R. Kelly and Mob Justice

I was on spring break last week, so I made the mistake of sitting down and watching some TV for the first time since Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s just my ineptitude with a remote, but aside from Ilhan Omar’s anti-Semitism, the only topic that seemed up for discussion was R. Kelly and the charges made against him. (I also made the mistake of watching Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” quixotically expecting a Spike Lee movie to rise above the level of a comic book, but alas, wrong again. More on that fiasco some other time.)

Here’s an obvious point about guilt and innocence when it comes to criminal charges: if you’re going to try someone for a criminal allegation in the court of public opinion–a very big and very dubious if–you have to distinguish clearly between four mutually exclusive things:

  • the case against him,
  • the case in his defense,
  • the set of known facts that don’t easily fit either of the first two categories, and
  • the unknowns.

The least you can do is to try to do justice to the facts in all four categories, rather than fixating on, say, the case against him to the exclusion of everything else. There are complications here about how broadly or narrowly to understand each category, but even if we set those aside, there’s more than enough complexity here to keep a competent journalist busy for awhile.

We seem to be suffering from a serious dearth of competent journalists in this country, because literally nothing that I saw on TV, and little that I’ve seen anywhere else, has managed even to gesture at any of this complexity. As far as TV “coverage” was concerned, all I saw was a widespread fixation on the case against Kelly, tendentiously described and cleverly exploited to feed our insatiable national lust for moral condemnation and reputational destruction. This in a country that right-wing intellectuals keep accusing of “moral relativism.” And before you tell me that, well, Lifetime was never supposed to be a real journalistic source, make sure you forward whatever you have to say to law enforcement in and around Chicago and Detroit, because Lifetime’s “Surviving R. Kelly” is what those agencies are describing as the impetus for their investigations. (This is a relatively balanced account of R. Kelly’s run-ins with the law, as notable for its account of his malfeasances as for law enforcement’s, and as compatible with his guilt as with law enforcement’s being engaged in a vendetta against him.)

I don’t pretend to know whether R. Kelly is guilty or not, but no one–not even Hitler or Stalin–deserves the kind of treatment he’s been getting in our media. Yes, there are times when serious allegations are made of a person, where it’s not possible or feasible or appropriate to put him on trial, but where a moral and/or legal verdict of some kind is a moral imperative–Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, etc. But while I can see the need to pass judgment on A. Hitler in the absence of a trial, I don’t quite see the comparable need in the case of R. Kelly. It’s one thing to reserve judgment about Auschwitz because you haven’t seen footage of what happened there. It’s another thing to wonder about those videos that supposedly keep clinching the case against R. Kelly–except when they don’t.

Particularly galling and pathetic is the widespread belief that Gayle King handled herself like some 21st century version of Veritas and Astraea, the goddesses of truth and justice, in her dreadful CBS interview with Kelly. (This article is typical of the genre.) To describe King’s conduct in that interview as inept, offensive, and incompetent is more obvious than the truth of any of the charges made against Kelly, at least given the publicly available evidence against him as of this writing. If you focused on the content of what was said, rather than the reputations of the speakers, virtually everything that Kelly said made more sense than anything King said. An interviewer who asks her interview subject why he went to McDonald’s after being let out of jail–and insists on a straight answer–is simply in the wrong profession. My advice to her would be to don a fake nose and join a circus: she’d do better as a clown than as a journalist.

King made no pretense of impartiality in her interview with Kelly, or to precision in stating the charges against him, or to adducing any actual evidence against him but rumors and allegations (as Kelly correctly pointed out time and again). Stating and re-stating the allegations against Kelly ad nauseum, she effectively insisted that Kelly either allocute to a series of handwaving quasi-criminal charges against him, or stand condemned for denying them. At this rate, why not just come right out and call him a witch?

I could see how a casual viewer might be fooled by the act. Incriminating “tapes” were mentioned, but in the interests of decorum, never shown. A long string of tearful witnesses was paraded before the cameras, taken on faith, and dismissed without further ado. Adult women supposedly in captivity within Kelly’s home were described as though they were children literally held there and unable to leave; their parents described their adult children as though the children were somehow incompetent to make their own decisions, and as though the parents remained their guardians in perpetuity.

Meanwhile, at least two of these supposedly bound and captive hostages showed up on set to give angry, vehement, self-assured interviews insisting that they weren’t hostages. The blatant WTF quality of the situation seemed lost on King: If they were hostages, they were free to leave right then and there, and free to call 911 right then and there. But they didn’t. So why didn’t they? And if King truly regarded them as hostages, why didn’t she call 911 and have them rescued? King’s response to that prima facie rebuttal of her “case” against Kelly? An embarrassing combination of evasions, interruptions, and awkward silences, followed by the following comment about one of the subjects, made in an interview with Esquire:

But she had a very snippy little arrogant attitude. She started out the gate like that. I was surprised. That’s why I said, “You seem so angry.”

You could with perfect accuracy apply every claim in that passage to King herself.*

On encountering any testimony that contradicted her narrative, King brushed it away as unworthy of consideration. On encountering the reverse, she repeated it as though she were pronouncing judgment on the war criminals at Nuremberg. Granted, I don’t watch very much TV, but I sat there wondering how anyone that stupid could be on prime time, doing what she does for the salary she commands ($5.5 million/year).

