UPDATED! When Leeann Tweeden launched her publicity campaign against Al Franken, appearing on a number of TV shows which have viewership in the millions, I began looking into her background. This culminated in my writing “Of Senators and Playmates.” Why is this not an example of “slut-shaming” or “blaming the victim?” Why shouldn’t we simply accept Tweeden’s claims at face value?
Feminists advance many arguments, many of which I agree with. One argument is that by subjecting Leeann Tweeden to scrutiny, we’re creating an environment in which “victims” will be afraid to come forward. This argument needs to be carefully examined. It’s a good argument in theory, and there are many situations to which it’s properly applied. This isn’t one of them. Here’s why:
Unless we want to surrender to a mob mentality, the only way we can properly adjudicate claims of improper sexual behaviour is through some form of due process. From the point of view of due process and fairness, the hardest claims to evaluate are those which are made years after the alleged event, and which emerge in connection with some type of publicity campaign, partisan attack, or therapy fad.
The #MeToo movement is a very mixed bag. At its best it embodies the courage of women who have been long silent to tell their stories — stories which need telling. But at its worst, it’s a reenactment of the whole Courage To Heal debacle, which resulted in many false accusations and destroyed many innocent people’s lives. Paraphrasing George Santayana, those who fail to study this debacle are doomed to repeat it. It seems to be a generational thing: People who don’t know what happened in the 90s are blindly and blithely repeating it circa 2017.
The issues are subtle and complex, but to get at the crux of them I commend to the reader these two pieces appearing on Salon.com:
– The lie that tore my family apart
– Interview with Meredith Maran
The nature of movements like Courage To Heal is that they tend to create a me-too mentality. It’s politically taboo to say this, but it must be said for the sake of honesty: During a period of moral panic, some women wholeheartedly embrace victim feminism, but their claims of abuse are either woven out of whole cloth, or exaggerated to the point that they barely resemble real world events.
Some feminists are smart enough and honest enough to recognize that false or inflated claims are counterproductive to the larger goal of ending sexual abuse, and lead to a backlash in which women’s complaints in this area are less believed. (If you don’t believe in backlash, just consider who we have as president.)
Other feminists stubbornly cling to the belief that “women never lie” about a thing like that, and that there are “no rewards” for “coming forward.” In truth there are many rewards, including attention, sympathy, and being part of the latest social/political fad. Again, it’s politically taboo to say this, but presenting oneself as a victim is a status symbol in some feminist circles, and becomes a part of social identity formation. That’s one of the points being made by Meredith Maran.
This was a major issue in the UVA rape hoax, where a woman named Jackie drifted into a survivors group, and appeared to adopt a borrowed scenario from a book she had been given about campus rape. This interview conducted by Ronan Farrow with Liz Seccuro, a genuine survivor of a UVA campus rape 34 years ago, gets at the underlying issues:
Liz Seccuro: Anonymous people, blog commenters, my friends, and my family all called me, or commented, or wrote to me and said, “This is your story.” I can’t comprehend how someone would co-opt someone else’s pain and story for this.
Ronan Farrow: Do you think there’s a chance that that’s what happened, that Jackie co-opted your story?
Liz Seccuro: I think, as I said it’s been suggested to me so many times that I have to allow it to be a possibility.
Ronan Farrow: I understand the crisis management center [at UVA] gave out your book to survivors.
Liz Seccuro: Yes.
Ronan Farrow: Do you think that Jackie perhaps believed that your story was hers?
Liz Seccuro: I think that somebody who has now told this story so many times, and stuck by her story even after being discredited, I believe that that person would have some mental issues, and would believe that.
Ronan Farrow: If this is true, if by some happenstance Jackie co-opted your story (to use your words), what’s your message to her?
Liz Seccuro: Well I think right now, my message to her is to get some help and to understand — and I’m not ruling out that nothing happened to her. I think something traumatic has happened to her in her life, and I think she needs to get some help to address that. It’s very easy to become enamoured with the survivor community and dive into that. But unless you’re willing to talk to the police and to file a complaint, you can’t level these sort of allegations. It was hard for me, and we had evidence. You can’t make these sort of allegations that live on forever, because look at the mess we’re in now.
— MSNBC interview with Liz Seccuro
My intention is not to “weaponize” false reports, but simply to point out that during a moral panic, it’s hard to evaluate reports at face value because those making false reports can seem sincere and well-intentioned. During a panic, we’re told to believe the women (or children, or whomever) unquestioningly. But later, after the panic has died down, we realize the truth in what Cathy Young wrote on Slate.com: “A de facto presumption of guilt in alleged sexual offenses is as dangerous as a presumption of guilt in any crime, and for the same reasons: It upends the foundations on which our system of justice rests and creates a risk of ruining innocent lives.” Mere numbers of reports are not dispositive. Bari Weiss writes:
I think that “believing all women” can rapidly be transmogrified into an ideological orthodoxy that will not serve women at all.
If the past few weeks have shown us the unique horrors some women have faced, the answer to it can’t be a stringent new solidarity that further limits the definition of womanhood and lumps our highly diverse experiences together simply based on our gender. I don’t think that helps women. Or men.
