When Does “Allegedly” Die?!
I’ve argued against this tendency to say that a rape isn’t a rape unless the survivor makes a police report and the rapist is prosecuted and convicted. But I’ll give that process one thing: it at least offers finality. Right? Right?!
When talking about a rapist, in the media and in everyday life, but always in the media, if the word “rape” is used at all, it is so often preceded or followed immediately by “allegedly.” There are reasons for “allegedly.” One is that we don’t want to be wrong. I could examine that in more detail, but I won’t. I’ll just take that as a reasonable goal. The other, especially in media, is the liability concern: that calling someone a rapist, if not true, is defamatory.
And at some point, these concerns go away. At some point, the issue is decisively resolved. Not for most rapes, but for that tiny sliver where there is an arrest, and a prosecution, and a conviction. The jury returns, gives a verdict. The judge reads the word “guilty.” Verdict, sentence, finality. It happened. It is no longer “alleged,” but proved.
Not to Whoopi Goldberg. In this clip from The View, Whoopi says that the Steubenville rapists are “alleged.” There are a lot of problems with this clip, but I am going to focus on just this one. The Steubenville rapes are not “alleged.” The allegation is contained in an indictment or prosecutor’s information. The allegations are tested at trial, where documents and witnesses are admissible evidence. A jury, or in the Steubenville case because the defendants were juveniles, a judge, makes findings of fact. The judge decided. They were convicted. They did it. That’s fact.*
Whoopi said “alleged.” It’s not because she doesn’t understand. It’s because Whoopi is a rape apologist. I was willing to believe, after the Polanski “Rape-rape” debacle, that Whoopi felt the need to defend people with powerful friends in Hollywood, like Polanski. She has, like Jodie Foster and others, also defended Mel Gibson, who is a racist, anti-semite, domestic abuser who threatened to have his ex gang-raped, misogynist beyond all reasonable defense; but this too could be written off as Hollywood insiderism. But here, she’s defending a couple of convicted rapists from the Rust Belt. Her reasons are her own; she owns this defense and it speaks to her moral character.
But this is not just a Whoopi problem. Barbara Walters then talks about Mike Tyson. She doesn’t say “allegedly,” but she dances carefully around what happened. She says “he was accused of raping a young woman named Desiree Washington.” And she says “he went to prison.” And she says “when they were criticizing Desiree because she went up to his room, they said ‘what was she doing in his room’ … she was being villified as a victim. And he did go to prison.” But she never says that he did it, and she never says that a jury decided he did it. She seems to deliberately make room in her comments for the interpretation that she doesn’t think he did it, that the conviction was wrongful. And she says he is now a “wonderful performer.”
He’s a rapist. This is as proven as proven will ever get. Mike Tyson was convicted by a jury. He appealed, and his appeal was denied. He served his term. It is proved beyond a reasonable doubt, all legal challenge to the fairness of the trial has been resolved. That’s it! We’re not waiting for further word! Res, as the lawyers say, Judicata! So when does he become a rapist in the eyes of the public?
Never, of course, because people like him. Polanski makes wonderful movies and the Steubenville boys were star football players, and people fondly remember Iron Mike from his boxing career.**
“Allegedly” isn’t an attempt at fairness, or a defense against defamation. Here, we see that even when all the facts are in and conclusively resolved, “allegedly” never dies.
I conclude from this that what “allegely” really means is “I’ll never believe it.” There are those who will never accept that the person they know or admire is a rapist, simply because they don’t want to. Because they can’t square what they know with what they wish. Because if it’s true they feel tarnished by association, so instead they reject. Because it’s easier to insinuate that some usually nameless, faceless women is a liar or irresponsible than to change their mind about the man.
It’s easy to be against rape in the abstract. Everybody says they’re against rape. It’s hard to be against the rapist when the rapist is your friend. But if we can’t even be against the rapist when the rapist is just some guy on television that we don’t really know, then it’s going to be awfully hard to make any progress.
This isn’t about “allegedly.” This is about accepting that the rapists are not space aliens or zombies or the “other” from somewhere else. This is about accepting that the predators look just like everyone else.
* Of course, it isn’t. What happened and what a jury decides may be two different things. The determination of the all-white jury in the Scottsboro Boys trial doesn’t make it true, and the acquittals in other cases don’t change what the defendants did. But we’re talking about media, liability and external validation. Should the media treat the allegations as unproven until verdict, and then treat the verdict as questionable forever? There’s no risk management reason to do that. The only reason to do that is to take the side of the rapist.
** Folks around the feminist blogosphere a long time may remember my rant about Tyson in comments at Feministe, writing as a boxing fan, and I won’t repeat it, but I stand by it and I probably know more about boxing than anyone who reads this blog.