That criminal charges have to be made and formally adjudicated; that witnesses for the prosecution lie or get facts wrong; that witnesses for the defense sometime tell the truth; that there’s a world of difference between being a pedophile and being an asshole; that you can’t indict someone for going to McDonald’s after being let out of jail; and best of all, that Kelly had previously been acquitted of the most serious charges made against him in a court of law: all of this seemed lost on King as well, whose hapless but fanatical anti-Kelly juggernaut wasn’t about to be stopped by such piddling facts as these. Unlike the extraordinarily half-assed and unfunny cast of SNL, I wasn’t inclined to make fun of R. Kelly’s supposedly “unhinged” outburst with King, mostly because I didn’t really regard it as all that unhinged in the first place: faced with an interviewer like Gayle King, and tactics like those being employed by law enforcement and the likes of Michael Avenatti, I probably would have had the same reaction as Kelly. After such inanity, what forgiveness?

Call me arrogant, but I regard myself as an expert on willful, belligerent stupidity: I teach college students, after all. But even I wasn’t ready for anything as dumb as the R. Kelly controversy. How is one to react when large swatches of a country descend this far into the epistemic abyss? It’s not a rhetorical question: I’m really asking. How can a country so drenched in falsehood and mendacity so naively assume that criminal charges are true simply because they’re made? I don’t know, but evidently, that’s what a lot of Americans seem to believe: In this demented universe, accusations are truth, acquittals are invitations to double jeopardy, and denials are nothing but rationalizations for hidden crimes. The videotape that no one but Gloria Allred has seen is the key to all forensic mysteries. A semen sample found on the clothing of a 24 year old proves that it got there by coercion. Assiduous analysis of R. Kelly’s song lyrics is the central element of a criminal investigation. Ergo R. Kelly is guilty.

If R. Kelly is guilty–and he may be–there will be plenty of time to hash out the evidence, hash out the charges, try him in a fair and orderly way, pronounce a verdict, and put him away. Contrary to the hysteria produced by people like Gayle King and colleagues, there’s no rush about prosecuting acts that took place between 1998 and 2010, and even if there were, the task of dealing with crime in a rush is a matter for law enforcement, not the media. That said, the claims of law enforcement deserve skepticism–a lot of skepticism. Indeed, if there was such a rush, it’s a question where law enforcement has been for the last decade or so, losing one case to Kelly, AWOL for the rest, and now reliant on Lifetime and Gayle King for the conduct of its criminal investigations. But hey–when you’re dealing with one of the most corrupt and unreliable institutions in America, I guess beggars can’t be choosers. You go with what you have.

It’s worth remembering that in all the legal wrangling between Kelly and law enforcement, law enforcement not only has not prevailed, but has taken a notably extra-legal approach to “enforcing the law”:

There have been close calls for Kelly over the years. For example, the same year Kelly performed at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, he was arrested on an outstanding warrant in Miami. When police searched the singer’s home they discovered about a dozen images of Kelly engaged in sex acts with an underage girl on a digital camera. After much legal wrangling, the charges were dropped due to lack of probable cause for the original search warrant.

That looks pretty bad for Kelly, at least if you assume that law enforcement is being truthful about the evidence. But then, what you think about law enforcement’s truthfulness depends on what law enforcement thought it was doing when it entered and searched Kelly’s home without probable cause–otherwise known as a violation of the Fourth Amendment, and alternatively, as “breaking and entering.” Can you trust the word of a law enforcement officer who violates the law? Maybe, if the violation was minor and inadvertent. But what if it wasn’t? However you slice it, “the close calls” for Kelly are also “close calls” for law enforcement. That’s why Kelly has gone free for so long. Despite the phalanxes of accusers, and the potentially incriminating photos and tapes, it pays to be cautious about a case this tangled.

But–and humor me here–what if Kelly is once again found not guilty? Come to that, what if he really isn’t guilty? Or what if he’s kinda guilty but there’s still a lot of truth to his version of the story–truth that we’re all being encouraged to laugh at and deride, but still turns out to be true, or partly true, or even just approximately true? What are we supposed to do at that point? Acknowledge inwardly that each of us made our little contribution to fucking up his life, to muddying the waters, to fucking up the world–and move on?

That really is a rhetorical question, because I already know the answer to it. If Kelly turns out to be innocent, or even mostly or partly innocent, life will go on for everyone but the victims of this charade. The hustlers will go into hiding. The rumor mongers and purveyors of half truths and half-assed analyses will go quiet. Gayle King will keep collecting her outsize paychecks. Michael Avenatti will find someone else to exploit. SNL will keep being as unfucking funny as it’s been for the last decade or two. But we’ll have taken a few steps down the road to a place where reputation replaces morality, and justice doesn’t matter anymore.

“The penal law is a categorical imperative,” Kant famously wrote in the Metaphysics of Morals,

and woe to him who creeps through the serpent-windings of eudaemonism to discover some advantage that may discharge him from the justice of punishment, or even from the due measure of it…For if justice and righteousness perish, human life would no longer have any value in the world.

