Four simple words. Perhaps they should be also combined with a hashtag and read #Ibelievethewomen, to be read alongside #metoo. In the last few weeks in the US, allegations of sexual misconduct have ripped through Hollywood, Congress, and other areas of society. Some have been acknowledged as true by the perpetrators, others continue to deny. Sadly, this is not a new development in the United States, or in the heart of man around the world. Over the last decades, no segment of life has been immune, whether the Church, military, schools or small town families.
But when Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell this week said these words, “I believe the women”, did the ground shift just a bit? Here you had the powerful (male) leader of the most senior legislative branch of government, frankly an “old-boys club” by some of their own description that is slowly changing, uttering the words that lend credibility to the “powerless”. This was in response to the ongoing accusations against a nominee from Alabama, Roy Moore, who is facing in a few weeks a special election to the Senate from that state.
I don’t know whether Moore is guilty of the offenses he is accused of. But like many of those accused, he was in a position of power many years ago, and supposedly he used the fear of that power to try and hush up the young women involved. If indeed true, he succeeded for perhaps 40 years. Some have said if these things are true, for Moore or others accused, why did the accusers wait so long to come forward? Let me say this very clear: if we have not been in a situation where we have been intimidated to be silent by someone in power, we will not understand that question and should be quiet ourselves. As I wrote in my post on whistleblowers (see “Speak up, you must do more, why are all of you so timid!”) there is a very strong social cost to speaking up. Fear is a very real thing, and the wounds of fear and intimidation from power are equally real and destructive.
It is of course not only women that are coming forward with accusations against those that have perpetrated evil against them (and yes, it is evil). Men also have been abused, mistreated and touched inappropriately. (have you noticed that the accusations are almost always not against women? This is not evidence that women can’t be predators or are somehow a more perfected race, but perhaps rather an insight on the nature of how power and sexuality are combined in female leadership compared to male.)
I believe that our “default” position needs to be that we will believe those that come to us with accusations of abuse towards those in power. Of course this is a complex issue, and there are many specific applications based in the context and relationship with those involved. But to be “neutral” until all the facts are in communicates to those without power that we are siding with those in power. Many years ago in India, a young woman working with our group came to our door in the late night, distraught and weeping. She proceeded to tell us of how her team leader had been sexually abusing her. It had been going on for a while, but she wasn’t able to tell, as her culture had taught her that the leader was never wrong. She must be at fault. Finally, she gained courage, and brought it out in the open.
We chose to believe her, even though our esteem and love for the team leader told us that it must not be true. Sadly, it was true, and the perpetrator needed to leave to be able to get help in another situation. But how many people in those situations are not believed? Or even worse, a cover up happens? In some situations, like at Penn State University football team in the US, for decades.
But you say, what if we believe the person, and it turns out to be a wrong accusation? Of course there must be an investigation, and evidence be there. Some will indeed have to go through their reputations being tarnished for a time, so that the truth can emerge. (is this one of the costs of being in a powerful position?) But our position must be to believe the people bringing the charge, especially when there are unequal power equations going on. We communicate trust and belief to the person, committed to the truth emerging in however ugly and complex a process. And we ourselves are never left free of the wounds of loving well.
Many have heard the quote attributed to Winston Churchill (though others have also said versions of it), History is written by the victors. The winners, the powerful, have often written the narratives that survive. It is one of the beautiful and wonderful events of the last few decades that more and more stories are emerging in history of those that were marginalized, lands taken away, rapes perpetrated. Stories of the women, the indigenous peoples of many lands, the children, the forgotten history of Christianity in places like Asia, that have never fully been told. More of the history books are being written now by women by Asians, by Africans, by Latinos, with a very different view emerging of the horrors of slavery, of colonialism, of economic and sexual exploitation.
Yes, I also believe the women.