The Problem With ‘Take Women Seriously’

Individuals should be regarded as individuals, not according to their membership in some abstract category.

Dear Reader (Including my compatriots who are also struggling to find open cigar shops),

Because I had to, I watched Joe Biden’s appearance on today’s Morning Joe—and because I am still trying to figure out what I want to write about, I’ll start there. But I won’t tarry.

I thought Mika Brzezinski did a good job. I also wish she would change the spelling of her last name because I spent three minutes trying to spell it from memory. The spell checker at one point cried and just shouted, “Are you trying to spell the name of Billy Crystal’s character from Monsters, Inc.?”

I thought Biden did an okay job forcefully denying the charge, but if this Business Insider story is true then his campaign is a clown show. You don’t direct the entire press corps and every opposition researcher in the country to go check out the National Archives for the relevant evidence unless you’ve actually confirmed that’s where it would be. 

Similarly, if what Biden says is true—that it’s impossible for any relevant personnel records to be in his senatorial papers at the University of Delaware—he (or the Obama veep-vetting team) should have already sent a crew to confirm that long ago. The first thing serious presidential campaigns do is opposition research on themselves. When Brzezinski (I cut and pasted the spelling from above), asked why Biden couldn’t authorize someone to search for relevant information, he acted as if that was the first time he ever heard someone suggest this. If that’s true, he’s surrounded by political incompetents—they should have considered that option long ago. If it’s not true, he’s a better actor than I thought. But this would also mean that he’s got some reason for not wanting to authorize even a surgical search. 

Oh, and since we’re on the subject of political malpractice, having Chris Dodd lead his V.P. search is a bizarre choice. I get that Ted Kennedy—the other bread-slice of that famous waitress sandwich—is unavailable, but surely there’s an old Irish Democratic Brahmin available who didn’t attack women

Mika asked in several different ways why Biden’s “believe all women” standard for Christine Blasey Ford isn’t the same now that he’s in the crosshairs. If it were me, I’d be sorely tempted to blurt out, “Because I know I’m innocent!” It’s not a great legal or moral answer, but I think it might play well. 

His actual answer was to claim that he never meant “believe all women” when he talked about believing all women. We should just take the accusation seriously. That is an entirely defensible position on the merits, but it’s not believable in context. 

Motte-and-bailey politics.

And maybe that’s a good point of departure. In formal debate there’s a term for a certain kind of fallacy called the motte-and-bailey argument. A motte-and-bailey castle is a traditional medieval fortification in which there’s a keep (the motte) surrounded by a field or courtyard enclosed by a smaller outer wall (the bailey). Under normal times, people work, stroll around, gossip about how well-endowed Hodor is, whatever. When invaders come, the peasants grab what they can and run inside the keep, because it’s far easier to defend. 

So in debate, a motte-and-bailey argument is when you make some strong, sweeping statement, and then, when challenged, you withdraw to a much safer and more modest position. For example: If I declare in an argument about, say, The Dispatch’s own Andrew Egger, “Well, that makes sense, all redheads are sketchy,” and Steve Hayes says, “Come on, all redheads? Ron Howard and Gillian Turner at Fox seem pretty normal,” I then retreat to the more defensible position—“Well, I was just saying that redheads like Egger are devious.”

During the Kavanaugh brouhaha, scores of Democrats and media types said, “believe all women.” Now that they’re on defense, they’re running like frightened peasants into the motte to claim that they merely meant “all women should be taken seriously,” which again is a much more defensible position. 

It is, to put it mildly, very annoying. 

Women are people, too.

But since no one else seems willing to say it, the more defensible position isn’t entirely true either. 

Let’s start from the top. There was no single “Enlightenment”—the Germans, the French, the Scots, and the Americans, to name a few, all had their own Enlightenments. And there were significant differences between them. The Russian Enlightenment was a whole other thing. But for shorthand purposes, our Enlightenment holds as one of its core ideas that the individual should be taken as an independent entity (even if Enlightenment-based societies have often failed to live up to this standard). 

One of the greatest things about America is the cultural norm that you should take people as you find them. The worth of one black person, or even one redhead, should not depend on some abstract notion of “black people” or “redheads.” O.J. Simpson’s behavior has no bearing on how you should treat, say, Condoleeza Rice or Michael Jordan. 

Judging an individual person’s character based on their membership in some abstract category is a form of bigotry or prejudice. 

Okay, so let’s fast forward. You may have seen the bumper sticker that says, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” Whatever you may think of the people—or their many, many, cats—who think this is a mic-drop bon mot, or whether you think that some forms of feminism have not done a great job of following through on this premise, the basic point is one I agree with. Women are, in fact, people. 

And people can lie—you can look it up. The whole moral of the Boy Who Cried Wolf is that credibility is an expendable thing. And women are just as capable of spending down their credibility as men are.  

As a general rule, I support the idea of taking all women claiming sexual assault seriously. But we need to take the word “seriously” seriously. If what the “believe all women” crowd really meant was “just take them seriously,” I wouldn’t have been cursed at so much when I questioned the UVA rape hoax early on. Twitter would not have been a bonfire of virtue-signaling asininity during the Kavanaugh hearing. 