Kant being Kant, it all sounds so extreme and over the top. And I guess it is. But then so is the world we live in, just from the reverse direction. The penal law isn’t exactly a categorical imperative, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a circus performance, either. Maybe justice shouldn’t be done though the heavens may fall, but that doesn’t mean it should be trampled on for ad revenue and TV ratings. And while the R. Kelly case doesn’t prove that justice and righteousness have quite perished, the 47 minutes of Gayle King’s interview with him proves that it’s not exactly thriving, either. I never thought I’d feel sympathy for someone accused of R. Kelly’s crimes, but at this point, I do. As one of my students aptly put it, he may be accused, but he’s also undefeated. That’s another way of saying that he so far has a better record than his accusers. They might want to take that to heart, show some respect for our intelligence, and take it down a bit.

I give Kelly’s attorney (his current one, anyway) the last word:

Greenberg said, even if he does see a tape that appears to show Kelly having sex with an underage girl, he would continue to represent him.

“Everybody is entitled to a defense. Everybody is entitled to the presumption of innocence,” he said. “We should all just be taking a step back. Mr. Avenatti doesn’t decide how the case is decided. The prosecutor doesn’t decide how the case is decided. I don’t decide how the case is decided. All of this is ridiculously premature, and let’s see what happens, what the evidence is, and how things play out.”

* Another instance of King’s breathtaking arrogance, and her mind-blowing abandonment of any pretense at impartiality: “What I wanted to say — but I didn’t want to get snippy with her the way that she got snippy with me— was, “Listen, listen, little girl, you don’t even know what you’re saying right now,” she told TIME. “And one of these days you’re going to regret this moment. You’re going to regret this moment, you’re going to regret this time in your life.” But I saw no point in chastising her or, as the young children say, breaking bad with her the way she did with me. I also wanted to say, “Yes, but I am not dating R. Kelly, who is perceived to be a child predator. That’s the difference, and that’s why this is a valid question. Because you’re sitting here at the age of 21 with this guy who is older than your father.” But I decided there’s no point in doing that.

8 thoughts on “R. Kelly and Mob Justice

  1. I wish I had time to say more about how alarming I also found the “documentary” and this chopped up interview that wanted to pass for “journalism” It’s scary that Americans appear to have completely lost sense of the notion that people are “innocent until PROVEN guilty.” These are allegations, accusations, rumors; R. Kelly has not been found GUILTY in a court of law. In fact, in the previous criminal case referred to, the supposed victim and her family refused to testify. I don’t know about you folks, but if it were claimed that I were on a video tape having sex and being peed on, I might not be inclined to testify in court either. I also might not want to talk about it (particularly if I’m a minor or her parents!). Who would want to be caught up in such a fiasco?

    When members of the media take it upon themselves to act as prosecutor, as jury, as judge, is it any wonder that lesser educated or informed Americans are confused (few in the media are using the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” these days, have you noticed? The media is supposed to be REPORTING, not misleading people with an agenda of their own (I’m not clear what the agenda was here, but there clearly was one. I’m cynical enough to believe that it might simply be that such yellow journalism sells). That Americans are unclear about the role of the media vs. the role of courts scares the bejesus out of me. I said to Irfan today that the atmosphere in this country is scary, and it makes me think of what friends of mine who have lived under Communist dictatorships describe. Someone points a finger at you, and you disappear. No one’s disappearing obviously. But, is that what’s next if things continue in this vein? If a guy pisses me off, to get revenge, need I only point my finger at him and say, “He raped me”?! And next thing you know he’s lost his job, his home, all his money in legal fees, perhaps even his freedom, when I just made it all up (because I’m a woman, I ought to be believed?).

    What women like Gayle King don’t get is that she’ll be next. This trend is not going to stop with women accusing men. What’ll happen when women start accusing other women? Where will that go I wonder?

    P.S. The most bizarre thing about Gayle King’s attitude is that she’d probably be the first person to say that women should “always be believed” when they claim to have been assaulted or raped, and yet when two adult women tell her that they are not victims of a crime, SHE doesn’t believe them, and substitutes her opinion for their factual knowledge of their own lives. The notion that anyone should be believed simply because they make an allegation is ridiculous, but the it’s even more ridiculous to NOT believe a supposed victim who is insisting she’s not a victim.

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    • Agreed with just about all of that. When I was in college and grad school, pundits used to complain that the American public was “too relativistic,” and lacked a healthy desire for moral judgmentalism. Here’s the famous book that kicked off the trend:

      Here we are, thirty years later, in an atmosphere of judgmental hysteria. Not exactly the best track record at predicting future trends. But they weren’t right about the world in 1987, either. The truth is that people are judgmental and relativistic in totally ad hoc ways.

      I wish high school and college students were taught the bare basics of criminal procedure. If they were, they’d realize how easy it is to meet the standard of “probable cause”: any credible-sounding allegation satisfies the probable cause standard. An example: a police officer has probable cause that you have been driving under the influence of alcohol if he claims to smell alcohol on your breath and thinks your eyes are “glassy,” even if you pass a roadside breath test. Because who are you going to believe, a Breathalyzer or some cop’s roadside observations? Probable cause is grounds for arrest. Nowadays, people regard an arrest as practically equivalent to a conviction. It’s no surprise that in a world like this, the sheer fact of someone’s having made an accusation would be treated as a proof of guilt.

