“Why would he lie?”
That’s what Chris Matthews asked Elizabeth Warren this week about the numerous accusations against Mike Bloomberg and his company over the years: sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and sexist and harassing comments that contribute to a hostile workplace. Anna North, in an article in Vox, refers to at least 65 women making accusations against Bloomberg and his company in about 40 cases.
“Why would he lie?” Matthews asked Warren about Bloomberg’s denials that he had told one pregnant employee to “kill it.”
“And why would she lie?” rejoins Warren. “That’s the question, Chris. Why would you assume. . .?” And then he interrupts her.
He said. She said. Why would you believe her? Why would you believe him? He’s innocent until proven guilty. Bloomberg, with his dozens of non-disclosure agreements with women. The president, with twenty-seven accusations of sexual assault. Kavanaugh, with his three accusers, one at a public confirmation hearing. Why would you believe her? Why would you believe them?
And that’s just it. The women’s stories are always accusations. Always awaiting that adjective: credible. Always waiting to be proven, always a likely or possible lie, until proven. Sexual assault. Sexual innuendos and crude talk that create hostile and unsafe environments. Pregnancy discrimination. She has to prove he did it, said it, suggested it, made it unsafe. And he is always innocent until he is proven guilty, and until then, she is a liar. She is guilty. Guilty of lying until she can prove he’s the liar.
And he is (usually) white. And he is powerful. And he is male. He is (often) wealthy. He is the default for all the power dynamics: for truth and believability, for threatening posturing, for the pay-off.
Innocence until guilt is proven is an important tool in our legal process. In an ideal world, you are protected from conviction without strong proof of your guilt. It’s backbone, foundation, bedrock.
So what do you need in order to prove guilt? Tears? Hidden cameras? Secret recordings? Semen? Blood? Twenty-seven women coming forward with similar stories? (I’m looking at you, Mr. President.) How many women’s truths does it take to outweigh one rich man’s lie? What is the tipping point when we suddenly stop seeing Cosby, America’s dad, and start conceiving the possibility of Cosby, sexual predator? How do we go from Bloomberg or Trump, wealthy and powerful political leaders, to sexual harasser and sexual predator?
What does it take to believe the woman in the story? Why would you believe her? Why would you believe him? She is the accuser. Always. She is always the accuser in the story, and so her burden is proof.
In the secret stories that women and girls tell each other, he has groomed her for silence, or intimidated her to silence. He has gaslighted her until she can no longer separate his false reality from her truth. He has stepped over so many boundaries with such deadly skill that she no longer knows where the first boundary lay. He has paid for her silence. He has cajoled, intimidated, forced her to sign the non-disclosure agreement. He has told her the devastating truth that no one will believe her anyway.
I am not necessarily advocating for the elimination of innocence until guilt is proven. It’s foundational to our understanding of legal justice in this country. But I think that there is something terribly broken about the way we use it. It privileges the powerful, the wealthy, the white man, the abuser; it makes eternally possible Chris Matthews’ question: “What would you believe her?” It is a cloak behind which the rapist, the predator, the hateful misogynist boss can hide, with a fair degree of certainty that no one will believe her anyway.
Gratitude List (Beauties I See on Saturday Morning):
Saturday mornings are for birding-watching from the kitchen table.
1. That cardinal is the purest scarlet I may have ever seen.
2. A flock of goldfinches has claimed the thistle sock. They’re beginning to glow gold around the edges, gold shining through the olive, leaking onto their wings. They look so delicate and faerie-like next to the muscular house finch who has zipped in to share the thistle.
3. I heard the doves call this morning. Haunting.
4. The ground under the feeder seems to be alive until you let your eyes focus on the little flock of sparrows, juncoes, and doves feeding.
5. Something in me flies, too. Something sings. Something rises in the cool dawn.
May we walk in Beauty!