Everyone loves being part of a pile-on against Lena Dunham, I know. I do too. But the current Twitter-mauling of Dunham after she defended her friend and 'Girls' colleague Murray Miller against sexual-assault allegations is really nothing to celebrate.
If we could all turn down the Schadenfreude for five minutes, we might realize the furious social-media ostracism of Dunham for expressing her inner conscience reveals just how far out-of-control the post-Harvey Weinstein climate has spun.
Dunham is getting it in the neck for tweeting her doubts about the accusations made by actress Aurora Perrineau. Perrineau says she was assaulted by Miller when she was 17. Dunham said that she and her fellow 'Girls' executive producer Jenni Konner believe Miller is innocent. Even that Perrineau is making it up. "While our first instinct is to listen to every woman's story, our insider knowledge of Murray's situation makes us confident that sadly this accusation is one of the 3 % of assault cases that are misreported every year," she tweeted. Cue social-media meltdown.
The response was instant, and intense. Dunham was accused of being a rape apologist. A sell-out. A phony feminist who claims to believe women but swiftly changes her tune when one of her male friends stands accused of sexual wrongdoing. Her feminism is too white, too upper middle-class, too capitalistic, an army of tweeters said.
The right got stuck in, too. Of course it did. Dunham-hunting is its favorite bloodsport. Fox News called out her "shocking hypocrisy."
She's now being accused of "hipster racism' by Lenny Letter contributor—now resigned—Zinzi Clemmons. "It is time for women of color, black women in particular, to divest from Lena Dunham," said Clemmons. Right now it feels like women of all colors — alongside the somewhat tragic male feminists who clog up certain sections of Twitter—are divesting from Dunham. Her moral stock is down, down, down.
So down that she has apologized for defending Miller. "[I]t was absolutely the wrong time to come forward with such a statement and I am so sorry," she says. "We regret this decision with every fiber of our being." Every fiber—ouch. This sounds to me like a woman in turmoil.
I think Dunham's apology is sad, tragic, and unnecessary. The problem here, the niggling difficulty, is that Dunham both deserves and doesn't deserve the onslaughts against her morals and her social (media) standing. She deserves it for the simple reason that she has played a key role in pushing the problematic—to use their language—cult of belief around accusations of sexual assault.
We live in a time when, increasingly, every woman who makes an accusation against a man is instantly believed. No questions. No skepticism. No "Let's test this in court." No presumption of innocence. "Believe the women," the cry goes. This cult of credulity, this discouragement of doubt in favour of instant, tweeted assumptions of guilt, feels dangerous. Or certainly damaging—damaging to reason, public debate, and justice.
Instant belief lay behind the Rolling Stone fiasco, where a journalist fell for a concocted story of gang rape at the University of Virginia. Instant belief fueled the hysteria and injustices of the pedophile panics of the 1980s and 1990s: back then the rallying cry was "Believe the children." If we want to go back further, instant belief was the cause of unspeakable horrors in the Old South, where black men were frequently punished, even destroyed, by accusations of sexual harassment. This is why the great civil-rights warrior Ida B. Wells said we should "appeal to the public for the presumption of innocence"—because she knew the dangers of speedy, uncritical belief in accusations.
Of course, everyone who makes an accusation of sexual assault—whether it's against Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, or some ordinary Joe—should be treated sympathetically. And seriously. They should be listened to. But justice demands we maintain an element of doubt. Otherwise we end up in the kind of situation we have now, where you can topple someone with one social-media post detailing something he allegedly did (that word, "allegedly," is falling out of favor, I know).
The cult of credulity cultivates a finger-pointing climate, in which the difficult, complicated task of searching for the truth is supplanted by the online thrill of shouting "I BELIEVE"—which is only a slightly more PC version of the days when mobs would gather round some hapless citizen and bellow "GUILTY" until he was duly done in. And Dunham, like other modern feminists, has helped to fuel this rush to believe and condemn. Just four months ago she tweeted: "Things women do lie about: what they ate for lunch. Things women don't lie about: rape." This could be the motto of the cult of belief: the idea that no accusation of sexual assault is ever false, or simply mistaken or confused; they are all true, gospel, unquestionable.
In which case, why even bother with courts? Perhaps all men accused of sexual assault should be instantly punished without the benefit of mounting a defense of themselves. That Dunham said all claims of rape are true and now says that the one made against her good friend is false makes her look like a massive hypocrite. On this level, she deserves the opprobrium.
But she also doesn't deserve it because surely no one deserves to be metaphorically strung up like this simply for expressing skepticism about an accusation of criminal activity. This is the problem: in calling out Dunham's double standard on believing accusers, we risk further entrenching the rush to believe accusers, the primacy of accusation over justice. The ritual denunciations of Dunham, and her craven apology in response to them, exacerbates the very notion that any kind of defense of a person accused of sexual assault is a huge no-go zone, something only cretins or rape apologists would do.
In going after Dunham like this, her critics, including many on the right, have worsened the often shrill, unforgiving culture that Dunham and other modern illiberal liberals have helped to bring about. Well done, guys.
That a woman has been put under enormous pressure to retract a statement of conscience, an expression of doubt, a defense of a friend, confirms how terrifying the fallout from the Hollywood sexual-harassment scandal has become. Now, not only are all sorts of sexual behavior, from the fairly innocent to the absolutely terrible, being called out on a daily basis, but so are those who say "Hang on a second…"
Criticizing this campaign and its possible excesses is becoming very difficult indeed. And that's bad. It's bad for Dunham right now, but more importantly, it's bad for free, open, skeptical debate. You're having fun going after Dunham, I know, but know that you are very possibly degrading public life in the bargain.