“Believe all women.” “Support our troops.” “Keep America Great.” “[Black/Blue/All] lives matter.” Aside from being three words long and politically effective, what do these slogans have in common? They can all be easily removed from their intended meaning to criticize the people who use them. And when I say easily, I mean VERY easily.
This week, “Believe All Women” (or “Believe All Victims”) is being hung out to dry because — oh dear — Joe Biden is accused of sexual assault. The allegation comes from a former staffer who worked with Biden in the early-90’s. And it’s not getting much press coverage. But predictably, some conservatives are having a field day. I’m not going to get knee-deep in the muck of whether the allegation is credible and warrants more widespread attention (though it seems fair to presume this would get more attention if leveled against a conservative politician, warranted or not). Suffice to say I have no idea whether this allegation is true and neither do you.
So anyway, I’m going to play it safe and just discuss the more generalized criticism that’s being levied against the sloganeers who have touted “Believe All Woman” for the past few years. The criticism goes like this: “Believe all women? ALL women? Believe ALL of them? But what if they’re a-lyin’?!” It’s a fair criticism if you take the slogan literally — of course when someone is accused of committing a heinous act that has potential to destroy their reputation, personal life, career, and even possibly land them prison, we all ought to care about looking into things before we decide who to believe.
Taking a slogan literally is always an obvious mistake because (and I know I don’t really need to explain this to you but I will so you can’t pretend like you don’t already know it) it’s just a slogan. It’s not a law, and it’s not intended to be absolute (and yes, I know you can find some weirdos on Twitter who would still — even now — insist that they do indeed mean their slogan in an absolute way, but you and I both know that those people are at the fringes of the discussion and are being nonsensical; they exist on both sides of any debate and it’s a cheap shot to seek them out to discredit your opponent). So anyway, taking a slogan literally is always a mistake, but unfortunately in our politics basing your entire argument on an obvious mistakes is a totally acceptable form of discourse. We all know that only the most rabid and shortsighted proponents of this slogan literally mean that you should believe any woman (or victim) who accuses anyone of anything.
So for the vast majority of fair-minded people who say we should “believe all women,” what do they mean? You ask as if you don’t already know, but alright…
What “Believe All Women” means (once again, I’m only telling you this so you can’t continue to pretend that you don’t already know) is that accusations should be taken seriously. For a whole helluva lot of years women who accused men — especially powerful men — of sexual assault were discounted, discredited, disregarded. It was a common response to shrug it off — “he said/she said” — and carry on as if the accusation was never made in the first place. Accusers were not taken seriously. “Take All Women Seriously” might be a better slogan, except it’s four words. And who’s going to take a four-word slogan seriously?
So now the question remains — will Biden’s accuser be taken seriously? Once again, I just don’t know. But if the same serious media treatment is given to Biden’s accuser as has been given to women who have accused Donald Trump, Brett Kavanaugh, and Roy Moore of assault it won’t make any difference, will it?