grandmother had spoken to her slowly and patiently and Christine had burst into tears and recanted her lies. She claimed that she made up the story because it wasn't fair that I had taken away her title and that she was just angry at me and wanted to get back at me. Plainly, her accusations were revenge for my hurting her feelings. As a shout out to unions in general and the CTU specifically, I'm pretty certain if my rep had not been in the room and witness to the recanting, things might've turned out differently for me.
Her grandmother transferred her to another public school and, while I had the truth on my side, Mr. Laz never quite got over the experience. Oddly enough, in spite of the facts, there were a few teachers and he who still believed I had done something inappropriate. That I had done something wrong because, if I hadn't, why would she accuse me of it? In that environment, when the vice principal, Sharon Hayes, announced she was leaving at the end of the year to open a progressive new middle school on the West side of Chicago and asked me if I would I be her music teacher, I jumped at the chance.
None of this is an attempt to debunk the countless accusations that are true. The adage is that if someone says they are hurt, believe them. There was no question Christine was hurt. The cause of that hurt was not the substance of her accusation and that's where simple adult calm needs to be employed rather than the hysteria of an overly developed sense of self-righteous indignation. Without the basic skepticism of an enraged grandmother who knows that teenagers lie as often as they tell the truth, my life would have unfolded in a very different way.
This is likewise not to indicate innocence of predatory behaviors or to suggest that we should not give accusations of sexual misconduct and criminal behavior a full hearing. For most of recorded history, women and those in the minority of society have been systematically disbelieved for no other reason than to protect a false hierarchy and thus demonize those accusers. Disbelief for reasons outside of the facts is just as erroneous and damaging as belief for the same reasons. Making the mistake of over-correction is still making the same mistake.
Accusations are easy to make. Proving them is the work. The easy road for an awful lot of people is to determine innocence or guilt based upon bias. Bias can blind even the most neutral parties and shift the balance from accusation to condemnation with little or no regard for reality or the authenticity of the charge. It is one of the traps of the digital age of immediate information, the rush to judgment based upon nothing more than a false narrative—it's why we have Snopes.com and The Onion. We believe what we already wish to see whether what we wish to see is the truth or not.
It is the photographer who shoots pictures of his children in the nude being accused of pedophilia. It is the in-the-closet gay teacher being accused of propositioning a female student. It is an ex-wife accusing a previously blameless ex-husband of uncharacteristically abusing their child or the black man accused of attacking the white supremicist and beating him up. Proof or it didn't happen and, in the Age of Everything Is Caught on a Camera, there is no longer any excuse for not getting evidence of the crime.
Laura Kipnis’s Endless Trial by Title IX
The U.S. Supreme Court has remarked, in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshores Services, in 1998, that sexual-harassment law is not intended to become a “general civility code.” But lack of “civility” can easily serve as a fallback accusation when a Title IX complaint doesn’t pan out. And Title IX can be deployed to make life difficult for a person one despises, for whatever reasons—good or bad. Two professors I spoke to said that they have experienced this phenomenon firsthand.
Nicholas Wolfinger, a professor of family and consumer studies, said that he was on the receiving end of this dynamic at the University of Utah, where he has been at odds with his colleagues for years. He told me it is because he has been openly contemptuous of colleagues who are “dead wood” and do not produce scholarship. Wolfinger was accused last year, under the school’s Title IX policy, of “being aggressive, rude, or dismissive of female faculty members” and “making unwelcome/unwanted sexual jokes or comments to other faculty members in the department” over the previous twelve-year period. Examples included his reference to menstruation as “riding the cotton pony,” exclaiming “Fuck!” at a faculty meeting, and recounting stories of proposing to his wife at a strip club.
The university’s investigation found him not responsible for Title IX sexual harassment and gender discrimination, but his dean still decided to impose an administrative reprimand and suspension for “unprofessional behavior,” specifically with reference to his use of profanity and the “constant stream of insults that you direct at others, particularly those berating and belittling your colleagues.”
It all reminds me a bit of a moment in the movie Our Brand is Crisis where one candidate is linked to a Nazi war criminal. When asked why she would leak such a ridiculously untrue allegation, Sandra Bullock says "I know he isn't linked to him. I just want to hear him deny it on record. That confirms that it has merit."
It is more effort to look past the narratives presented by the accuser and ask questions about the accusations. More effort than many folks are interested in making but as more and more people find reward in embracing victimhood, as more and more people find retribution in the quick hits of a Trump style campaign, the more vigilant we each need to be to truly and skeptically view each charge and look for truth.
As I told my wife my thoughts on all of this, she asked the simple question, “If proof is required, do you have any suggestions or just criticism of the noise?”
As usual, she’s right.
Is proof required? I think we should initially believe anyone who claims to have been sexually assaulted (or criminally violated in any way) with no bias or regard for who we may think that person is in his or her life. But belief without investigation is a recipe for serious injustice almost every time.
There is no question in my mind that men, all men, are predatory in their approach to women. This patriarchal bullshit has been going on for thousands and thousands of years, and to assume otherwise is as full of folly as assuming that electing a black president made us post-racial. What is different today is that every phone is a recording device. In this polarized and, I believe, pragmatically corrective moment in history when forcing the sexism and racism out into the light to burn off like so much black mold in the sun is painful but necessary, it is this tool that can help. Not a surveillance state but one where women can casually insist on recording any behind closed doors meetings.
Imagine for a moment how different the code of silence exposed by Scott Rosenberg recently would’ve been if each time Weinstein invited a woman up to his room she had insisted on recording the meeting. First, if he refused, she would know without much doubt that he was up to no good. Second, if he consented to being recorded, the number of potted plant incidents would have dwindled to a fat zero.
While so many men get away with this behavior, it is the recording of what the kids are calling "receipts" that is nothing more than the collecting of proof that can assist us. Accountability is key in a society where so much is intentionally hidden. We can type “I believe you” until our fingers cramp but women should not accept that at face value.
More importantly, rather than lay this responsibility upon women, perhaps it is to the ultimate good that men, especially men in power, make it their responsibility to request that women record private meetings. It certainly would make sure things were on the up and up.