Against the Mob
Let me make my position clear: I don’t know whether Jackie was raped at a University of Virginia fraternity house. It might have happened. There is an investigation underway now, as there should be. Ari Schulman points out that there is still reason to believe that Jackie is telling the truth, and that Richard Bradley’s celebrated debunking of the Rolling Stone story has problems of its own. This is important to keep in mind. As Ari says, we don’t fight confirmation bias from one side with confirmation bias from the other.
What was very wrong, though, was for Rolling Stone magazine to run a blockbuster story that takes the position that the rape actually happened, when these facts have not been established. Hanna Rosin and Alison Benedikt at Slate write:
Erdely is a very accomplished magazine writer. She has written about many difficult subjects before, including an OB-GYN who was convicted of fondling his patients. (She didn’t talk to him either, but she did include a sentence saying he could not be reached for comment. Plus, he had already been convicted.) She must know the basic rules of reporting a story like this: You try very, very hard to reach anyone you’re accusing of something. You use any method you can think of, including the jerk reporter move of making a surprise, in-person confrontation. (Sarah Koenig, the host of the Serial podcast, provides a good example of reporter due diligence.) You try especially hard if you are writing about something as serious as a gang rape accusation. Sometimes, what results is a more layered version of the truth. Sometimes, the answer you get makes the accused seem even guiltier (e.g., Bill Cosby, asserting through a lawyer, that all the dozens of accusations against him are “fabricated”).
If you fail to reach the person, you write a sentence explaining that you tried—and explaining how you tried—as a way to assure your readers that you gave the person a chance to defend themselves. We’re not sure why Rolling Stone didn’t think that was necessary.
This is Journalism 101. And then, whether they realize it or not, Rosin and Benedikt answer their own question:
We found Jackie and she agreed to talk to us. Then, at the last minute she backed out. She had already been interviewed by the Washington Post for a story that has not yet run, and she had picked up that the media had some doubts—something that she is understandably sensitive to. What became clear from talking to Jackie’s supporters at UVA is that the community of victim advocates operates by a very specific code. “The first thing as a friend we must say is, ‘I believe you and I am here to listen,’ ” says Brian Head, president of UVA’s all-male sexual assault peer education group One in Four. Head and others believe that questioning a victim is a form of betrayal, because it will make her feel judged and all the more reluctant to ever speak about what happened. None of the people we spoke to had asked Jackie who the men were, and in fact none of them had any idea. They did not press her on any details about the incident.
See how this works? Sensitivity to the alleged victim of a violent crime is commendable. But to take that sensitivity to the point where her viewpoint is exclusively privileged simply because of her claimed status as a crime victim is dangerous, because it sets the stage for potential injustice. If Jackie’s story was fabricated, then an unspeakable injustice has been done to the Phi Psi fraternity, the Greek system at the University of Virginia, and to the University of Virginia itself. How will they get their reputations back?
I’m not letting myself off the hook here. As I said yesterday, I believed the Rolling Stone story when I first read it, and consciously pushed aside doubts I had about the reporting — specifically the obvious fact that Jackie is the only source for what supposedly happened that night, and the fact that the reporter didn’t have as much as a “No comment” from any of the alleged rapists. Why? Partly, I think, because of a lingering bias against fraternities, the legacy of my long-ago college days. Mostly, though, because my years of writing about the Catholic sex abuse scandal has powerfully biased me towards believing victims who accuse powerful institutions of covering up sexual violence to protect the image of the institution.
This is wrong. It is one thing to have observed that institutions tend to behave a certain way. It is another to believe without sufficient evidence that an institution and the people within in behaved that way, because hey, that’s what people like that do. If you think you are above doing this, you are lying to yourself. As embarrassed as I am to be confronted with evidence that I chose to ignore red flags in this story because it fit a narrative that made sense to me, I am glad of it, because it reminds me how fallible human judgment is.
The writer Caitlin Flanagan, who wrote a hard-hitting Atlantic story about fraternities and rape, told Slate that if Jackie’s story turns out to be false, “it is going to cause so much trouble in the area of reforming fraternity sexual assault, I can’t even tell you.” Similarly, the more campaigners hold on to Michael Brown and Ferguson as a symbol of police brutality and racism, the less willing many others are going to be to take a real problem seriously.
It is all too easy to forget that real people stand to be really hurt by false accusations, especially when a system set up to adjudicate them is biased towards one side or the other. As minorities and the poor know all too well, the deck has historically been stacked against them in court. I know of at least two specific cases from where I live, in the Deep South, from back in the 1930s and 1940s, in which black men were killed by powerful white men, who never had to answer for it in court. In one case, a mob called by the sheriff lynched a black man for raping a white woman. It emerged afterward that the two had been lovers, but had been caught, and the woman accused the man of rape to save her own skin. Of course the sheriff believed her. They knew that a white woman would never willingly have sex with a black man. There was no need for a trial (and if there had been a trial, rape was not a capital offense); the sheriff got a mob together and they strung the black man up. Days later, the woman’s conscience broke, and she confessed that they had been lovers.
Nobody ever answered in court for the extrajudicial murder of that black man. It would have been unthinkable back then. Black lives didn’t matter.
Now, think about what the UVA student Brian Head said to Slate:
Head and others believe that questioning a [rape] victim is a form of betrayal, because it will make her feel judged and all the more reluctant to ever speak about what happened.
The sheriff and his mob didn’t question the supposed rape victim in that case. She was white, her alleged rapist was black. What more did you need to know? And look what happened.
Is this really the mentality we want to encourage?
It is impossible to guarantee justice in this life. None of us can fully overcome our biases; we are human beings, not machines. But we are required to work hard to do so, and to put in place procedures that keep us from going off the rails because of our own biases. Giving any person the privilege of being believed simply because of their race, gender, sexuality, social status, or any such thing that has nothing to do with their character, is to lay the groundwork for injustice.
One of the reasons I am a conservative is a deep distrust of the mob and its passions. There is something so sweetly intoxicating about losing yourself in the crowd, and being carried along with it, especially if you believe your cause is righteous. The crowd becomes a mob when it loses control of itself, and cannot be stopped until it has its release, sometimes through a scapegoat. Caiaphas helped incite the mob to scapegoat Jesus, saying, “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
This is what we are up against when the mob decides that the pursuit of truth in a case is secondary to vindicating what we might call the mythological truth. That is, it is better for one fraternity to die than that the cause of stopping sexual violence on campus perish. Or: it is better for one undergraduate woman to be raped than the reputation of the university and its fraternities perish. It is better for one Ferguson cop’s freedom to be sacrificed than that the cause of fighting police racism and brutality perish. Or: it is better for one black guy to die than public confidence in law enforcement fighting perish.
Civilization is only possible through the submission of the passions to reason. Civilization is not possible when the mob rules. Mobs aren’t just rioters on the street. They can be crusading journalists in a newsroom, or campus professors and activists. Any time you have a group of people who are willing to sacrifice others, and the truth, for the sake of vindicating a myth or cause dear to them, you have a mob.
Because all of us are capable of that, all of us are potential members of a mob. If you want to stop mob rule, confront it first in your own heart and mind.