Sunday, 11 February 2018

MeToo and Method

A couple weeks ago political scandal rocked my home province, Ontario. The leader of the Progressive Conservative Party (the name isn't as oxymoronic as it sounds, if one understands the history of Canadian conservatism) resigned in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct, which of course he vehemently denies. As inevitably happens in such cases, everyone has an opinion, but most people I note do not know how to think systematically about forming their opinion. Since the question in these cases is fundamentally historically--what happened??--I rather suspect that historical method might aid us here.

Now, history as I conceive it proceeds by way of inference to the best explanation. What we seek to explain is human conduct: what scenario gives us an account in which all respective actors act in a maximally intelligible (which is not the same as rational or even intelligent; something can be intelligibly irrational) fashion. Towards this end, we first query the data. The data for us is not what happened; that is what we seek to know. Rather, the primary data is what is said about the case. The first significant set of data are the reports that two women have alleged that when they were eighteen Brown plied them with alcohol and they ended up alone with him in his bedroom. The first incident (involving whom we will call "Woman A") is alleged to have happened when Brown was in his late twenties and already working as a lawyer, the other (involving whom we will call "Woman B") when he was in his mid-thirties and a member of the Canadian federal parliament. The other significant set of data is what Brown himself says about the case. He acknowledges that he knew both women at the times of the alleged incidents. In response to the first allegation, Brown acknowledges that he was acquainted with Woman A at the time of the alleged event, but argues that her account is demonstrably false because she says that they ended up in his second-floor bedroom when he did not move into a residence with a second floor until shortly after the incident allegedly occurred. In response to the second, Brown acknowledges that he and Woman B kissed in his bedroom, but argues that not only was it consensual but she initiated it.

In thinking about the best explanation, I play with possibilities. I ask how I can account for this data if the women are telling the truth, and how I can account for it if Brown is. I will begin with Brown, as I think this will best elucidate the procedure. If Brown is telling the truth then on his own account we must believe that Woman B followed him into his bedroom, initiated intimate contact, and then years later decided to accuse him of assault. Moreover, we have to assume that Woman A wholly fabricated an account about Brown engaging in misconduct in order to support Woman B's allegation. We would have no evidence regarding their individual or collective motivations. At best, we'd have inchoate suspicious that they are part of some political conspiracy to bring down the leader of the official opposition. The women's actions are unintelligible. So too is Brown's, really, as one wonders how a thirty-something member of parliament who is wholly circumspect in his conduct with women ended up alone in his bedroom with an eighteen-year-old woman.

What happens if I flip the scenario around and ask how I can account for the data if the women are telling the truth? First, I can readily account for why they have brought forth the allegations: having been violated by a man who according to the polls was poised to become the next premiere of Canada's largest province in this spring's election, and at a time at which women are experiencing greater freedom in reporting sexual misconduct, they decided that they had to come forward and tell the world what happened to them. Their conduct now makes eminent sense. It also makes greater sense of Brown's: he would hardly be the first man guilty of sexual misconduct to accuse his victims of lying.  His admitted intimate contact with an eighteen-year-old woman alone in his bedroom now makes much better sense: he is simply a sexual predator who uses his power as a lawyer or member of parliament to take advantage of younger women. Again, there's sadly nothing too exceptional about that. Indeed, his overall conduct fits well with another set of data, namely the known tendency of abusers to deny, minimize, and blame; the denial is not itself particularly probative, as it could in principle speak equally to an innocent man defending himself against false accusations, and minimization ("it was consensual") and blame ("she initiated it") on their own might not be enough to conclude that he is lying, but it would tend to reinforce a judgment of guilt made on other grounds. Everyone's actions are now fully intelligible.

What about Brown's argument that Woman A's account must be false because he did not move into a residence with a second-floor bedroom until shortly after it is alleged to have happened? This too is readily intelligible. The report is that the incident happened when she was a high school student. His argument, as best I can tell, is that he did not have a second-floor bedroom until the summer of the year she graduated high school. An intelligible explanation is readily available: the report that she was a "high school student" at the time of the incident should be taken loosely to include the summer after she graduated. It doesn't strike me as a particularly significant imprecision in language to refer to someone as a "high school student" in the weeks immediately following the end of her grade twelve year. Alternatively, she herself might be remembering the exact timing of the event a bit inaccurately: perhaps she thought it was in, say, June of that year, when it was really in July. Combined with the other data, the timing of the alleged event and of his move into a residence that conforms to Woman A's description is sufficiently close that slight imprecision in language seems a better explanation than the idea that Woman A has fabricated her account, as is his attempt to use such slight imprecision to obviate the allegation.

My decision to believe the women here is not political. It's not ideological. It's rational, grounded in an attentive and intelligent working through of the relevant details of the case. Yes, of course, new data could alter my judgment. For instance, if evidence was found that both women received large and inexplicable payments from the Liberal Party just hours before the story was reported, then that could change things. But given the data currently available, there is no reason to anticipate such new data, and in the absence of such reason it would be unreasonable to substitute yarns about possible payments to interfere with good judgment on the basis of the extant data. Patrick Brown remains innocent in the eyes of the law, but in the eyes of any careful historian things look different.

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