Despite long-overdue support for sexual abuse victims, there's a profound threat to their credibility, and the efforts of those who seek justice on their behalf, that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago, much less the time of Salem.
I have a friend. He's a wonderful, good, honest, caring man I've known and worked closely with for more than 25 years. I know him like a brother. I've watched him work with children literally hundreds of times, including his own, I know his family, his job history, his dreams, goals, fears and hopes. Several months ago, this man- this profoundly good man- was accused anonymously on an online message forum of "sexual abuse" of a child. And others quickly and anonymously chimed in: "this man should be reported, etc"- and still others, also anonymous: "he probably did that to lots of kids, etc", and the inevitable, still anonymous: "he did that to me, too!". When he showed me the thread, he was clearly clueless. He didn't understand what he might have done to make someone feel the need to accuse him of such a thing. It was a complete anomaly in his life in terms of even a hint of corroboration, and glaringly alien to his character. Typical of his innocent nature, he was also confused as to why his accusers posted anonymously; he is not someone to be feared- he does not have money, celebrity status, or power. If the accusations were valid, why didn't the persons come forward and lodge formal complaints? Or at least be more specific as to what took place?
We are at long last living in an era of heightened sensitivity toward the victims of sexual harassment and abuse- and most notably, a willingness to believe them.
Don't misunderstand me. That's a wonderful thing, in itself. Numerous victims can finally come forward, identify themselves, and openly bring valid allegations of sexual misconduct to the light without having their credibility challenged at every turn.
Due to the courage and candor of these women, despicable and unforgivable behavior of men like Larry Nassar, Harvey Weinstein, and others of their ilk is steadily being dragged into the light. This is a major sociological shift that's raising consciousness, changing societal standards, increasing the level of legal intolerance, and serving as an effective deterrent.
Please read the above two paragraphs again if you think I'm against this progress.
But here's the thing.
The real heros of today's "me too" movement- the brave women and children who have brought down the worst offenders of our generation- all demonstrated their courage, their credibility, their honesty, and most importantly, achieved success, by stepping forward, identifying themselves, and expressing their allegations openly.
They didn't post their claims anonymously on the internet.
It's hard to avoid noticing how easily the web can become the 1692 Salem of our generation. Although in one terrible way, it's even worse.
Consider that In order to have their allegations taken seriously, fabricated or not, every accuser during that terrible time faced two major, intractable requirements:
Anonymous gossip wasn't enough, no matter how graphic. The accused, guilty or not, would suffer few if any major consequences until the accusers stepped forward, identified themselves, and made a formal allegation which included a detailed statement, true or not, about exactly what they claim took place.
Accusers further had to have the courage to face the person they were accusing, state their allegations, and listen- along with everyone who heard the allegation- as the accused responded.
The take-away here?
I wish my friend had those advantages.
At this point in our history, any anonymous person has the power to spew out to the public literally any accusation about anyone from a hidden vantage point, with no fear of facing exposure, defamation charges, or any other consequences and- worst of all- enjoy absolute assurance that their accusations will be acted upon by many in the name of "due diligence" or by those who believe they've stumbled on the "real scoop".
And then the hysteria, mass-sharing and re-tweeting begins: "Hey, did you see this!!!???"
Which is exactly what happened to my friend. Solely on the basis of an anonymous thread on the internet, he was suspended from his teaching position "pending investigation", and despite being quickly, officially, and resoundingly cleared of any misconduct, and although everyone in the administration knew in their hearts from day one that the posts had been fabricated, his reputation was irreparably damaged and his teaching career was over. One anonymous thread on a Google-friendly gossip board was all it took.
This did nothing to help the "me too" movement. It did nothing to help the real victims, nor anyone else. Instead, it hurt everyone involved- my friend, his students, the school, everyone. In fact, the only people anonymous internet posts do NOT hurt are the abusers.
It strikes me that during the time of Salem, there must have been many village residents who had real or imagined grievances with their neighbors, but for whatever reason might not have been willing to confront them openly. If so, and if somehow Salem had the internet back then, and if the authorities had acted upon anonymous posts, it's likely that more than half the population would have been jailed within days.
This would undoubtedly have brought Salem's "me too" movement to a quick halt, which would have been a good thing back then. Not so much now.
But there's a counter-argument.
Recently, there have been some convincing studies showing that the majority of all sexual allegations have ultimately been proven true.
I believe those studies, and I'm glad they exist.
But these are NOT the allegations I'm writing about. These studies do NOT include allegations posted anonymously on the internet.
There are no studies regarding the latter and there never will be. Why? Because short of a high-tech multi-billion dollar research project, there is no realistic method of surveying whether or not anonymous allegations are valid. Which means the anonymous posters have no fear of accountability which in itself should make any such posts highly suspect to say the least.
This reminds me of Voltaire's famous dictum: "It is better to risk saving a guilty man than to condemn an innocent one."
We must continue to hunt and catch the true abusers- today's real "evil witches”. Their victims must continue to emerge openly, continue to have the courage to identify themselves, continue to make sure the authorities are informed, and continue to work hard to see their abusers brought to justice.
But how infuriating it would be if these victims once again found their allegations met with renewed skepticism, doubt, or indifference as they have been for centuries. And how ironic it would be if the most advanced technology in the world, the internet, was responsible for such a giant step backwards.
Yet that's exactly what we're witnessing now, due to the frenzied barrage of anonymous and dubious claims on highly visible online group forums, social media sites, message boards, and the like.
These anonymous, often sensational online claims, whether malicious or misguided- and especially the willingness to believe them- do nothing but undermine the true victims- especially those who have had the courage, honesty, and commitment to step forward, identify themselves, face their abusers, and express their allegations openly.
Shouldn't we honor their struggle by at least matching the most basic procedural standards for determining justice back in 1692?
Until next time, take good care of yourself.