      This has been going on for some time, but one tipping point would have to have been the Kavanaugh hearings. Even if you found Blasey Ford’s testimony as credible (as I mostly did), the hearings themselves were so ineptly done, and the conclusions people reached about the testimony were so crazy, that I just sat there wondering: what next?

      R. Kelly aside, here’s the answer to that question:

      Colleges that didn’t detect admissions fraud are now telling students involuntarily implicated in the fraud that they were responsible for detecting it! In other words, a scam exposed by teams of prosecutors with subpoenas and warrants should actually have been exposed by a bunch of 17 year old high school students. Why? Because they signed forms attesting to the truth of their applications. You might as well just come out and say that the victim of a fraud is as guilty as the perpetrator, and as responsible as the perpetrator. It’s hard to know how to respond except to shake one’s head.


    • I think I disagree with a few details of your (Alison’s) response, but not at all with the general worry about the public tendency to believe accusations and with the media’s role in it. I think my disagreements add strength to those points, though, because we don’t have to agree with all of what you say here in order to share deep concerns about how accusations now seem to be treated.

      I disagree in one sense with the claim that “the notion that anyone should be believed simply because they make an accusation is ridiculous.” I take it as a general principle that a person should be believed unless there is some reason to doubt the truth of what he says; in other words, there is, or should be, a presumption of truth. The presumption is defeasible, though, and often easy to defeat; if you have reason to think that I am lying or ignorant of what I’m telling you, then that can be sufficient for you to suspend judgment, and may even make it unreasonable for you to take my word for it. It might seem that it would never be reasonable to believe accusations of misconduct simply because someone makes the accusation, because the accused will deny the allegation, and then we have two conflicting pieces of testimony and no grounds for believing one over the other. In fact, however, in many cases it seems unreasonable to doubt an accusation simply because the accused denies it. To take a real and personal example, you told a story about being mistreated by an airline representative in your piece ‘The Canadian Cunt’; I believed you, and would continue to believe you if the representative denied it, because I have no reason to think that you’re lying or mistaken, and it’s easy to see what the representative’s motive for lying would be. It would seem unreasonable, not only ethically but epistemically, to demand that you provide some sort of independent confirming evidence before I was willing to believe you, and likewise it would seem unreasonable to suspend my judgment simply because the representative contradicted you. So far as I can see, I believe you (rightly) simply because you made the accusation. In principle there could turn out to be some evidence that would make me doubt you, but there is none, and so it would be unreasonable for me to doubt you. In many cases, at least, accusations of rape or sexual assault seem to fit this model; there is no apparent motive for the accuser to lie, no reason to suspect honest error, and obvious motive for the accused to lie. I would not say that women should “always be believed,” but I accept something pretty close to it: women’s accusations of rape and assault should enjoy a presumption of honesty and truth that the accused’s denials should not.

      But of course, when we’re talking about celebrities and the media, motives for false accusations come into play pretty quickly, and it’s not so easy to assess the possibility that accusers are lying, particularly not when our access to them is filtered through sensationalistic media. It is easy for some of us to disregard the possible motives for lying, because we confuse the idea of suspending judgment with concluding that the accuser is lying. It is plainly an epistemic mistake and an act of disrespect to accuse a person of lying simply on the grounds that they could have intelligible motives for doing so, and it can be difficult for many people to preserve emotional clarity in the logically clear distinction between not believing someone and disbelieving her. But accusations of celebrities demand greater scrutiny, at least.

      I’m not so sure that our standards for belief really ought to be so strong as our standards for conviction in a court of law, though. Irfan and I have disagreed about this before, but it seems to me that the legal standard is rightly higher because conviction comes with coercive penalties, but that it is too much to ask of us as belief-forming agents to adhere to standards of reasonable doubt. I can’t write about it in much detail publicly, but in one case a person that I know personally was accused of criminal and legal but unprofessional conduct; there is no good legal case to be made against this person, in part because the accusers refused to co-operate with police and in part because the accusations were of the sort that are nearly impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt and there is clear possible motive for lying. I believe the accusations, however, and I think I am reasonable in so believing (surprise!). But I recognize that one can reasonably doubt it, and nothing that I know or have been told would make me comfortable voting for conviction if I were on a jury. I believe it because on repeatedly considering the evidence available to me, it seems to me very likely to be true. I recognize that I could very well be wrong, however, and for that reason I do not think I would be justified imposing any sort of penalties on the person accused.

      In a case like R. Kelly’s, I think we ought to be free to conclude that he’s guilty even if we not only recognize that he cannot reasonably be convicted in a court of law, but would not be willing to convict him ourselves. In fact I know too little about it to have any opinion whatsoever. But that’s beside the point, because it seems pretty clear that the media narrative, and the general public mode of reception of such narratives, has not led to people making careful, considered judgments; there’s mainly just a lot of prejudicial leaping to conclusions of guilt or innocence depending on who’s doing the judging and their antecedent sympathies and antipathies.

