The Power Of Speaking Out Is Cumulative
To quote Brandeis, sunlight is the best of disinfectants. Rape happens in the dark and serial rapists depend on dark corners, both metaphorical and literal, to do that they do and get away with it. The obvious answer is to throw a lot of light. But many people are uncomfortable with how that actually works.
Here’s what really happens: first, there’s a rumor that Jian Ghomeshi is some kind of bad guy or predator or can’t be trusted. The general public didn’t know or suspect because his public persona was so lovable, and what people said in private about him seemed so wildly inconsistent with how the public saw him as to be implausible. He was a “missing stair” — the issue is at some level widely shared within informal social groups, but not openly acknowledged where outsiders can hear, and certainly not reported. Then someone pushes and pushes, and the story breaks the surface. There’s enough to report, and as soon as it breaks the surface, others start reporting. The first few don’t use their names, at least not publicly, but then someone with a recognizable name say that he did something like that to her, too. Then, only then, once there are five or eight or ten accusers, some using their own names, do the police belatedly catch up. And now, there’s been no formal adjudication, but instead, employers, and crisis managers, and fans have each separately considered the information available the made probabilistic determinations.
Here’s what’s really happening: first, there was a rumor about Bill Cosby, but his public persona was so lovable, so at odds with what he was like in private, that people wouldn’t believe it, even when they got first hand reports that objectively had no indicia or unreliability. Then there was a lawsuit, and once one survivor was willing to stand up, others came forward, and by the time of trial the plaintiff planned to call twelve survivors, but it was never tried because Cosby settled, and nobody talked about it even when it was in the public record because the persona … well, it was Bill Cosby! And it took not only the public record that a dozen or more survivors has been willing to get on the stand and swear to what happened, but also a male comic (Hannibal Buress) doing a regular bit about how Cosby was a rapist, to get people to finally be ready to listen, and now that people have considered it for maybe the fourth time and finally didn’t reject it out of hand, now that one of the survivors put her name next to the allegations, having nothing to gain, now Janice Dickinson, whose name and face we know, is willing to put her name next to it and say, “me, too.” There has been, and their will be, no prosecution. For a pattern that goes back, we’re hearing, to 1969, there will be no criminal accountability because his celebrity and his protectors won. But right now, people are considering what they know, and making up their own minds about Bill Cosby.
A lot of people want the cops to decide what’s true and what isn’t. They cannot be the sole determiners of that. They can’t, because some of them are awful. They’re not a monolith. Some police have a sophisticated understanding of trauma and how survivors may be affected and some don’t. Some are complete prisoners of their biases about what rape is, and some are not. Some police have a burning desire to get the bad guys, and some are coasting. Professionally, I’ve dealt with some wonderful officers, who make me happy about how my tax dollars are spent. But we never know who will take the survivor’s report. It won’t be Olivia Benson.
Rape is a crime, on the books, but the most common kinds of rape are rarely reported because reporting is affirmatively harmful for survivors (see links above); not taken serious by police (who often reject survivor accounts that are totally credible because they don’t fit the officers’ preconceived notions, or because the department wants to manage stats); by prosecutors, who let rape kits sit untested for decades; and by juries, which are a cross-section of society’s prejudices. So the criminal justice system will not tell us if someone is a rapist or not. If we want to know, we’re going to have to get the story another way, and the only way we’re going to get anything like the information we want is to let people tell the story, and see how many stories their are and what they add up to. It may be there’s one story that doesn’t add up. Or it may be there’s one, and another, then three and five and eight and twelve …
But if we say, “I don’t believe it unless the police decide it’s true,” we’re never going to hear any of those stories and we’re never going to know how many there are. If you say you won’t listen, you’re saying you want Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi to get away with it. Yes, you are.