Yes, There is a Right to Be Believed
Photo by Giacomo Ferroni on Unsplash
In 2015, when Hillary Clinton said that all rape survivors have a “right to be believed,” she sent out a powerful message that is still being echoed in the #BELIEVEALLWOMEN hashtags of today. In 2016, when Clinton’s campaign removed that quotation from her website, they likely did so in response (understandable) backlash from Republicans asking “what about Juanita Broaddrick?”
And I agree. What do we make of her?
Juanita Broaddrick was one of several women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault and/or rape in the late nineties. Her story has a ring o familiarity when compared to Dr. Blasey Ford’s. Broaddrick’s accusation came 19 years after the fact, during a Dateline interview, and one year after she had already publicly denied the accusations. Her specific accusations, however, were never investigated by police or the FBI, and had no bearing on the impeachment trial; the Dateline interviewed aired the day after Clinton’s impeachment. It should also be noted that Juanita Broaddrick has recently criticized Monica Lewinski and the #MeToo movement and supported the Trump, who had also had multiple allegations of sexual assault leveled against him. She was seated in the front row during one of the debates, making clear the implication of her presence: Did you afford me a right to belief?
And what do we make of Anita Hill, whose very credible accusations against Clarence Thomas were thrown out, primarily because she had added details between the time when the FBI initially interviewed her and her public statements before the Senate Judiciary committee? Playing a chief role in the Anita Hill case, as with the Dr. Blasey Ford case, is the FBI, their investigation, and questions about how seriously to weight a brief investigative process that makes no conclusions against the confirmation of a man to a lifetime appointment to one of the highest offices in the land.
There are many similarities you can draw between Hill, Ford, and Broaddrick, but one underlying issue that ties all of them together is the problem that they have all seemed to be denied a basic presumption of belief.
Now, with Dr. Blasey Ford’s accusations against Judge Kavanaugh, this question of belief is reemerging. Do ALL women really have a right to be believed? The knee-jerk reaction from many has been to say that this would lead us down a slippery slope where any woman with a grudge could make a halfway credible accusation against a man and destroy his family, his friendships, his career, his life. The hashtag #HimToo has even begun circulating in response.
Clearly, the #BELIEVEALLWOMEN movement is being seen as a threat by many. But is this anything new? In other words, is it really the case that we’ve never assumed a right to belief for any class of people before?
You don’t even have to look back more than a hundred years to count numerous ways in which women have not had the same legal rights as men. In an early draft of this essay, I had a paragraph listing out all of those rights, but I’ll save you the history lesson. You can google it. (And I should also note here that this is why it would be wrong to turn this around and say we should #BelieveAllPEOPLE. To say that would be to imply that men have historically faced a lack of belief to the same degree as women, and this assertion is simply laughable.)
Let’s examine this idea that all women should be believed by asking it another way. Should all PEOPLE have a right to be believed, even if we admit that this hasn’t been historically granted? If the answer is yes, then what do we mean by this? It can’t mean that testimony should always be held as true absent any corroborating evidence. If this were the case, what would you do with competing claims of testimony? I agree that this would needlessly complicate things, not only in a court of law but certainly in the court of public opinion.
And it’s not how the real world works, anyway. We don’t automatically assume the testimony of all people to be true, minus any corroborating evidence. But we do assume the testimony of some people to be true, based on their word alone, when reputation, social mores, or peer pressure compels us to. Why else would we hold up Judge Kavanaugh’s resume, his reputation, his supporters as reasons to believe him? Aren’t we essentially saying that absent any evidence to the contrary, a judge, of all people, simply ought to be believed? In other words, to state that there is not a right to be believed would be to assert that this right has never been granted to some people, and this simply isn’t true.
This is the underlying principle fueling the debate over the debate over Dr. Blasey Ford’s accusations against Judge Kavanaugh. Not the facts related to the accusation (though those facts are being poured over at length) but the basic veracity of the two individuals, separate from any facts that might support them either way. Isn’t this, after all, isn’t this what we mean when we say that this is a “he said, she said” scenario? We don’t call it a “person 1, person 2” scenario. We gender it, and then ask, implicitly, which gender should be believed.
When people say that we should believe ALL women, they are asserting that all people’s testimony, in the absence of any corroborating evidence in either direction, should be given the same weight as anyone else’s testimony. You may object that I have turned this into something very reasonable, and not at all what people actually mean when they make that statement. Okay, but then ask yourself whether this “very reasonable” statement I am making is actually followed. Are women’s testimonies, absent any evidence against them, always given the same weight as men? Can you imagine our systems of power in this country, in the case of a “he said, she said” ever stating that the mere presence of doubt is simply enough to not promote even the most qualified person to a lifetime appointment in one of our countries highest offices? To assert that we should #BELIEVEALLWOMEN is to assert that all people have a right for their story to be told and that women in particular (though not exclusively) have been historically denied this right.
To #BELIEVEALLWOMEN is to say that a woman’s testimony deserves equal weight, both under the law and in the courts of public opinion, to any other person’s testimony, absent any evidence to the contrary.
To #BELIEVEALLWOMEN is to make the obvious historical claim that women haven’t always been believed.
To #BELIEVEALLWOMEN is to affirm that men don’t have more of an intrinsic right to any position or place of authority or power than a woman, based purely on their maleness alone.
To #BELIEVEALLWOMEN is not to assume that Judge Kavanaugh is guilty before proven innocent, but to assert with a full voice that the very moment the word “liar” is uttered in conjunction with the name Dr. Blasey Ford, we’ve already assumed that her testimony is without merit, and Judge Kavanaugh’s innocence has always been presumed.
So, yes. We should believe Dr. Blasey Ford. And we should have believed Juanity Brodrick and Anita Hill as well. If you’re still unsure, ask yourself this simple question. What would it look like if every woman could assume the same basic privilege of belief as men? Yes, maybe Bill Clinton would have been removed from office. Yes, we may have never had Justice Thomas on the Supreme Court. And, yes, Judge Kavanaugh may not be elevated to that position as well. But if what we gain is the dignity, the strength, and the voice of roughly half of our population, would that world really be such a terrible place to live?