I believe that the “believe all women” vision of feminism unintentionally fetishizes women. Women are no longer human and flawed. They are Truth personified. They are above reproach.
I believe that it’s condescending to think that women and their claims can’t stand up to interrogation and can’t handle skepticism. I believe that facts serve feminists far better than faith. That due process is better than mob rule.
– Bari Weiss, The Limits of ‘Believe All Women,’ The New York Times
There’s an important distinction between anti-feminists who want to downplay the very real problem of sexual abuse, and feminists (some, victims themselves) who want to minimize false claims and maintain a reasonable perspective (thereby avoiding backlash). Charlotte Vale Allen, a genuine abuse survivor and the author of Daddy’s Girl writes:
A woman I’ve known for over thirty years who’s always been searching for her ‘gift,’ for the career move that will finally bring her happiness has now got memories that fill her with purpose. After falling out of touch for a decade, she telephoned to say, in essence, ‘Guess what? Me too!’ But in the very new tones of tremendous self-importance. This woman who’d never been able to find something to do in life that would bring her any satisfaction was now positively brimming with it. With the help of her therapist, she’d at last found her calling–as a victim! She had ludicrous, unbelievable tales to tell of satanic abuse–in the heart of one of Toronto’s oldest, wealthiest areas. Right! … What is going on? It’s as if some sort of collective lunacy has taken hold of people–the patients and therapists, both lockstepped in a march toward finding a past history of abuse at all costs. Victimhood as a desirable status is anathema to me[.]”
Having been aware of this quote for over a decade, when I hear there’s a new social media movement with hashtag #MeToo, I think “Uh-oh. Here we go again.”
During such a period, we need to be especially careful to separate reasonable claims timely made and backed up by evidence, from claims made in connection with publicity campaigns, partisan attacks, or faddism — whether social, political, therapeutic, even journalistic.
During a moral panic, the mere accusation or act of finger-pointing is enough to destroy someone’s life, or at least their career. Alarmists say the problem of abuse is so serious that we need to forget about due process and fairness, and simply burn at the stake (or flame in the media) anyone who’s even accused, no matter how partisan the attack or how flimsy the evidence. Historically, such people are called “reactionaries.” Their opinion flies in the face of American ideals of justice.
During a moral panic, the notion is floated that if we don’t immediately flay anyone who has been accused, some evildoers might escape punishment. This is true, but it has always been true. In a just society, we only punish those who are proven guilty. We can do no more and still be a just society. Otherwise, we would become like our Dear Leader, who advocates that police slam the heads of suspects into squad cars.
Teen Vogue columnist Emily Lindin tweeted, “I’m actually not at all concerned about innocent men losing their jobs over false sexual assault/harassment allegations … If some innocent men’s reputations have to take a hit in the process of undoing the patriarchy, that is a price I am absolutely willing to pay.” This is tribalism at its worst and not a view informed by conscience.
Spiritual insight suggests that those whom we cannot punish (because there is no proof) are still subject to the Law of Karma. If they have done wrong, they will eventually pay the price. In our human justice, then, we should not be excessively bloodthirsty or vengeful, nor adopt polices which would punish the innocent along with the guilty, or make it impossible for men and women to coexist peacefully and lovingly.
During a moral panic, numbers replace substance. This is something I understood from a piece by barrister Barbara Hewson on Spiked-Online.com:
Unlike a train crash or a disaster like Thalidomide (where the damage is obvious), an acute problem with historic abuse claims is the absence of direct evidence, apart from the claimant’s unsupported word. An uncritical approach to claimants, then, is going to make it easier for those who are either mistaken or malicious to make false allegations.
A further problem is the general acceptance of the notion of ‘corroboration by volume,’ where claims of sexual abuse are involved. This means that the greater the volume of claims, the more they are seen as mutually supporting. So weak claims reinforce strong ones, and vice versa. Indeed, a mass of weak claims is also taken as compelling. So there is little incentive to weed out weak claims.
Back in 1924, the then Lord Chief Justice warned of the danger of this approach:
‘The risk, the danger, the logical fallacy is indeed quite manifest to those who are in the habit of thinking about such matters. It is so easy to derive from a series of unsatisfactory accusations, if there are enough of them, an accusation which at least appears satisfactory. It is so easy to collect from a mass of ingredients, not one of which is sufficient, a totality which will appear to contain what is missing.’
If this is a problem in the courts, it is ten times worse in the media, where we are now treating #MeToo tweets as evidence of crimes, rather than evidence of social affinity. But in the midst of a moral panic it may do no good to say “Hey people, check yourselves out.” The popular mania is too strong, so people of sense and sensibility tend to withdraw from public life.
After the panic has died down, the crowd may return to business as usual, because they regret the excessive blaming and public shaming which occurred in the panic phase. That’s why some feminists are trying to tone down the sort of rhetoric which would brand a single stolen kiss among friends as an incident of sexual assault, or would demand that we uncritically accept any allegation which is floated, or insist that women are the only ones ever targeted for unwelcome advances in the workplace.
