The past few months have been a weird time, with the media finally having to focus on some of the issues that progressives have been talking about for a long time: violence against women; victim-blaming; police-brutality and the racist deaths of young black men at the hands of (white) cops; collusion with predators; collusion with oppressors. And you, like me, are probably inundated with stories and conversations and facebook posts (and facebook arguments) taking every angle on the issue. And no matter which angle, you are also hearing this bleated at you: “Innocent until proven guilty!! Innocent until proven guilty!” like it’s an ace in the hole. Can’t argue with that, can you? So we better just stop talking about it.
Have you ever noticed that those shouting “Innocent until proven guilty[IUPB]” use it as a way to shut down conversation? Have you ever noticed that those shouting IUPB use it to shut down conversation that is critical of the status quo? Critical of the systems that allow, enable, and collude with oppressors and abusers and victimizers?
Have you ever noticed that IUPB is used to shut down conversations that implicate not just the wrongdoer but those around him and those around you that engage in similar behaviour?
Have you ever noticed that eschewing the IUPB framework is treated like it’s worse than the offense itself? Much like how calling someone racist has become worse (in the minds of many white people) than actually being racist, talking about Jian Ghomeshi or Bill Cosby or Darren Wilson without throwing in “allegedly” and “of course we can’t really know what happened” and “INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY” is treated like more of a social faux pas than actually being a sexual predator or murderer.
There are four reasons I don’t subscribe to the IUPB framework:
1. I’m not a criminal court. They have a duty to presume innocence unless and until guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. I don’t. I am free to make up my mind based on the publicly available information as well as historical context. For example, publicly available information tells me 15+ women have accused Bill Cosby of raping them, while historical context tells me that false rape allegations are made very (very, very) rarely, and that victims who come out publicly are pilloried, shamed, and blamed (so why on earth would someone come out with a rape accusation for funsies? And against a hugely rich and powerful man to boot?). In fact, I’d say taking Cosby’s side in this instance is not only ethically troublesome, but logically troublesome.
2. My refusing to grant innocence until guilt is proven of some powerful dude thousands of miles away doesn’t impact them at all. But it does impact the survivors in my life. My saying “I believe the accusers” tells survivors I am a safe person to talk to, that I will believe them too, that I understand the pressures and systems in place to prevent victims coming forward.
3. The IUPB framework is applied selectively. (Alleged) rapists are granted it, while their victims are presumed to be lying until proven innocent (in the extraordinarily rare case that sexual assault is actually convicted). Darren Wilson is presumed to be innocent while Michael Brown is presumed to have been guilty of and deserving of a death sentence for…? Indeed, Darren Wilson has been granted a permanent presumption of innocence through incredibly corrupt grand jury proceedings. The IUPB framework is applied in ways that maintain the power structures of the world that privilege men, whiteness, and wealth at the expense of people of colour, women, and the poor.
4. The criminal justice system is set up by–and for–those in power. Grand juries rarely indict police officers and the courts are simply not set up to attend to the realities of most sexualized violence. So if you are a vulnerable person (a woman, a person of colour, any number of intersecting identities), relying on the court to tell you who to stay away from, who to keep your eye on, who to warn your loved ones away from, you’re trusting a rigged system to keep you safe. And if you take a failure to indict or a failure to convict as proof of innocence, especially in situations where the accused has power and the victim has none, especially in cases where we have centuries of precedent showing that perpetrators are rarely brought to justice, you’re trusting a rigged system to keep you safe. And if you think the only way you can trust a victim is after a rigged system has found their abuser guilty, you’re collaborating with a rigged system.
I’m not saying do away with the legal presumption of innocence, I’m saying that buying into the (somehow) pervasive idea that you and I have the same responsibility, that believing victims is somehow stripping accused abusers of their right to a fair trial, is dangerous, harmful, and ethically suspect.