Don’t Anguish Over Whom to Believe

Pressure to pick a side in sexual-assault allegations can do more harm than good.

An illustration of two women reflected on both sides of a line.
Getty / The Atlantic

Do you believe Tara Reade or Joe Biden? Did you believe Christine Blasey Ford or Brett Kavanaugh? My emphatic answer to both questions is the same: I pass. I punt. I vote present. And that dodge causes me no guilt, anxiety, or nagging discomfort. If these questions cause you distress, try it yourself: When pressured to pick a side in a public controversy without definitive evidence, just politely decline.

Agnosticism is bliss––though it can upset others. Biden supporters warn that a failure to defend him could saddle the country with another four years of Donald Trump in the White House. Countervailing pressure from feminists and members of the #MeToo movement is as intense. As the headline of an article in The Nation put it, “I Believe Tara Reade. And You Should, Too.”

Its author, the feminist academic Kate Manne, argued that admitting the credibility of Reade’s claim is a “moral obligation,” even though she went on to acknowledge, “If this were a court of law and we were jurors, then it would be appropriate to deem Biden innocent until he’d been proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” But if what happened in a given case hasn’t been proved beyond a reasonable doubt, why would anyone be morally obligated to believe either party’s claims?

“If the Me Too movement means anything, it is that victims must not be swept aside and ignored, impugned, erased, and silenced when their claims are difficult to countenance,” Manne argued. As far as that goes, she is correct. But declining to reach a conclusion about an allegation isn’t the same as sweeping it aside, erasing it, or ignoring, impugning, or silencing the accuser. One can listen, assess, and still conclude that one knows too little to judge.

In Vox, the journalist Laura McGann described being approached by Reade, trying to corroborate her claims, and failing. McGann wound up “mired in the miasma of uncertainty,” she wrote. “I wanted to believe Reade when she first came to me, and I worked hard to find the evidence to make certain others would believe her, too. I couldn’t find it. None of that means Reade is lying, but it leaves us in the limbo of Me Too: a story that may be true but that we can’t prove.”

Her anguish is understandable. A tiny number of people––police officers, prosecutors, judges, jurors, human-resources professionals, and investigative journalists––are compelled by their role in public life to weigh particular allegations of sexual misconduct and reach a potentially high-stakes judgment.

But now many people with no professional or personal connection to sexual-misconduct allegations behave as if they too must reach and affirm conclusions in muddy cases involving public figures. “Believing” is now treated as a primary measure of whether one “supports survivors,” even though the great majority of women who are raped, assaulted, or harassed are parties in cases that will never get any public attention at all.

Public sentiment can influence outcomes in exceptional cases. Changing attitudes about Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein seemed to play a part in prosecutors’ holding serial predators accountable. But those matters involved an enormous amount of evidence from an atypically large number of accusers. Insisting that officials take their allegations seriously was an unusually easy call. Overall, the new norm that ordinary people should publicly assess allegations, especially in hazy cases where doubt is not uncommon, may do more harm than good.

Those who say “believe all women” want all alleged survivors taken seriously. But when masses of people are asked to comment on an allegation, supportive declarations of “I believe” will inevitably be accompanied by pronouncements of “that’s dubious” or “liar.” Might a majority of survivors fare better if all uninvolved parties were discouraged from sitting in judgment?

Political campaigns do add an extra wrinkle. Voters must decide whether to cast ballots in a candidate’s favor with imperfect information. If your vote in this election turns on the truth or falsehood of Reade’s allegation, by all means, study the matter and make an educated guess. But most voters aren’t in that camp, in part because Trump also stands accused of sexual misconduct, and by many more women than Biden does.

In The New York Times, Linda Hirshman declared, “I believe Tara Reade. I’m voting for Joe Biden anyway.” She posited “the importance of owning an ugly moral choice” and characterized that choice as follows:

Pretending not to believe the complainants—which is what is taking place with Ms. Reade—or that they’re loose nobodies, which is what much of the media did to Ms. Lewinsky, is just an escape from the hard work of moral analysis. And it adds to the harm. How is feminism advanced by casting a reasonably credible complainant as a liar? Better to just own up to what you are doing: sacrificing Ms. Reade for the good of the many.

But that false binary elides a third option: neither rejecting nor affirming Reade’s allegations. Hirshman asked, “Won’t the good for all the Americans who will benefit from replacing Donald Trump with Joe Biden, including the masses of women who will get some crumbs, count for more than the harm done to the victims of abuse?” She urged, “Suck it up and make the utilitarian bargain.”

The utilitarian argument that feminism is better advanced by Biden than by Trump is easy to grasp. Less straightforward is the utilitarian case for proclaiming “I believe Reade” while also declaring “I’m voting for Joe Biden anyway.” What is the utility to sexual-assault survivors of declaring “I believe Reade” and that her alleged attacker should not be held accountable?

Consider this alternative: Biden is a better choice than Trump, regardless of the merits of the allegation against him, so I won’t subject anyone involved to my fallible judgments on the matter. That formulation doesn’t require feminists to sacrifice Reade or any feminist political goals. In New York magazine, Rebecca Traister wrote that the woman Biden picks to be his vice-presidential candidate “will be forced to answer—over and over again—for Biden’s treatment of other women, including the serious allegations of assault leveled by Tara Reade.” This would not be the case under norms that allowed third parties to have no opinion about what no one can know.

“Believe all women” was always a flawed #MeToo slogan. The impetus for it was understandable: A sordid history of reflexively disbelieving most women had to be overcome. And “Don’t reflexively disbelieve women; diligently investigate their claims” isn’t very catchy. But the diligent investigation of claims and an absence of stigma or vilification is what accusers require from the public sphere, not masses of people taking to social media to proclaim, “I believe.”

If you’re anguishing over Reade’s allegation or any other, stop and give yourself a break. You won’t do any harm, as you might if you unwittingly spoke out on behalf of the wrong party. You probably wouldn’t do any good even if, after much anguish, you happened to side with the right party. And if you want to help those harmed by predators, there are lots of surer approaches.