      So I think that we should presume that accusers are telling the truth, and I don’t think we, as members of the general public, are any under obligation to apply legal standards of reasonable doubt to our beliefs about such accusations. But even from my more moderate point of view, the way that accusations of public figures are now routinely treated is worrisome. I would not say that it is more worrisome than the fact that victims of rape and sexual assault often and perhaps even typically have no realistic legal recourse and face tremendous incentives against even trying to seek it, so that perpetrators in many cases face no serious possibility of negative consequences apart from the emerging tendency of people to believe accusations on principle. But it’s worrisome.


      • Being the enterprising businesswoman she is, I don’t think Alison has time to respond to your comment in the way that we lolly-gagging academics do. I also think that your comment is too philosophically technical for her to answer. But I actually happen to agree with her in this case. Like her, I think it’s wrong to believe an accusation simply because it’s made. In a sense, that was the point of the original post. Not only are the accusations against R. Kelly being believed simply because they’re being made, but even worse, his denials are being rejected and derided simply because they’re denials of accusations made. Where I live, the radio stations have taken to playing the more “embarrassing” snippets of his interview with Gayle King over and over in loops, with the sole intention of eliciting mass derision of him. There’d be something unsavory about this even if we knew he was guilty. But in a context where the general public lacks knowledge of his guilt or innocence one way or another, it’s simply disgusting. What it reveals is just a national lust for condemnation, and a desire to jump onto the #MeToo bandwagon, whatever the epistemic cost.

        I say this as someone who’s had more than ample experience with sexual assault, both as victim and as bystander. I can’t really elaborate on how I managed to be a bystander to a case of rape, but given my penchant for being where trouble strikes, suffice it to say that I managed. Some day, I will elaborate on being a victim; some of my friends already know this story. The accused was a semi-famous person, but died several years ago. But part of the problem for me in telling this story has been to figure out a way of earning readers’ belief on the basis of more than simply asserting that it happened. I also managed to be present at the scene of one of the most famous hoaxes involving a false allegation of rape–the Mindy Brickman case at Princeton, in 1991. (I was at the Take Back the Night march where she made her accusations, which I fully believed at the time.) Around the same time, I dated someone who cheated on me by falsely claiming–for years–to have been raped by the person she slept with. And I’ve repeatedly been accused of crimes and infractions I didn’t commit. So at some level, I’ve seen it all.

        Even if we don’t hold public celebrities literally to the standards that apply in a criminal trial (and I never said we should), we have to hold people accused of serious offenses to some determinate, articulable, defensible standards. The standards that apply in American criminal investigations and trials may be a little too strict or exclusionary of truth-conducive evidence for every investigatory purpose, but they have the merit of being determinate, articulable, methodical, and if not quite defensible, then argued-over in detail in the legal and philosophical literature for decades or centuries. As far as I can see, the principle you’re defending suffers from two problems: it’s unmotivated, and it’s too weak or indeterminate to function as an epistemically action-guiding standard.

        You say:

        I take it as a general principle that a person should be believed unless there is some reason to doubt the truth of what he says; in other words, there is, or should be, a presumption of truth.

        Why? I realize that the position you’re articulating is one standard position taken in the epistemology of testimony. But I don’t see, and have never seen, why anyone regards the principle as plausible. It’s often problematically offered as though, we were supposed to apply the principle to its own utterance: if it’s a general principle that a person should be believed unless there is some reason to doubt the truth of what he says, then, because it’s been uttered, we should believe the general principle that a person should be believed unless there is some reason to doubt the truth of what he says. But that begs the question. I’ve also seen the principle defended by reductio, but the reductio‘s don’t seem obvious to me, either.

        Why can’t there be a presumption of neutrality rather than a presumption of truth? Instead of presuming that testimony is true because it’s been uttered, why not think that testimony is, initially, to be received with doxastic neutrality, but earns (and gets) a presumption of truth when the hearer comes to have positive reason that the person offering the testimony is likely to be telling the truth?


        The presumption is defeasible, though, and often easy to defeat; if you have reason to think that I am lying or ignorant of what I’m telling you, then that can be sufficient for you to suspend judgment, and may even make it unreasonable for you to take my word for it.

        As you yourself note, in the context of accusations, this presumption seems so easy to defeat that it effectively fails to function as a presumption at all.

        But let me return to that point, because I happen to disagree with the way you gloss the defeater itself. Suppose that Smith is talking to Jones. If Smith accuses R. Kelly to Jones of pedophilia, Jones doesn’t need token-specific evidence that Smith in particular is lying or ignorant in making the accusation. Jones merely needs the background knowledge that people often lie and/or are ignorant about accusations of wrongdoing (among other things that they lie and/or are ignorant about). Since Smith is a person, this background knowledge automatically applies to her independently of the need to discover token-specific evidence of its application in her case. You don’t need reason to believe that a specific accuser is lying or ignorant in order to suspend belief on a given accusation she makes. All you need is reason to believe that any accuser could very well be lying or ignorant to think it possible that she may be doing so here. And in the context of accusations, that is a reason you almost always have.

