Sian Norris has written a brilliant piece in the wake of the Michael Le Vell case, in which she decries the backlash against the woman who brought the accusation. The online world this morning is full of the particular brand of internet misogynist for whom a case like this seems to validates all their long-held beliefs about women being scheming, manipulative harpies just waiting to bring any man down. A legal case has been decided, and a verdict of “not guilty” given: to quite a lot of online woman-haters this looks like an official endorsement of what they’ve said all along. Mens’ Rights Activists, who have a bizarre obsession with false rape accusations as one of the mechanisms by which women supposedly oppress men and punish those who transgress against “the matriarchy”, are out in force. According to them, the woman in question made a false allegation, and she must be punished. Failing that, she must be vilified online.
But, as Sian points out, a “not guilty” verdict does not mean that the woman made a false allegation of rape. If Le Vell was “innocent until proven guilty”, as he was, then so should his accuser be. And this case was not – or was not officially – about her guilt (though rape trials are often made into tribunals on the alleged victim’s moral character, previous behaviour and personal rectitude.) Sian makes this argument far better than me, so do go over and read her piece. As she says, making a false allegation is itself a serious crime, one for which people can be arrested, prosecuted and jailed: “[a] not guilty verdict of rape does not equal a guilty verdict of false accusation.” Claiming that it does seem to rest on the conflation of two ways we use the word “false”.
It can sometimes be used to mean “not the case, inaccurate, not aligning precisely with the facts as discovered” – as in “a falsifiable hypothesis”, “a false connection” or “Paris is the capital of Spain. T/F?” It’s a technical term which we deliberately adopt instead of “wrong”, “bad” or “no” to simply mark one side of a binary set of options without implying judgement. It ain’t the case, so call it false. However, we also use it in another way which definitely does imply judgement, indeed which loads it on with a trowel. This is the “false” which means “wicked, deceitful, malicious, lying” – as in “a false friend”, “a false front”, “thou shalt bear no false witness”.
We’re very used to navigating the difference between these two in everyday life. If my torch doesn’t work, and I discover there’s a false connection between the mechanism and the battery, I don’t stand appalled at the duplicity and wickedness of the electric circuit. When I go to greet a friend at a party, but it turns out I’ve mistaken their identity and it’s just someone with a similar haircut, I don’t berate them for being a “false friend” who has betrayed me and hurt my feelings. When the wave/particle stuff about light gets sorted out, we won’t all curse the hypothesis which has been falsified as an evil attempt to mislead us by past scientists.
The same is surely true in this kind of legal decision. The charge can be not found to be the case in court, without the alleged victim of the crime being “a false witness”. The legal system seems very clear that there is a large space between “he is not guilty” and “she was lying”, one which is somehow overlooked by the same people insisting that the low acquittal rate for rape is a glimpse into the fabric of reality, and admits of no nuance or contextual factors.
The eagerness of internet misogynists to make this woman an emblem of female deceit reeks of deliberate misunderstanding. They conflate the two kinds of “false” because they want to push an anti-woman agenda which enables rape to continue and demonizes victims who speak out as gold-diggers or publicity seekers. There is a creepy similarity between the category confusion here (which conveniently works to vilify and silence women) and the repeated wails that “consent is tricky” which come from men who are perfectly capable of reading interpersonal signals and gauging their social interactions in every other sphere of their lives. It speaks eloquently of either a hidden agenda, or the way our social discourse on this subject is pre-loaded with tropes which support men at the expense of women.