Zerlina Maxwell — a lawyer last seen making the fully commonsense case that if John Cusack is outside your home with the sleeves of his eighties coat rolled up and holding a loud boombox over his head, he is to be taken down by main force — throws caution to the wind in praising Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s University of Virginia rape story, which has now been orphaned by Rolling Stone.
The story of J, Maxwell writes in the Washington Post, “helped dramatize what happens when the claims of victims are not taken seriously.” Maxwell also flirts with libel by asserting that some identifiable young man who attends or attended the Charlottesville school did rape the pseudonymous Jackie: She allows that “her rapist wasn’t in the frat she says,” but omits the weasel word “alleged.”
We should always believe, as a matter of default, what an accuser says. Ultimately, the costs of wrongly disbelieving a survivor far outweigh the costs of calling someone a rapist. Even if Jackie fabricated her account, UVA should have taken her word for it until they could have proved otherwise.
The accused would have a rough period. He might be suspended from his job; friends might de-friend him on Facebook. In the case of Bill Cosby, we might have to stop watching, consuming his books, or buying tickets to his traveling stand-up routine. These errors can be undone by an investigation that clears the accused, especially if it is done quickly.
The cost of disbelieving women, on the other hand, is far steeper. It signals that that women don’t matter and that they are disposable — not only to frat boys and Bill Cosby, but to us. And they face a special set of problems in having their say.
This writer is open to one part of Maxwell’s argument: that an open charge of an infamous crime does and perhaps should carry with it societal penalties. For example, that Bill Cosby’s revenue streams have been sharply curtailed these last few months seems to be no miscarriage of justice in a free society. Although the conscience recoils at the idea of a kid trying to earn a college diploma losing his job over unproved charges, the same standard must be applied to a poor scholar and a multimillionaire.
However, Maxwell uses so much communalist grammar and vocabulary that it is impossible to say if this is her point. The word “we” appears more than 20 times in the piece, and it’s full of neologisms like “dignity-crime.” There are several typos that the online copydesk should catch while fixing this piece: “given the research on the aftermath a sexual assault and how PTSD affects,” “It signals that that women don’t matter,” and “Because rape it is such a poisonous charge…” The piece is shorn of individual character and injection-basted in group-identity goo, to the point of being as hard to read as Anthem, the first-person Ayn Rand novel in which all singular pronouns including “I” have been banned by a totalitarian state.
None of this would matter except that it is not clear whether Maxwell believes that only entities of civil society (and for the purposes of this argument we can assume U. Va. is part of the civil society though 10 percent of its academic budget is taken from the people of Virginia), should be free to engage in non-presumption of innocence. She seems to think the courts should presume guilt as well:
While the clock is ticking on the physical evidence, survivors are often grappling with the first stages of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), creating a perfect storm of foggy memories, isolation, and denial. It’s common for them to experience a dissociative moment when they try to “get over it” and move on with their lives . . .
The lasting psychological wound left by sexual assault is unique — and makes justice less likely . . .
Disbelieving women, then, not only compounds their trauma (often by making them doubt their own stories), but it also lets a serial rapist go free.
That’s a way for lawyer to think. Not sure it’s the best way.
Update: Maxwell’s op-ed has been given an unindicated edit, including a title change and at least one text change that specifies her argument is limited to “what happens outside the court.”
The typos remain in place and the material quoted above does not appear to have been changed.