        Given this way of understanding the defeater, I would think that the relevant principle is: if X makes an accusation of Y, suspend judgment about X’s accusation until you have good token-specific reason to believe that X is reliably truth-conducive in her utterances. Someone’s making an accusation may give you a reason to investigate the accusation, but I don’t see how it gives you a reason to believe it, even defeasibly. What you believe as you investigate an accusation is not that the accusation is true, or even that it’s defeasibly true; what you believe is the disjunction that the accusation may or may not be true, conjoined with the importance, to you, of deciding between the disjuncts. “I must decide between p or not p,” amounts to suspension of a belief in either disjunct. It rules out believing either disjunct, or even defeasibly believing either.


        It might seem that it would never be reasonable to believe accusations of misconduct simply because someone makes the accusation, because the accused will deny the allegation, and then we have two conflicting pieces of testimony and no grounds for believing one over the other. In fact, however, in many cases it seems unreasonable to doubt an accusation simply because the accused denies it.

        The denials of the accused are a secondary consideration. I would say that it’s unreasonable to believe an accusation simply because someone makes the accusation because, irrelevant exceptions aside, the sheer assertion of a claim is not by itself evidence of the truth of the claim. If S asserts that p, S bears the burden of showing that p by adducing evidence logically independent of p’s being the case. Simply asserting that p and doing no more than that, is a paradigm of failing to meet the burden of proof.

        Given this, the accused person’s denials of an accusation are almost beside the point. The accused could be dead, mute, inaccessible, or indisposed, and you’d still face the same initial problem: S’s accusing someone of something is not evidence that the accusation is true, whether the accused denies it or not. Special cases aside, the silence of the accused doesn’t add warrant to an accusation.

        Now, the denials of the accused are, of course, a problem–a further problem on top of the preceding one. As you say, here we have two conflicting pieces of testimony, one of which invites belief in the accusation, and one of which invites belief in its denial. Assume ex hypothesi that the two claims are logically incompatible with each other. Then your principle entails as a general matter that we ought to believe logically incompatible things. This strikes me as a problem–and a problem added to the problem of not having reason to believe either of the two logically incompatible things.

        I don’t really understand your response to either part of this problem (believing incompatible claims, not having reason to believe either claim). If, as a matter of general principle, assertions are to believed simply because they’ve been asserted, then both accusations and denials are equally to be believed simply because both have been asserted (when they have). If so, then ceteris paribus, your principle implies that we’re defeasibly obliged to believe both an accusation and its denial at the outset of an inquiry into the accusation. How is this any different, in practice, from being neutral about both? If you believe both an accusation and its denial, the two seem to cancel each other out, leaving you with no belief in either. Practically speaking, you’re in no different a situation from the person who started out from a posture of neutrality about both claims, except that unlike the neutral person, you had to believe a pair of contrary propositions to get there.

        The principle also implies that if the accused person is for whatever reason incapable of responding, we should default to believing accusations against him simply because accusations have been made against him, and no denial from him is forthcoming. Doesn’t that unfairly advantage accusers? Since defense attorneys standardly advise their clients not to talk, this would imply in practice that anyone could make accusations in the knowledge that the accused person would be advised to remain silent. The accusations would, if credible, then be believed simply because no denials would be forthcoming. But no denials would be forthcoming because credible accusations had been made. This just seems like a recipe for a never-ending series of recriminations.

        I don’t think your adducing Alison’s “Canadian Cunt” story helps your case. If you really believed her story simply because it was asserted, I think you made a mistake. There is no reason you should believe what someone named Alison Bowles says on some website simply because she said it. For that matter, there’s no reason for you to believe that someone who calls herself “Alison Bowles” is Alison Bowles simply because she said it on some website.

        In fact, I think it’s a writerly mistake for a writer with no previous track record of public writings to start her career as a blogger or essayist with a piece of writing that depends so heavily on a personal anecdote. (I don’t remember whether or not the “Canadian Cunt” piece was literally the first of Alison’s blog posts, but it was an early one.) By doing so, she’s putting readers in the difficult or impossible situation of being asked to believe something they can’t legitimately be expected to believe–uncorroborated testimony about an ethically charged event. A writer needs to build a track record of factual reliability before demanding trust in her testimony. Too much narrative journalism demands belief without earning a right to it. Often, the best a reader can do when reading such stuff is to treat a given anecdote as a kind of extended, detailed thought experiment, not as a literally factual report that is to be believed because it’s true on a correspondence theory of truth.

        On the other hand, you may have believed her because, given your prior dealings with her, and/or given your belief in my choice of truth-tracking spouses, you were justifiably committed to believing in her trustworthiness as a witness prior to and independently of reading the “Canadian Cunt” post. In that case, you’d be (defeasibly) justified in believing the bona fides of her story. At the risk of creating marital discord in Chez Khawaja-Bowles–a risk I run afoul of every day–I’d say that that’s a highly debatable and somewhat risky epistemic commitment, but even if it’s 100% justifiable, it isn’t an instance of the principle you’re defending. In this case, you’d be believing what Alison said in the post because you knew something, in advance of reading it, that suggested that she’s a reliable narrator of claims of this kind. To be completely blunt, I’m married to her, and I’d be careful about making a blanket assumption of that kind, so I’m not sure why anyone else would so quickly throw caution to the winds. (She herself admits to a tendency, which I have independently verified, to “rant” and exaggerate.)

