Problems with #MeToo
Earlier this week, famed opera singer, Placido Domingo was #MeToo'd. He was accused by several accusers going back thirty years of groping, pressuring women for sex, and, at least in one case, preventing someone from getting a job for turning down the singer's advances.
I put out a podcast on this yesterday but I have come to the conclusion that the #MeToo movement is bad. Bad for society. Bad for men. Even bad for women. It is unjust, unneeded, and creates an unhealthy culture in the world.
#MeToo accusations are not legal accusations. Unlike in the legal world, there are few if any protections for the wrongly accused.
If you are accused of a crime, even the worst sorts (murder, terrorism, rape, etc), you have all sorts of things that prevent us from just grabbing you, throwing you in prison, and throwing away the key. Here are some things people accused of a crime have the right to in the United States:
1) Presumption of innocence
They do not have to prove their innocence. The burden to make a case falls on the accuser (the state and/or the victims). I don't need to prove that I didn't kill Professor Plumb with the candlestick in the library. The prosecutor needs to prove I did. I could, in theory, not respond at all to the accusations and get let go simply because the prosecutor's case is weak.
2) Equal time to make a case in court
Court cases do not consist of the prosecutor laying out his case unanswered. Every witness and every piece of evidence the accuser presents, the accused can review ahead of time, cross examine, and provide explanations for. By the end of the trial, the jury has heard the defense's best explanation for the prosecutor's evidence against. There is no chance that the jury can only hear one side of the story.
3) Statute of limitations
For most crimes and in most states, there are statutes of limitations. If you do not bring accusations within a set number of years, you can not bring them at all. Now, some people think that this is bad and just allows criminals off. But there is a justice related reason for this law. The more time that passes from the time of the event, the harder it is to mount a defense. Memories fade. And, in some cases, false memories creep in. I have had the strange experience of remembering things from my own past only to have my wife correct me that I was not there at all (and had simply been told the story by her). The human brain is weird and memory is funky.
Another thing that fades with time is records. In the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings, his nomination may have been saved because he kept a calendar from thirty years ago with his comings and goings during the time of the accusation. The fact that this guy kept a calendar at all during his teenage years is strange. The fact that he saved it for over 30 years is amazing. Almost a miracle. But if he didn't do that, he might have lost his dream job and gone away in shame. Time destroys records of what happened, when, and where. Paper receipts, movie tickets, taxi receipts, paper calendars, etc help you defend yourself from false accusations. If you claim I was killing Professor Plumb on Thursday night in the library but I have a movie ticket showing that I was at the movie theater that night, your charges fall apart. But wait 10 years, and the odds of me still having that ticket stub drop dramatically.
Statutes of limitations are important to maintain a just system.
4) A written legal code
Are you curious if you are breaking the law? You can look it up or talk to a lawyer who will look it up. You do not need to guess. The law is not an opinion. The law is not based on feelings. When deciding guilt or innocence the judge tells juries to look at the legal code and to evaluate if it has been broken.
These four points (and others), help keep our criminal justice system just. It does leave the door open to let criminals off but the founding fathers thought that was much better than giving the government power to lock innocent people up.
Why do we incline this way? Anyone who has lived under a tyranny knows why. Go read up on Stalin and how one time he signed a death warrant for 50,000 citizens without trial in a single afternoon (and then went to see a movie). Go read up on the literal witch trial of Salem in which a simple accusation of witchcraft could get someone murdered.
Most people intuitively know that an easy way to get rid of someone is to accuse them of a crime. This is why the ninth commandment is not to "bear false witness." This is why the first command on the Code of Hammurabi states that if you wrongly accuse someone of murder, you get punished for murder. False accusations happen. People lie. There can be many reasons why people do this (ranging from intentionally trying to destroy someone to simply remembering something wrong) but they do.
So, we built a just legal system to avoid the Stalin-Salem style of injustice.
But what does #MeToo do? It reverses all these rules of justice.
The accused is not presumed innocent. In fact, all it takes is an accusation to destroy a career.
The accused does not get a fair hearing. In most cases, the accusers are given plenty of time to tell their stories, express their outrage, and detail their evidence. But in most cases, the accused gets much less of a hearing.
There is no statute of limitations. The accusations against Placido Domingo date back as many as thirty years ago. Many other MeToo accusations are similarly old. All the same difficulties in a legal case, exist in a #MeToo case. An accusers says that Placido propositioned her in such and such place on such and such day. Where was Placido? What witnesses were there? Highly unlikely that he could mount a defense from so long ago. He has forgotten. Witnesses have forgotten. Records no longer exist.
Laws are not written down. This is perhaps the biggest problem with the #MeToo movement. Many of the accusations against Domingo are not crimes but simply making women feel uncomfortable with his advances. But notice the key word, "uncomfortable." That is a feeling. One would presume that if the woman was romantically interested in Domingo and he made a similar advance and a romance ensued, there would be nothing to accuse anyone of. In this case, Domingo's crime is not knowing how his actions made other people feel.
