A Very Fine Line

One of the reasons I’ve really grown to like the new Fox series The Orville is that it does what Star Trek did originally: tell stories that are commentaries on society and its foibles in the context of Science Fiction (which is something that, to my understanding, Star Trek: Discovery is not doing). Last week’s episode was a great example of that: a parallel Earth where laws were replaced by the Court of Public Opinion. If the public thinks you have committed an offense, you are down-voted. Get enough, and you get cleansed, unless you can reverse public opinion. Sound familiar today? But we are a society of laws, and people are not guilty by public opinion alone. We depend on facts.

What brings this to mind are all the sexual harassment claims coming out these days. The ends of the spectrum, of course, are clear. Is there any question regarding the Harvey Weinsteins, the Bill Cosbys, or the Donald Trumps? There are clear patterns occurring over many many years. Even with cases like Anthony Rapp and Kevin Spacey, clear patterns are emerging. At the other end are the clear good guys, who have always shown respect and listened to “no”.

But in the middle, where we do draw the line? When do we turn from a fact-based society and the court of law to the court of public opinion. There was an image going around Facebook of Pepe LePew grabbing the cat and the cat resisting, and the caption was: How do you think we taught this behavior? If we go back and look at the media from much of the 20th century, there is much behavior there that wouldn’t be acceptable today. If people were following the mores of the time, how can we judge them by today’s mores?

[I’ll note this is a deep question that goes beyond sexual issues: Do we judge the founders of this country differently because they legally owned slaves? The people of biblical days different because they stoned gays? We can look back and note the behavior would be judged differently today, but that’s hindsight. It’s wrong to us; it wasn’t wrong to them. Times change and values change and we move forward. Think about this: After the Civil War was over and slaves were freed, were the Plantation Owners criminally charged for their antebellum actions? Criminal charges are different than acknowledgement, reparations, and changing behavior from what you did in the past.]

What got me thinking about this was some recent items in the news that were single incidents, such as Jeremy Piven and Dustin Hoffman. For some of these, the public is reacting and taking action against someone even before charges are investigated, just because of the climate of the times — and even when the charge is denied. There is the assumption that the person making the charge is always truthful — wait, since we’re talking about past instances, is always remembering accurately. Remember, when we’re talking about incidents in the past, “truth” is relative. Memory can be faulty, especially in times of media frenzy.  Look no further than the McMartin Preschool case, where there ended up being no criminal charges. Further, there is often a clear difference between what one means by an action, and how that action is interpreted by another. Just ask anyone who is married :-).

At a computer security talk I once went to, a speaker hypothesized that the best attack against someone was to go to a conference room computer, load child porn onto it, and then delete it, and then make an accusation. After all, the offending pictures were there and deleted — there must be a coverup. When could these sex abuse claims cross that line?

I’m not saying I know the answer. I can’t draw a clear demarcation line, even if I would like to. I can clearly see the edges — the clear patterns of abuse over a long time, the clear patterns of no abuse at all. But for the onsie-twosie cases with no patterns, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to trot out the Court of Public Opinion, unless their is an admission. There are also concerns about incidents seemingly not at the level of patterns of abuse resulting in oversize reactions. Perhaps we should let the case go to the court systems to find out the real evidence, or figure out some way to make things more fact-based, and reactions more commensurate, to live up to our constitutional protection that one is innocent until proven guilty by some sufficient standard of evidence.

P.S.: I’m not sure we’re there yet anyway, when I watch TV and CBS is touting the Victoria Secret Fashion Show.