        Back to you:

        In many cases, at least, accusations of rape or sexual assault seem to fit this model; there is no apparent motive for the accuser to lie, no reason to suspect honest error, and obvious motive for the accused to lie. I would not say that women should “always be believed,” but I accept something pretty close to it: women’s accusations of rape and assault should enjoy a presumption of honesty and truth that the accused’s denials should not.

        I don’t see any reason to believe any of that. An accuser doesn’t have to lie to be wrong, even gravely wrong: memory is extremely fallible, as is eyewitness testimony. I highly recommend reading Kathryn Schulz’s book, Being Wrong, which describes some amazing cases of error in unexpected situations, including rape. The work of Elizabeth Loftus is also crucial. (I think Loftus goes a little too far, but I still think her work is valuable.) The New Jersey Supreme Court has, after protracted litigation, come to accept what cognitive scientists have known for decades: eyewitness testimony cannot be accepted at face value. This is just the tip of the iceberg, but the point is, honest error is ubiquitous.

        Nor does a motivation to lie have to be “apparent” to be real. People have all kinds of motivations to lie, some apparent, some totally idiosyncratic, inscrutable, and unpredictable. If you’re not a habitual liar yourself, you’d have no introspective grasp of why someone else might lie. You might think of the “obvious” motivations for lying–“what would I lie about if I were to lie?”–but miss all of the bizarrely non-obvious ones.

        Since women are people, all of this applies to them, too. That women’s accusations of rape should enjoy a presumption of honesty that the accused’s denials should not strikes me as completely ad hoc, and in practice, a recipe for character assassination. It also creates serious problems when women accuse one another of sexual assault, or when men accuse women of the same. In the first case, we’re obliged to believe both accuser and accused as women, giving greater credence to the accuser as a female accuser (ignoring the supposedly credibility-enhancing fact of being a woman as far as the accused is concerned); in the second, it seems that we have to discount the claims of the accuser simply because he’s a man (ignoring the supposedly credibility-enhancing fact of being an accuser-of-rape, and fixating on the credibility-enhancing fact of being a woman). Applying the presumption seems ad hoc in these cases, but so does throwing it out in these cases. The more obvious solution would be to refuse to adopt the presumption for any case.

        It’s true that many accusations, though true, are hard to bear out in practice, given the passage of time, or the difficulty of corroborating eyewitness testimony, etc. (This isn’t just true of rape, of course.) But it’s equally true that accusers of all kinds lie about all kinds of things, often without discernible reason. If we add alcohol or other intoxicants to this mix, as we’re obliged to, we complicate the picture yet further.

        I don’t see why a woman who, say, makes an accusation of being raped twenty or thirty years ago while she and her accuser were intoxicated should be believed simply because she makes the accusation, full stop. I don’t even see why I should defeasibly believe it. Given background knowledge about how the world works, I would take seriously the possibility that the accusation is true. But I’d also take seriously the possibility that the accusation was false. The credibility and detail of the accuser’s story might upgrade the initial possibility somewhat. If the accused consented to testify in his own defense, and knew that having consented, silence would then be construed as evasion, and was evasive, and told a story full of holes, that would certainly change things. But even then, unless I was a professional investigator with access to the entire dossier of evidence, I wouldn’t invest much in any particular claim about guilt or innocence, and would resist anyone’s demand that I do so. (This is why I believe Christine Blasey Ford more than I believe Brett Kavanaugh, but would not invest very much in her accusation against him.)

        To repeat: my point is not that every inquiry into wrongdoing should literally follow legal standards. My point is two-fold: if we’re going to engage in such extra-legal inquiries at all, we need some standards, and if we don’t follow legal standards, we should come up with proxies that at least approximate the rigor of legal standards. I don’t dispute that these standards would be more inclusive of evidence than legal standards (e.g., wouldn’t involve commitment to the equivalent of an exclusionary rule, for instance). But simply believing people because they make accusations, even believing them as a merely defeasible presumption, doesn’t come close to fitting this bill.

        That said, I would also question the need to “adjudicate” criminal charges in public independently of a criminal investigation and trial at all. You’d think that the results of Mueller investigation would make this obvious: when it comes to criminal charges, almost all of the relevant evidence is in State custody. Some of it is inaccessible even to the defense; most of it is inaccessible to the public. The snippets of evidence that make it into the public sphere in advance of a trial are necessarily partial in both senses of that word: incomplete and biased. They’re not a legitimate basis for adjudicating the charge.

        To insist on “convicting” people in the court of public opinion is to insist on using fragmentary and selective evidence to do so when the “jurors” know–or ought to know–that they lack access to the whole picture. It’s one thing to do that when there is literally no alternative to doing so, and there is some moral imperative that demands that we come to a verdict on something–as is sometimes the case. We can’t, at this point, put Hitler or Stalin on trial, but we need a moral verdict on what they did. So we rely on historiography to make our moral judgments of them. I’m not denying that that can or should be done, but frankly, even that is an epistemically fraught matter, more fraught and complex than is generally acknowledged.

