Sunday, January 31, 2016

A brief note on victim deference and demands for evidence

Yesterday's post on the media trend of smearing Bernie Sanders supporters has earned some significant attention - but not all of it is welcome. Evidently, a prominent Men's Rights Activist named Mike Cernovich is enjoying the spectacle of seeing leftists smeared as bigoted men.

I guess this is supposed to be ironic since it is, of course, usually the MRAs who are attacked as bigoted men - but there's a subtler and more interesting point at stake here. Cernovich draws particular attention to the fact that Sanders supporters are being refused their requests for evidence of wrongdoing; this, he's suggesting, is an instance of leftists who say things like "believe the victim" being hoisted by their own petard.

Cernovich is actually confused about the point he's criticizing - but it's a point of confusion that he shares with many liberal identitarians.

At stake, as I argued (briefly) elsewhere, is the leftist argument for victim deference. Ordinarily, particular in court, liberalism adheres to a presumption of innocence (PoI) for people who are accused of wrongdoing. Victim deference does not completely overthrow this, but it adds that there can be cases where the risks and costs associated with proving guilt outweigh the risk of punishing the innocent - so that in those limited cases, we should instead defer to the claims of the accuser.

This argument usually becomes most relevant in cases of rape, abuse, and harassment, which is of course why MRAs so vehemently reject it. To justify that rejection, their standard move is to insist that the PoI is an absolute right that must always be respected. For that reason, Sanders supporters are now just reaping the inevitable consequences of their own inconsistent defense of the rights of the accused.

The leftist response, and the liberal identitarian response

There are two ways to respond to this. The sound response, I would argue, is to point out that MRAs are simply begging the question: they are insisting that we extend a PoI by asserting that people have a right to it. This completely finesses the problem of justification. Victim deference proposes that we extend the PoI for a reason, and that if this reason does not apply then there is no PoI.

On these grounds, Sanders supporters have a simple defense: nothing about calling out or prosecuting any particular wrongdoer requires us to identify them as a supporter of Bernie Sanders. That is an extra and completely unnecessary step, and as soon as you do that you have raised the stakes considerably because you have put at risk the reputation of an entire political movement. No argument for victim deference has ever insisted that the risks to an accuser can outweigh the risks associated with derailing an entire national campaign, with all of the attendant implications for the future of our country. That logic seems entirely out of proportion by any sane notion of justice.

What I find interesting is not that Cernovich rejects this logic, but that liberal identitarians seemingly reject it, too. In order to conflate Sanders supporters with MRAs and Gamergate partisans, liberal identitarians have their own response, but it also finesses the problem of justification - they insist that accusers always deserve victim deference. Evidently, this even holds when the accuser, on top of making the basic claim of harassment, also makes all kinds of additional political claims: like "this person happens to support Bernie Sanders" and "his behavior reflects something about the Sanders political movement".

Ultimately, the role of victim deference in these debates points towards a remarkable similarity between liberal identitarians and MRAs. Both actually think about the rights of the accuser and the accused in the same way, and only arrive at different outcomes based on whether they absolutely accept or absolutely reject a presumption of innocence. Leftists, meanwhile, evaluate the competing claims and risks to the accuser and the accused to decide where the burden of proof lies; they extend the PoI not as an absolute right, but rather as a provisional privilege that can be rescinded under certain conditions.