The default posture of “believing women” conflicts with conceptions of justice predicated on the presumption of innocence, and that guilt must be established beyond a reasonable doubt. In practice, this can shift the injustice from the accusers to the accused, as Emily Yoffe demonstrates in a series of essays for The Atlantic regarding policies on university campuses. As Yoffe writes elsewhere, “If believing the woman is the beginning and the end of a search for the truth, then we have left the realm of justice for religion.”
At this point, I suggest we distinguish between implications for “believing women.” To take a clear-cut case, someone who provides empathy and understanding for an alleged victim does so without imposing a cost on anyone else. I believe the tension arises when the implications of believing an accusation means taking punitive action. In other words, the resistance is less about “believing women,” and more about imposing the consequences of believing women.
Typical Western judicial systems are regulated by robust rules of civil procedure and due process, and are administered by professionals trained in evaluating evidence. Many include an appeals process that provides a check against errors. The punishments imposed by a court can be severe, but there are also higher standards to ensure a person is guilty and deserving of punishment.
But while the punishments imposed by a society or organization might generally not be as severe as those of legal systems, such groups are not bound by the same rules of due process, evidence, or appeals. Expulsion from one’s profession, university, or community is a trivial inconvenience compared to the trauma endured by abuse victims. However, for those who are falsely accused, these can be monumental and possibly ruinous life disruptions. Consequently, even those who would unconditionally believe women when it comes to providing support, may be unwilling to take action against the accused based on those same allegations. By acting on the allegations, they assume responsibility for their decisions. On a broader level, they may also be averse to fostering a society in which allegations alone are sufficient to ruin someone’s life.
At the same time, there are undeniable consequences to not believing legitimate allegations. The immediate consequences are obviously felt by the victims themselves, to whom insult is added to injury. And abusers who retain official positions may continue to abuse others, especially knowing that they face no accountability, which in turn begets even more abuse. At the same time, the societal risks of not addressing abuse are no less significant: it is hard to have faith in a community in which abusers thrive with impunity.
And if “believing women” only requires a serious investigation (as opposed to automatically assuming guilt), there would still need to be standards to determine when action should be taken against someone. Overzealousness can result in unjust punishment, while equivocation can result in unjust exculpation. We must remember that whether or not someone was harassed or abused is a matter of fact. The problem is that the rest of us do not necessarily know what happened without proof.
Rabbi Josh Yuter, “Jewish Justice and #MeToo”, The Lehrhaus (20 February 2019) [https://www.thelehrhaus.com/commentary/jewish-justice-and-metoo/]