The sexual assault backlash is coming. Here's how to respond.
You can almost feel the gathering backlash.
As more and more women and men come forward with accounts in which they were sexually assaulted or harassed at work — in Hollywood, in D.C., in newsrooms from Fox News to NPR to Mother Jones — you can feel the shock that animated the first few weeks of these scandals giving way to a very familiar and particular form of exhaustion. It's a tug that's as irrational as it is persistent: Enough, it says. It can't be this bad.
I have been encouraged to see the outpouring of accounts from dozens of people who've been harassed or assaulted or raped, or simply had their artistic value reduced to their use value for the genitals of powerful men. I've been even more encouraged to see some actual consequences delivered. It's gratifying to think of people who maintain that they thought groping co-workers was "cute" or a "joke" feeling the norms shift underneath them. So rare is it for victims to see justice that it's genuinely destabilizing when it happens.
But it will not last. That's not how these things go. Our conversations about sexuality and consent progress along a kind of saltatory conduction that erupts to the surface every few years and then dives back underground, suitably insulated and naturalized.
It's an understudied phenomenon, this collective process, but it's as regular as the tides. With every news story there comes a moment of satiety so absolute that the weight of it trumps any story's actual merits. After everyone reads one too many descriptions of the same incident — whether it's allegations about Russian electoral interference or sexual harassment or rape — a reactionary mood sets in. It's the urge everyone gets as a news cycle crests: That's all very well and good, but come on. Time for the takedown, the pushback, the cooler heads that will reason the volume of the tide away.
As a practical matter, retaliatory lawsuits have already begun: Harvey Weinstein is suing The Weinstein Company (which he founded) in order to get emails he says he needs to defend himself. Comedian Aaron Glaser has sued fellow comic Jasmine Pierce for $38 million dollars for naming him as a sexual predator in the comedy community. Bill O'Reilly is suing the ex-partner of a woman he sued for posting what he knows about her case on his Facebook page.
We all know what will come next. As in 2006, when the Duke lacrosse case gripped the news; as in 2014, when Rolling Stone published it's piece about an alleged rape at UVA, one of the accounts coming out during this wave will be in some way disproved. When that happens, the familiar landslide of public opinion will turn. The incident will become a muted indictment of the hundreds of real victims who have come forward to tell their stories. Much of the public will seize that one false story as an excuse to facilitate the calming of the waters, the burying of a conversation so ugly and difficult that we regress to truisms about "human nature" and try to explain sexual predations as mere "awkwardness" or hapless attempts at flirting.
Some collective phenomena we understand well enough to name. We all know by now what the Reichstag fire was and how it's become a shorthand for "false flag" operations intended to inflame passions and discredit the opposition. It's become a useful term as we enter the second act of these propaganda wars.
Maybe we need a similar term for the predictable backlash that's fast approaching as these accounts of sexual predation accrete. There are plenty of cognitive distortions aiding that backlash — from the "identifiable victim effect," by which we sympathize more with individual victims than with groups (so as the number of accusers grow, we grow less charitable toward them and suspect them of bandwagoning). There's system justification, a cognitive bias in which alternatives to the existing system feel threatening, so people mistake their psychological relief at reverting to a less confusing status quo with "reasonable skepticism."
But there are two more terms I'd like to suggest. One is the Anti-Bandwagon Fallacy. It's the belief that a news item's truth content actually diminishes as more people come forward with corroborating stories. The other is the Newtonian News Fallacy, by which, for every news story, there must eventually be an equal and opposite news story.
The coming backlash is built in, it's waiting in the wings, and the people who eventually espouse it will be convinced they're seeing through the news rather than participating in the rhythms this particularly dysfunctional media landscape confuses with the truth.
Yes, the backlash will come. But when it does, here is my plea to you: Allow yourself to push beyond the impulse that will strike you to shrug and throw up your hands, announcing that truth is unknowable. Realize that it is not, in fact, more "logical" or reasonable to dismiss dozens or hundreds of cases of harassment merely because one account was disproved.