        But if the person is already under criminal investigation, as in the case of R. Kelly, the formal criminal investigation is the alternative to a public, extra-legal inquest. Why would anyone think that he has to have a fully worked-out opinion on whether or not R. Kelly is guilty of the charges made of him, prior to and independently of a formal verdict on those charges? To set oneself up as judge, jury, and executioner on the basis of incomplete evidence when you know that teams of paid, full time professionals are making highly rigorous investigations into the charges on the basis of much better evidence is epistemic hubris gone wild. But that seems to be the modus operandi in our culture. Better a verdict based on fragmentary and partisan evidence, it seems, than none at all. Apparently, half a crusty and moldy loaf of bread is better than skipping a meal.

        Finally, as to the case you describe, it’s too sketchily described to permit much comment. If the accusers refused to cooperate with the police, had a motive for lying, and the charges were impossible to prove, the best that can be said is that the accused brought real suspicion on himself, in just the way Donald Trump has done in the Mueller investigation. It might be wondered, justifiably, whether guilt or liability could be proved under a somewhat weaker standard, like preponderance of evidence, or some as-yet unarticulated standard half-way between preponderance of evidence and beyond reasonable doubt. Maybe it could. But unless you in particular have access to evidence that never saw the light of day, there’s not much more to be said about cases like this. They’re inconclusive. Suspicion lingers, perhaps justifiably, but it doesn’t follow that guilt is the proper inference. Justifiable suspicion of guilt doesn’t justify full fledged belief in full fledged guilt.


        • I don’t have the energy or time to do that justice, but I don’t want to ignore it entirely either. So I’ll just say, lamely, that much of what you say doesn’t strike me as in conflict with what I say, because in large part you’re just offering reasons to doubt testimony, but that none of it strikes me as defeating the basic principle I set out. Were I not being lame, I’d try to defend the principle largely by reductio and by pragmatic argument; I’d try to convince you that to the extent that you are not a psychologically unhealthy individual, you in fact accept testimony on this principle all the time, and that if you really demanded the kind of evidence that you say we should demand, you’d strike most everybody as unreasonable, you wouldn’t be able to learn much of anything, and you’d be living rather differently than you actually do. Ultimately I don’t think this is the sort of disagreement that we could get very far with in blog comments even if I weren’t being lame, because it will turn on philosophical niceties like what it is to accept testimony or believe something, what exactly it is to be neutral, the difference between requiring or seeking evidence and believing in the absence of defeaters, and so on. But those details aren’t really the point. The point is that, whether or not I’m right, my endorsement of these views is entirely consistent with being deeply concerned about how our public culture is coming to treat accusations, particularly but not only accusations of well known figures. You and Alison can take my perspective as a sort of a fortiori argument: even someone who is as overly generous to testimony as Riesbeck can agree with us. Otherwise put, the point is that these sorts of niceties about testimony aren’t the point. (And this is a point worth making in part because, in some circles at least, purportedly sophisticated epistemological theses are supposed to lead us to adopt extremely generous attitudes of credence or deference to accusers, and despite my sympathy for some of the fancy epistemology, I don’t think the extreme generosity of our emerging media culture is at all warranted).


          • I think I basically get what you’re saying, David. I guess the bottom line for me is that I don’t think we have to decide whether people are being truthful or not since these are cases that are in a sense “out of our jurisdiction.” It’s not up to me to decide whether or not R. Kelly is guilty. I don’t have enough information to do that, and if we were to take it upon ourselves to take stands on the myriad accusations we hear these days, what time would be left for cool things like watching the last season of “Game of Thrones”?
            I don’t disbelieve accusers, but I don’t automatically believe them either. And I don’t think I have to weigh in on it unless, I don’t know, perhaps I’m looking at voting for a person? Or employing them? Or the person is a friend? And then I might look at what evidence there is (or isn’t). But otherwise, people’s need to jump on the judgment bandwagon seems to me to be dangerous, and I don’t see the harm in simply saying, “I can’t really know what happened in that situation” when what I think about the matter doesn’t carry much weight. That’s my rather simplistic way of looking at it.
            I’m certainly not going to fire anyone working for me simply because that person has been accused of something. Now, if the police take the person into custody and arrest them, I’m going to have a talk with that person, and then perhaps I have to take a closer look at whatever evidence is available. If that person is my friend, and I know that person’s character, I might put up bail. If I know that person to have questionable morals, I might do the opposite. That would be a case that is close to me, and where I have much more reliable information than the media provides me.
            But a situation that is rather distant from me — and most of these situations I’d know nothing about if it weren’t for the media sticking them in my face when I watch the “news” — doesn’t seem worth even attempting to “know” the truth about (sorry, this is my awkward, non-philosophical way of putting it when I’m short on time). I’m simply not going to rush to assume someone is guilty of anything because a finger is pointed at them. That’s what worries me more than anything.
            Too many innocent people can get caught up in this sort of hysteria (and I’ve had clients and/or clients’ friends and families already affected by this sort of thing). I’ve known of suicide attempts as a result of (alleged) false accusations. It just feels too dangerous to me. Now, that’s based on my own personal experience as a psychotherapist, and that’s not experience I expect anyone else to have knowledge of. I can only tell you what I see in my corner of the world.


            • “But otherwise, people’s need to jump on the judgment bandwagon seems to me to be dangerous, and I don’t see the harm in simply saying, “I can’t really know what happened in that situation” when what I think about the matter doesn’t carry much weight.”


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