Let's step back and look at how all romances must start. For a romance to start, someone has to make an advance. Either the man (most common) or the woman (less common) has to take the chance and ask the person out to dinner, a movie, or whatever. But what if the woman does not want that advance? Well, she can say, "no, thank you." But the "unwanted advance," is no crime. It is actually the only way to find out. Women are often frustrated with men for not being very good at picking up on non-verbal cues. Fair enough. Men might not be very good at this. But it is who we are. We are bad at reading women's minds.
For men to know what not to do, we need rules that apply whether or not the woman is interested. We can't say that something is wrong because it was "unwanted" or makes the woman "feel uncomfortable." It needs to be wrong or right regardless of the feelings. Saturday Night Live demonstrated the murky territory here in a spoof PSA on sexual harrassment. The episode stars Tom Brady (tall handsome professional football player) and Fred Armisen (short goofy looking comic). The episode has the two men approaching a woman separately saying the same thing. When Brady does it, the woman giggles and smiles but when Armisen says the same thing the woman immediately starts to file a harassment claim.
Check it out below (for authorized NBC video click here):
Basically, the point is that even when Brady did creepy stuff (approach the woman wearing only underwear) the woman didn't care because the advance was wanted. We have a rule in our society that is based on what is going on in the woman's head. There is no way this is just.
There needs to be a convention or rule that always applies. Obviously, we have basic consent rules ('no means no'). Additionally, maybe we should have a societal rule that if a women declines your advances twice, you cannot try again.... I don't know, whatever, but the point is that men are dumb, bad at knowing what women want, and need rules that do not depend on high levels of emotional intelligence.
Not saying men cannot be creepy. Just saying that the line is super fuzzy, super grey, and hard to define. If we are going to be destroying people's lives for crossing it, we should probably try to define it a bit better.
Now, you might say that since we are not throwing people in jail, just telling people your experience with a jerky guy is okay. And on some level I agree. We cannot make every complaint or argument follow the legal code of justice. I should be allowed to call my boss a jerk without following due process. But I would argue that the way we are doing #MeToo this goes beyond normal complaining about each other. This has moved into a situation where there is true damage being done to the accused. I cannot imagine going from universally loved (think Woody Allen, Garrison Keiler, or.... Placido Domingo) to being universally hated with my career destroyed. It would be horrible. It would especially be horrible if I was innocent of the thing I was accused of. I think that for some of these men, they might prefer death to having their reputation destroyed. Many people live their lives with their legacy in mind. They would rather die early than destroy it. So, on some level, #MeToo is giving people a fate worse than death with no due process. It is destroying careers, reputations, and lives..... without any of the normal and just protections that exist within the legal code.
It is injustice with giant consequences for those being treated unfairly.
Now. I should close by stating something obvious. I have many women in my life that I love deeply. The idea of them being abused or harassed makes me sick. Many of the accusations that have come up in this #MeToo era describe real problematic behavior and if the men actually did these things they acted immorally, cruelly, and often illegally.
But arguing for due process does not signal approval of the crime described in the accusation. I don't think that we should throw people in jail for murder without a trial. That does not make me accepting of murder. I think that accused terrorists should have the presumption of innocence. That does not make me accepting of terrorism. And I think that the way that #MeToo has brought accusations and destroyed lives without any sort of a due process is terrible. That does not make me accepting of harassment, assault, or rape. Those are all terrible things and if you are doing those you should be ashamed and punished to the fullest extent of the law.
It may be that Placido Domingo is a jerk who sexually harassed women. But I am not going to think of him that way. Not based on the accusations alone. If there are accusations that are recent that constitute actual crimes (or ethics violations within whatever organizations he works for), then I would encourage a fair and ordered investigation by the appropriate authorities. And before any concerts are cancelled or anyone dismiss him as a human being, both sides of the story should be heard fully. And if it is hard to tell who did what, then the presumption of innocence should continue.
#MeToo has created a which hunt. Without trial men are being accused and then punished. This is obviously bad for men. But it is also bad for women. All the women I know have important men in their lives. Husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, and friends. All these women would not want their loved ones destroyed by a false accusation from 30 years ago. Further, most women I know do not think that it is healthy for romance or life to have men afraid to ask a woman out or go in for a kiss at the end of a date. A world in which that action could bring severe consequences down the road, will certainly create that fear.
Finally, many will argue that, despite the possible downsides, #MeToo has brought some much needed attention to mistreatment of women in the world. That is possible. But I am not as convinced as some on that front. I was taught since I was a kid not to rape, grope, or abuse. I can remember the Clarence Thomas hearing from the 1990s in which the whole nation was taught about workplace harassment in graphic terms. I think we already knew the lessons of #MeToo. Maybe it has made men more afraid than before. That is almost certainly true. But I am not sure that achieving a state of fear is a healthy objective of any social campaign.