There’s a lot I don’t understand about popular culture. Why anyone would waste time following the Kardashians, for example, or a number of other so-called “celebrity influencers”–people famous for being famous–mystifies me. So when the media began its coverage of the recent Amber Heard/Johnny Depp trial, I basically ignored it, although I did wonder why a pissing match between two obviously damaged, wealthy celebrities was worth the pixels being wasted on it.
But then, reactions to the verdict highlighted a very unattractive aspect of American culture–especially the widespread superficiality of what passes for “analysis” these days, and our “either/or” “bright line” approach to subjects that are considerably more nuanced.
Ever since the jury in that lurid case handed down what has been characterized as a win for Depp, pundits have insisted that Heard’s loss is the beginning of the end of the #MeToo movement. Now, they say, women will no longer feel safe publicly accusing their abusers.
This, in a nutshell (and I use the term nutshell advisedly) is hogwash. But it is a peculiarly American version of hogwash, and it illustrates one of this country’s least attractive cultural predispositions. Americans’ instinct for simplification and over-generalization. (Those predispositions are what prompted my admonition to students to use two terms more frequently than they previously had been wont to do: it depends and it’s more complicated than that.)
When #MeToo emerged, I applauded. Like most women, over my lifetime I’d encountered unwanted “approaches” from men, ranging from boorish behaviors to significantly worse, and I certainly saw the manifest unfairness of dismissing assaults by blaming the victim– asking what she was wearing or other questions suggesting that the woman was somehow “asking for it.” Holding predators rather than their victims responsible was long overdue.
Sending a message that unwanted touching and worse are not amusing, not a male prerogative, and not to be tolerated was also long overdue.
That said, there is a significant difference between boorishness and assault. Inappropriate behaviors occur on a continuum, and responses should be calibrated to the severity of the behavior. (Calling Al Franken…). Fundamental fairness requires rejecting essentialism— all men are not dogs, and all women are not saints. Taking women seriously is not the same thing as uncritically believing anything and everything any woman says. An accusation of impropriety or assault should be considered a rebuttable presumption–true, until and unless there is probative evidence to the contrary.
The fact that one high-profile woman was unable to convince a jury that her accusations were truthful tells us exactly nothing about another woman’s version of a different set of circumstances. Women who think otherwise are reading and believing the wrong “analysts.”
There is a reason we hold trials to determine the truth of disputed matters (and a reason lawyers hate to litigate conflicts that boil down to he said/she said). The trial system is based upon the importance of evidence: evidence corroborating one party’s version of the facts, and evidence of actual harm suffered. The judge or jury acting as the “trier of fact” must determine the credibility of testimony and evidence offered in support of both liability and degree of harm done.
In the court of public opinion, popularity can trump evidence, which is why public reactions to trials–especially trials involving high-profile figures–are so often at odds with the conclusions reached by jurors who actually heard and considered the evidence. But even when the public seems to approve of an outcome, the tendency to draw wildly exaggerated conclusions from a fact-sensitive conflict can be enormously misleading.
To insist that the results of this one unseemly battle between two privileged, self-absorbed and extremely unpleasant individuals teaches us some broader lessons about the #MeToo movement (or anything else) is simply stupid, and the amount of attention paid by the media to this episode of “poo throwing” is (at best) a distraction from news about far more serious matters.
Matters to which I will now return. I regret the interruption.