One portion of the (earlier) quote from Barbara Hewson perhaps requires clarification. We understand how someone could make a “malicious” claim, but how could someone simply be “mistaken” about an “historic abuse claim” dating back a number of years? A couple of points here:
– First, there are those people (we’ve all met them) for whom feelings, emotions, and beliefs are the only reality (or at least the primary reality). Such people rewrite history to correspond to their changing emotions, belief systems — even political views. When their view turns negative, past events are rewritten accordingly.
– Second, people may substantially change their identities over time. They sometimes judge past events according to the person who they are now, rather than the original social context in which those events occurred. Who was Al Franken in 2006? Who was Leeann Tweeden? He was a comedian and she was a pinup girl. They were both putting on a USO tour which was raunchy and sexual. Eleven years later, Franken is a U.S. senator and Tweeden is an anchor for talk radio (though she continues to sell autographed copies of Playboy). A kiss, if it occurred in 2006, might not have been far out of place in the original social context, though it would be out of place today.
– Third, there are numerous external influence factors which can cause people to change their story, or to bring up a past incident out of the blue as an alleged incident of sexual assault, when they didn’t view it that way at the time. Psychologist Tana Dineen calls such people “synthetic victims”:
Synthetic victims are the people who become persuaded that they have been sexually harassed and often they appear to be truly suffering the psychological consequences. … [They include] the person who describes a scene to a co-worker, a spouse or maybe to a psychologist or even a lawyer and is provided with encouragement to think about it differently, perhaps as an incident of harassment or assault.
Memories change; reactions change; feelings change AND stories change. Relatively trivial events can become dramatic; they can be moulded, edited and modified to fit the sexual harassment script which people can easily find in pop psychology books, women’s magazines and on talk shows and now even on the Internet. As Mordecai Richler puts it in his most recent book Barney’s Version, these are people who “are tinkering with memory, fine-tuning reality.”
Scrupulously investigate any sexual harassment report that lands on your desk, looking not only for corroborating evidence, but, also, for possible contamination by the Psychology Industry. This contamination can take place, not only directly in psychotherapy but indirectly through pop psychology books, self-help manuals, media reports, support groups, comments made by family or co-workers, and even information posted on the Internet [e.g. #MeToo movement].
— Tana Dineen, from “Are We Manufacturing Victims?” (comment added)
– Fourth, especially when the claim is made as part of a publicity campaign with partisan overtones, we can’t rule out the possibility that someone’s willingness to “rethink” a past event was influenced by career, politics, or money. This borders on the knowingly malicious, but some people are not honest — even with themselves. When adopting a new narrative becomes advantageous to them (and is perhaps suggested by political operatives), they find the new narrative irresistible and embrace it as if true. It’s not quite lying, but very close to it. They convince themselves that it is true because it serves their narrow interests of the moment, and a cause which they view favourably.
Returning to my original point: Leeann Tweeden is not a “victim” — she’s a complainant, but not a complainant in any forum providing due process. She’s a complainant in the three-ring circus of the media, and her complaint seems designed to jet-propel her career, gain publicity for the talk radio station which employs her, and take down Sen. Al Franken. Under those circumstances, it is appropriate to look into her background, to take note of her hypocrisy and her faux feminism. She’s anti-feminist on Hannity (and in posing nude for Playboy), but now claims to be part of the #MeToo movement. Give me a large personal break!
If you’re a victim of inappropriate sexual behavior, it’s important that you file a timely complaint with some body having adjudicatory authority. If you wait ten years, your only option will be to prostitute yourself in the media, as Leeann Tweeden is doing now. That she does so with great gusto is not a credit to her character.
Sidebar: Fish-lips shaming
While researching this article, I read Mark Peters’ piece on Slate.com about slut-shaming and a host of other types of shaming which have lately emerged. I was also struggling to explain why it’s a problem that in addition to being about an event ten years ago, Leeann Tweeden’s publicity campaign against Al Franken concerns a single kiss. Going over the details, I remembered that in trying to paint as ugly a picture of Franken as possible, Tweeden also accused him of having “fish lips.” Is this not a case of “fish-lips shaming,” and should not our silver-scaled brethren from the undersea kingdom feel slighted? Perhaps they should sue Tweeden for emotional distress and, ahem– loss of aquarium.
Fish-lips shaming is not an entirely new phenomenon. It is an adaptation or corruption of dog-lips shaming. If you’re a fan of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (as I certainly am), you know that Lucy Van Pelt is the original and most sadistic of dog-lips shamers, mercilessly deriding Snoopy for his Creator-bestowed smackers:
Fish-lips shaming may also be viewed as a variation on liver-lips shaming, which was a popular type of black-on-black rankout when I was growing up, maybe around grade 6 or 7.
Not to leave out the third main non-vegetarian alternative to hamburger: Had Al Franken not tried to kiss Leeann Tweeden on the 2006 USO tour (or so she says), he might have had to endure taunts of “Chicken-lips!” from enlisted men. (Chicken lips may also be an ingredient in some types of head cheese, in which case they deserve shaming!)
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.
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