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Sex panic harks back to old days

From a Bloomberg View column by Megan Mcardle:

Last week I considered our culture’s vanishing burden of proof when a prominent man is accused of any sexual impropriety. Certainly I wouldn’t want the bad old days of sexual harassment to continue. But there must be some way to find justice for women who have been abused without rushing to punish men who may not have abused anyone.

You can think of crimes as a sort of pyramid: At the top, there are a relatively small number of actions that we can all clearly agree merit the severest sanction, if proven. And then, as you slide down the walls of the pyramid, a growing number of cases that are less and less bad. At the base of the pyramid is a gray area where reasonable people can disagree about whether the evidence is strong, or the behavior alleged merits any sanction.

What happens if we try to apply the sanctions that are clearly merited for the guys at the top to the guys in the middle? What happens if we try to move the line down until it encompasses more and more of the guys at the bottom?

One risk is that the public will eventually rebel — and that when they do, the public won’t distinguish between the top of the pyramid and the middle, because the people trying to raise awareness of a problem have deliberately blurred the lines. There’s a real risk that in the resulting backlash, the baby will get thrown out with the bathwater.

The same logic applies to the burdens of proof. If unsubstantiated claims are accepted at face value, then eventually enough will turn out to be false that many future claims will be disregarded — whether they are plausible or not, whether they are substantiated or not. That was the harm done by cases like the Duke Lacrosse scandal, the UVA rape case, the Tawana Brawley accusations, and many others. But there’s another potential harm we also have to think about.

Let’s say that we do manage to establish a social norm that a single accusation of “inappropriate sexual behavior” toward a woman is enough to get you fired and drummed out of your industry. It’s the crux of the issue so eloquently explored recently by Claire Berlinski: What would a reasonable and innocent heterosexual man do to protect himself from the economic death penalty?

One thing he might do is avoid being alone with anyone of the opposite sex — not in the office and not even in social situations. You might, in other words, adopt something like the Pence Rule, so recently mocked for its Victorian overtones. (Or worse still, work hard not to hire any women who could become a liability.)

… Do we want a world in which sexual harassment is rampant? Obviously not. But do we want a neo-Victorian regime where an accusation is as good as a conviction, and tight chaperonage is necessary to protect priceless, irreplaceable reputations from being unfairly besmirched?

I doubt that anyone wants that either. But that’s what we may well get if we keep destroying people based on marginal misbehavior, even transmitted through rumor and hearsay. So before we throw too many more people into Coventry, we’d better figure out if there isn’t some better middle way.

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