It is no doubt a terrible thing to endure sexual assault, and making things harder on victims should be avoided whenever possible. But in a country where due process is valued, it is simply impossible to create a system where accusers aren’t rigorously questioned and their allegations investigated. That’s what taking accusations seriously requires. 

This is as true of rape as it is of bank robbery or murder. If being interrogated—with words, not abuse—makes accusers feel bad, or harms their self-esteem, that’s a price that has to be paid.  

We once lived in a country where we treated (some) white women as delicate flowers. Their word was sufficient to get black men accused of rape hanged. Before that, witch hunts—the real kind—were often little more than mobs acting on rumors or slander. There’s an irony there, given how large witch hunts loom in some corners of feminist mythology. (In The Revolution Within, Gloria Steinem celebrated “pre-Christian” and “matriarchal” paganism and decried the “killing of nine million women healers and other pagan or nonconforming women during the centuries of change-over to Christianity.”). 

I know I am a broken record about this stuff, but the constitutional liberal democratic system we enjoy is a novel thing in human history. It is natural for us to see people categorically; it takes work—institutional, cultural, psychological, and legal work—to keep people from acting on herd instinct. 

And whatever ideological constructs we create that re-enshrine herd thinking, and the mobbish behavior that comes with it, will be reactionary at their core. When a feminist activist says that due process is an evil tool of the patriarchy, she (or he) is gussying-up the witch hunt mentality in academic or social justice jargon.  

This is the core danger of victimology: We celebrate victims in our culture, and what you celebrate is what you get more of.  Jussie Smollett wasn’t being irrational when he faked a hate crime against him. He wanted to be a racial martyr. The accuser in the UVA rape case was responding to cultural incentives—and if Rolling Stone had its way, she would have succeeded. And this stuff often works. Al Sharpton is an elder statesman of the Democratic Party, and he owes it all to Tawana Brawley’s lie. 

To be fair, this is not a problem unique to the left. There are countless examples of right-wingers glorifying victims of the left or the media. I see them on TV all the time, particularly if someone didn’t like their MAGA hat. A big chunk of the mess among the political leadership of the Christian right results from their perceived status as victims of elite culture. Similarly, “the media” is now the defining enemy-oppressor for many on the right, justifying all sorts of weirdness. I’m not saying the complaints are without merit. I’ve been writing for decades about anti-Christian bigotry and media bias. But you know what? Sexism and racism are real things too. The facts still need to matter. 

It would be nice if we could reduce people to shorthand categories and judge their factual claims on some formulaic scorecard that has no bearing on specific facts. Criminal trials would go so much faster! Juries could play Words with Friends on their phones, take one look at the race or gender or religion of the accused, and render a verdict. Journalists, likewise, could skip the whole fact-finding part of the job, and just cut and paste one headline for the next. 

But that’s not how a decent civilization operates. By all means, take all women seriously—and men, too—but go only where the facts lead you. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: The doggers are with us here in Florida. But it’s strange: When we took Zoe and Pippa to the beach in Georgia last November, Zoë loved it. She was constantly digging snout holes and searching for critters in need of dingo vengeance. But there’s something about the beach here that is less appealing to her. Oh, she still likes it, but she isn’t acting like a kid let loose in a toy store. We can’t quite figure it out. It seems like the smells are less intoxicating here for some reason. Pippa, meanwhile, couldn’t care less. Sand is fun to run on. Tennis balls are just as delicious in states without income taxes. Unfortunately, Pippa overdoes it here though, and she’s made a mess of her brace. It came off in the ocean the other day. So we have to keep things pretty restrained, or the pathetic after-action limpiness returns. Still, I keep looking for grassy park areas to take them to as a change of pace. The problem is that everywhere I go I see swampy ponds, streams, pools, etc. And I am utterly terrified that Pippa will go in and never come out because some alligator will grab her. I worry about Zoë, too, of course, but she’s got swamp dog instincts. She always gives snakes a wide berth. Meanwhile, Pippa has zero swamp street-smarts and is just the right size for a gator snack, and her splashy-splash-splashness strikes me as the reptile equivalent of a dinner bell. Because I’m so busy down here, not to mention the pandemic and economic stuff, I’m having stress dreams and they’re all taking the form of Pippa being pulled under. At home, I am much more tolerant of her “But Dad! It’s water and I love water!” stuff, because the sunk costs amount to hosing her down and dealing with the eau de wet spaniel afterward. But this is different, so I am being wildly careful. I’m open to the idea that I’m overreacting, except that every time I confide my fear with a local—including Charlie Cooke on the latest podcast—they tell me, “Oh yeah, you should worry. They’re everywhere.” 

ICYMI

Last week’s G-File

Last Sunday’s Ruminant

The week’s first Remnant—our 200th!—with fan-favorite Rep. Mike Gallagher

My kerfuffle-causing Wednesday Epistle, for Dispatch members

Hit China where it hurts: the movie business

The week’s second Remnant, with the mellifluous Charles C.W. Cooke

And now, the weird stuff

Marbles, the world’s most versatile instrument

The Iron Maiden/Chic mashup you didn’t know you needed

A compilation of all of Norm MacDonald’s Hillary Clinton jokes from SNL

What a music video sounds like before they edit it

The most legendary version of Toto’s “Africa”