What About #MeToo?
I feel compelled to begin a series of posts explaining the role of #MeToo in our world today. With the expanded allegations by Tara Reade against Joe Biden, many have indicated that those who passionately believed in #MeToo have abandoned its principals, or that those who do not believe Tara Reade's new allegations are hypocritical. Neither position is accurate. The danger in public pronouncements such as "Believe Women" is that people will view that concept through their own lenses, through implicit biases, and may not understand completely what the phrase "Believe Women" really should have been intended to mean.
In the past, there have been many times when women came forward, perhaps not in public fashion but at school or in the workplace, and their allegations of sexual assault or harassment were immediately dismissed. Often this was as a result of implicit biases towards situations involving misconduct, ie, those hearing the allegations had a different experience of the person accused, or the accused was a powerful person whom one did not want to anger, or the person making the allegation was viewed as a "troublemaker," or the person receiving the allegation had their own experience of either harassment or being wrongfully accused. Yet because some women coming forward with valid allegations were met with such resistance, other women declined to report very valid claims of assault or harassment. So the behavior went unchecked for years or months, and additional victims fell prey to the same behavior. This resulted in "serial harassers" like Harvey Weinstein.
The #MeToo movement recognized some very important facts:
(1) many women who have been sexually assaulted or harassed are reluctant to report. Psychologically this is for a number of reasons ("What if no one believes me?" "What if I get fired?" "What is everyone is mad at me?" "Was there something I did to encourage this behavior?") Women would then often use other techniques to cope with the behavior, such as avoiding the perpetrator or talking to their friends about it.
(2) when allegations are brought forward, it is very rare that the allegations are completely made up. Because of the stigma of being "the person who complained" very few allegations are found to be absolutely false. Often behavior is interpreted differently by each of the people involved. Sometimes memories are faulty. Sometimes an allegation might rest in an element of truth, but be embellished or misremembered.
Often, an allegation can only be assessed after a complete investigation, like those that I and my workplace investigation colleagues perform. When we conduct an investigation, we talk to those involved, we gather evidence, we review credibility, we compare stories and experiences, and make a judgment about the facts based on this complete picture. That is what protects the interests of the organization, the complaining party, and the person accused.
The goal of "Believe Women" was to provide a safe space for women to come forward without being ridiculed or dismissed out of hand. The goal of #MeToo was to let women know that they were not alone, that others had experienced this behavior as well, and thus encourage women (and men!) to come forward and stand against the abuse they had experienced. Responsible organizations did all that they could to encourage this type of disclosure, without retaliation, to assure that, IF something bad was happening, they could take steps to stop it.
The goal of #MeToo should never have been that once an allegation was made, that the events described must be accepted as gospel, and denials by the alleged perpetrator must be rejected at all costs, without this assessment of the facts. If the goal of "Believe Women" was to encourage punishment for all men who had not committed the acts they were accused of, then it was a flawed goal.
Our goal should have been to make sure people feel safe to come forward and seek a solution to troubling behavior, but our methods of resolving such claims should be to ascertain the truth of the allegations, as best we can. If an allegation is made and the immediate response is to fire the alleged perpetrator, then our system would remain flawed. At the same time, if we find ourselves wanting to lock up the accused person who is in another political camp or doesn't look like us, but we do not want to look critically at allegations against our favorite athlete or politician or religious leader or actor, then we are using our own implicit biases to make judgments about truth or falsity, and that does not lead to a just system of assessing behavior and its consequences.
Unfortunately, publicly making allegations against a prominent person, and public debate and investigation of the allegations does not provide a great forum for discerning the truth about such serious allegations. Much as in a workplace, when allegations are made without a strong investigation and resolution, groups are left to fend for themselves. In workplaces, this results in gossip, and people forming camps, and often shunning or retaliating behavior. In the public arena, the same kind of "taking sides" happens absent a thorough investigation.
Information is still being gathered and disclosed concerning the Tara Reade allegations, but the best thing that the general public can do is reserve judgment, and try to ascertain whether any conclusions you are reaching are based on the proven facts or your own biases. I will take a look at some of our investigative methods over the next couple of weeks that might help in analyzing such issues.