December 19, 2017

MEGAN MCARDLE: The Current Sex Panic Harks Back to the Era of Coddling Women: The outcome of #BelieveAllWomen is no utopia. We’ve seen such a repressive regime before.

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.)

I willl be very interested to see if the numbers of female law clerks hired by federal judges drop next year.

I also remarked, in response to this New York Times piece on when “yes” really means “no,” that we aren’t far from someone writing a book spinning all these tangled feminist takes into a full throated call for the return of patriarchy. After all, if women are this fragile and incapable of making good decisions, and if the world is really such a hostile place for women, they obviously need a social structure that accommodates their fragility and poor decision-making via protection, and control.

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