Gossiping publicly about the private lives of well-known people is one of the most popular forms of licensed sadism that our society indulges in. It’s permissible to play roughly with the cardboard figures of these people we don’t know, to bully them, humiliate them, and treat them in ways we would never think of treating our neighbors or friends. In discussing their lives, our standards of accuracy are pitifully low, our manner is casual, and we openly smile and laugh in response to events that are not at all funny to those involved in them. I must say that I’ve always preferred to play these games in the privacy of my own home, and so I’ve lived to the age of 70 without ever making any public declarations about the lives of famous people. But now I have to say something about Woody Allen, for whom I’ve worked as an actor many times.
When I was growing up, an allegation of sexual abuse made by a child against an adult would rarely be believed. Now everyone knows that abuse is common, and many more people are prepared to accept a story told by a child. By its very nature, abuse often occurs in a private space, leaving behind no third-party witnesses or useful clues. Consequently, in our legal system, founded on the principles of the presumption of innocence, on the one hand, and the analysis of verifiable facts, on the other, the sexual predator often gets away with his crime, and there is as yet no official, agreed-upon, reliable forum outside of the legal system for analyzing such cases, determining the truth of what happened and administering justice.
That presents an extremely grave social dilemma. But in reading the Internet commentary on the Allen case, I’ve been amazed to learn that many people see no dilemma at all, as if they had forgotten how terribly difficult truth is to find, and a remarkable number of people are writing as if it were a proven fact that Allen is a child molester.
When I was a young man, most Americans believed our legal system was doing the job of apprehending the criminals among us, and it was basically assumed that those who deserved it would be caught and punished, so that the people who passed one walking down the street were either not criminals or they were criminals who had already paid a price for their crimes. Vigilante justice and Mafia executions were seen as in principle completely illegitimate, because those who deserved punishment had already been punished or were about to be. The presumption of innocence was seen as a very reasonable administrative procedure, because those who were presumed innocent had not yet gone through the system that would soon determine whether they were actually innocent or not.
Now, we’re all well aware that the streets are swarming with unpunished criminals, many of them very well dressed in suits and ties, and indeed the unpunished criminals are running the country and gobbling up everything in sight, and so obviously the principle of the “presumption of innocence” can easily seem to be simply one more trick to let the guilty go free. We don’t trust the courts to provide justice, so some people don’t mind declaring a person guilty without a trial of any kind.
In the universe of the Internet, everyone is entitled to their opinion of a book or a film. In the universe of gossip, everyone is entitled to their opinion of a famous person. But I have to express my view that in no sane universe is everyone in the same sense entitled to their opinion about who shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, because that is a matter of fact, that is about what happened, and while there might be disagreement about what exactly happened, there were some things that happened, and there were some things that absolutely did not happen.
As a student of history in college, I learned that one can only come close to certainty about what happened in the past when overwhelming evidence happens to be available. But in the absence of that overwhelming evidence, one doesn’t just speculate, one proposes theories based on the evidence one has.
As a student not of history but of life, I have to say that I feel I’ve learned certain things over the years that point away from any automatic assumption of Woody Allen’s guilt. First of all, I feel I’ve definitely learned that a person’s involvement in surprising or atypical sexual behavior does not mean that that person is capable of anything. It was once believed that any man who loved other men was a danger to young boys, but we now know that that was very wrong. I’ve also learned that people behave differently in love affairs from the way they behave in the rest of their lives. People can have love affairs and lie about them, while remaining truthful and dependable in regard to everything else. And I’ve learned that there are older men who fall in love with very young women and in the process upend their own lives and the lives of their families, but that does not mean that they also molest children.
I’ve never become a friend of Woody Allen or even had any terribly lengthy conversations with him, but I’ve been in his orbit enough so that I can’t possibly see him as the abstract, weird cardboard fantasy figure that one reads about. In fact, like so many of those who have worked with him repeatedly over the decades, I’ve found him to be not merely thoughtful, serious and honest, but extraordinary and even inspiring in his thoughtfulness, seriousness and honesty. Of the people I’ve known, he’s one of those I’ve respected most. And for that reason, I personally would have to say that it would take overwhelming evidence to convince me that he had sexually abused a child, just as it would take overwhelming evidence to convince me that Desmond Tutu, Franklin D. Roosevelt or Doris Lessing had sexually abused a child.
We don’t have overwhelming evidence about what happened or didn’t happen on the day in question. And yet when I turn on my computer, I hear a din of voices declaring unequivocally that Woody Allen committed a crime, a disgraceful, indefensible, sickening crime — I hear voices inciting hatred against him. Obviously if he did not in fact commit the crime, this is an appalling situation.
Wallace Shawn is a playwright, actor and essayist. He first worked with Woody Allen on the film “Manhattan.”