Re: “Language murky around sex assaults” - William Matheson's Journal
Feb. 6th, 2015
10:16 pm - Re: “Language murky around sex assaults”
A letter I wrote to the Chronicle Herald, regarding a piece on the language used in reporting sexual assaults:
If the justice system is to be fair, it would seem that a determinedly even-handed treatment of evidence and the law is required even in the most explosive cases. We need to maintain this in our discourse. “Alleged” and “accused” must be used in reporting all undecided criminal cases, including sexual violence. If a reporter accepts innocent until proven guilty, a fundamental tenet of our legal system, their use of these words should be ubiquitous and should not affect a reportee’s credibility. How could they, if they’re used evenly across all types of cases?
Of course, perhaps they are not used evenly in all cases and this merits closer examination. (Numbers would be helpful – I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reporter so she can support her own claim.) If we applied extra linguistic precautions to sexual assault cases that we don’t use anywhere else, that would indeed be unfair to the true survivors. We must treat all types of cases fairly and not isolate our demands for fairness to this one domain.
I would also like to see numbers about the probability of false accusations for sexual assault relative to other domains, though reliable statistical work would be extremely challenging for both inborn and extrinsic reasons. However, even if this claim has strong support, it’s a red herring because each case must be judged on its individual merits. Imagine a change to the justice system where, since 75% of accused of crime Z were found guilty anyway, we simply convict everyone accused of crime Z since there’s a 75% chance we’ll be right.
Update: Lowe found some numbers, see blog.
Innocent until proven guilty necessarily means alleged until proven survivor. We need not go to extremes to speak of how they might be lying. We can offer assistance and support to the alleged without having to make a verdict. This is hard work: It’s much easier to deal in absolutes and strict categories. But when we think that way, a lot of important principles get thrown under the bus.
If we stop upholding innocent until proven guilty in our discourse, the politicians and even the courts themselves won’t be far behind. As terrible as assault and killing are, we also have to step back and allow fair and independent adjudication, because an unfair and capricious justice system would be both less effective and become its own new evil.
* * *
I give this a longer treatment in a formal blog post: "Justice for all".