Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence?
I want to praise Jeremy Piven. That’s a risky thing to do, I know. Piven is one of Those Men. One of those big entertainment figures who has fingers pointed at him. He has joined Harvey Weinstein, James Toback and many others in facing accusations that he abused his power to sexually abuse women.
Yet Piven has also issued a principled statement that should give pause to all those taking pleasure in the #MeToo movement’s instant-destruction of men’s careers.
After describing the accusations against him as “absolutely false,” Piven laments the fact that “allegations are being printed as facts” and “lives are being put in jeopardy without a hearing, due process or evidence.” He wonders what happened to “the benefit of the doubt.” To “tear each other down and destroy careers based on mere allegations is not productive at all,” he says.
He’s right. In defending himself, Piven is also defending one of the core principles of an advanced society: the presumption of innocence.
Although people refer to #MeToo as a progressive movement, it is starting to look like an exercise in public shaming.
The great liberal English barrister John Mortimer called this presumption the “golden thread” running through any progressive idea of justice. And it’s a thread that is being weakened in the febrile post-Weinstein climate.
It is now astonishingly easy to ruin a celebrity or near-celebrity. You can do it with a social media post. Spend five minutes writing a Facebook entry about how so-and-so in Hollywood once did something bad to you and — boom — that person is done for. You can dispatch him from polite society with a press of a button on your cellphone.
Some big hitters, including Weinsten, Toback and Kevin Spacey, have been brought low by numerous similar accusations. Few would doubt that these men deserve the “predator” brand, or lament the fact that they likely won’t find work in Hollywood ever again. Spacey is being erased from Ridley Scott’s “All The Money In The World,” replaced with Christopher Plummer like an out-of-favor commissar airbrushed from a group photo with Stalin. But not all accusations are equally well-substantiated.
In a few hours, George Takei went from a hero of the liberal Twittersphere to a “pervert,” from cultural icon to the object of chortling and finger-pointing. His downfall was authored by a single accuser regarding a single incident in 1981. That someone can be so tarnished on the basis of an allegation older than half of the people on Earth is astounding. In the U.K., the situation is darker still.
Online, the going assumption is that British actor Ed Westwick is a rapist. “I hope his career is destroyed,” said one representative woman on Twitter. She might get her wish: The BBC has already pulled an Agatha Christie drama starring Westwick.
On the basis of what? Two accusations posted to Facebook. It’s hard not to feel for Westwick when he says it’s “disheartening” that an individual’s life can be turned upside down by “unverified … social media claims.”
The “Weinstein contagion,” as a Guardian columnist refers to it, has seen members of Parliament branded sexual predators for such small fare as a fleeting hand on a female journalist’s knee or flirtatious letters written 20 years ago. Earlier this month, a Welsh Labor MP, Carl Sargeant, committed suicide. He stood accused of sexual misconduct. His party refused to tell him what the allegations were, and yet he was suspended from his job as a Welsh minister on the basis of them. Sargeant’s lawyers said the mysterious accusations had plunged him into black turmoil. Although people refer to #MeToo as a progressive movement, it is starting to look like an exercise in public shaming, a rash extrajudicial application of stigma to supposedly wicked individuals. We need to recover the benefit of the doubt, just like Piven said.
Some have argued that the presumption of innocence is a legal standard that does not apply in everyday life. The law must not prejudge someone, but we can. In fact, that’s how Mitt Romney framed his condemnation of Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate who stands accused of molesting teenage girls.
“Innocent until proven guilty is for criminal convictions, not elections,” Romney wrote on Twitter.
In a narrow sense, that’s perfectly true. But Romney’s line of argument can lead us astray. Legal standards aren’t cold, abstract ideas. They embody what communities over time have agreed is a more civilized way of doing things. People are brushing aside the presumption of innocence as mere legalism so they don’t have to feel bad when they tweet: “George Takei is a pervert.” They’re saying that while judges should exercise restraint, mere mortals don’t have to. What spectacularly low self expectations.
Of course we all have our private thoughts on the guilt or otherwise of the accused. But when tens of thousands of these thoughts come together in a mass public verdict, we behave like a mob. And we have a direct effect on the exercise of the presumption of innocence in a legal setting. How is it possible to guarantee a fair trial for any of the accused now that Twitter-echoed whisper campaigns have pronounced their guilt? Good luck finding a cool-headed jury for this stuff.
Maybe every man accused of sexual misconduct is, in fact, guilty. But what if a few did nothing wrong? What if just one man is innocent? If one day you’re accused, my guess is you’d rather like it if I gave you the benefit of the doubt.
Brendan O’Neill is the editor of Spiked Online and a columnist for Reason and the Spectator.
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