‘I believe Dylan Farrow’: the spirit of Salem lives on
The uncritical acceptance of one woman's accusations shows how unhinged our society is becoming.
What madness is this? A 28-year-old woman accuses her father of having abused her 21 years ago and across the world commentators, feminists and an army of online opinion-spinners declare: ‘I believe her.’ Despite not having access to any hard evidence that the abuse occurred (how old-fashioned to talk about evidence!), and despite not being privy to the history or complexities of the relationship between the woman and her father, these dispensers of 140-character summary justice declare that the woman is telling the truth and her father is therefore guilty: he did it, he’s an abuser, he’s evil.
Even worse, these jumped-up judges round on anyone who dares to day ‘Hold on a second’ or ‘Aren’t we supposed to resolve these things in a court of law rather than in a rowdy, evidence-starved public square?’, accusing these cleavers to the norms of universal justice of being ‘apologists’ for the alleged abuser, brainwashed by something called ‘rape culture’ into thinking that all victims of child abuse are liars. Indeed, one observer says some of those defending the father will be doing so because they have been ‘rape cultured’. So even to be sceptical, which was once the central duty of any civilised man upon hearing a serious accusation against a fellow citizen, is now turned effectively into a crime, into an act of complicity with criminality, into another act of abuse heaped on to this already abused woman. You either believe the woman’s accusations, or you are a partner to child abuse.
The Dylan Farrow affair shows, in ugly Technicolor, how backward, even unhinged our society is becoming, especially in relation to the issue of child abuse. No sooner had Ms Farrow used a platform in the New York Times to accuse her estranged father, Woody Allen, of having sexually abused her in 1992 than a chorus of blind acceptance of her accusations rang out. On Twitter, home of the modern-day mob, the hashtag ‘IbelieveDylan’ started to trend, while commentators told us of their great desire to ‘believe Dylan’ and their disgust with anyone who expressed either scepticism or just a yearning for a more measured, court-based assessment of Ms Farrow’s accusations. One said, ‘If you are saying things like “We can’t really know what happened”… then you are saying that his innocence is more presumptive than hers’. Leaving aside the fact that that is precisely how justice ought to work – that the defendant’s innocence is automatically presumed and the onus falls entirely on his accuser and the accuser’s prosecuting team to demonstrate that what they are saying is true – what is really being said here is that even to say ‘We can’t really know what happened’ is bad because it is to cast judgement – even, horror of horrors, aspersions – on Ms Farrow. But we can’t really know what happened. We just can’t.
There’s a real spirit of Salem to the global Dylan Farrow obsession. The casual assertion ‘I believe’ echoes the gullible fanaticism of those seventeenth-century Salem witch trials, so memorably depicted in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Back then, it also became right and proper to say ‘I believe’ with no regard to facts or evidence: ‘I believe these girls cavorted with the devil’, ‘I believe in witches’, ‘I believe they drank blood’. Then, too, to express scepticism, to demand firmer evidence, was to put yourself in association with the devil. So when 12 Boston-based ministers said the Salem magistrates should not rely so heavily on ‘spectral evidence’ – that is, evidence based on dreams and visions – they were looked upon suspiciously by some. So it is today: suggest that we should expect more than a New York Times article before we condemn a man is to risk being branded a servant of, if not the devil, then at least the allegedly wicked Woody Allen.
Some of those who have been shocked by the global, Twitter-fuelled, post-NYT branding of Allen as guilty have blamed the whole ugly spectacle on the internet. The birth of new technologies, which allow every prejudiced soul to spout his verdict to audiences of various sizes, is bad for justice, they say. In fact, the thoughtless ‘I believe Dylan’ meme speaks to something older than the internet – it speaks to the self-conscious jettisoning of scepticism and the blind acceptance of accusations that have been a key feature of the debate about child abuse for more than 20 years now.
Indeed, one of the main rallying cries of the great paedophile panics of the late 1980s and early 1990s, including the explicitly medieval Satanic abuse panic, was ‘Believe the Children’. As the American scholar Mark Pendergrast says, ‘Bumper stickers and placards asserting WE BELIEVE THE CHILDREN became popular’. In her brilliant challenge to the Satanic abuse panic, Speak of the Devil: Tales of Satanic Abuse in Contemporary England, Jean La Fontaine recounts anti-abuse campaigners’ use of the slogan ‘we believe the children’ in the early 1990s, and how it gave the impression that to be sceptical of children’s claims was itself a hateful act – ‘it was emphasised that if adults did not believe children they were denying help to innocent victims’. There was extraordinary pressure to believe, to accept accusations at face value. What was the consequence of this casual acceptance that every accuation of abuse was true? A great number of innocent people were imprisoned and families were ripped apart. The American TV presenter Geraldo Rivera, who in the late 1980s promoted the ‘Believe the Children’ idea, later came to deeply regret his actions. ‘I want to announce publicly that as a firm believer of the “Believe the Children” movement of the 1980s… now I am convinced that I was terribly wrong, and many innocent people were convicted and went to prison’, he said.
It is precisely when such a serious allegation as sexual abuse is made, and when the person being accused stands to lose his freedom and his livelihood, that rigorous, absolutely airtight justice must be allowed to take its course. But modern campaigners around child abuse demand the precise opposite, insisting that we should all instantly believe every accusation made by children, teenagers or adults looking back on past experiences. This invitation to disavow scepticism in favour of blankly and uncritically cheering all accusers will take us down a very dangerous road, to a situation where finger-pointing is enough to condemn a man and colour his character. That is the stuff of authoritarian nightmares.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.