Being Inquisitive Versus Believing

William Blackstone expressed the popular idea that, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Although the concept that accused parties are innocent until proven guilty existed before Blackstone’s formulation, it describes the foundation upon which the concept was built. Innocent people should never have to suffer for a crime they did not commit even if the rigorous criteria that ensure that allows some guilty people to escape punishment.

This is a concept in which I strongly believe, which is why arguments like this make me uneasy:

The mask slips yet again. When challenged to defend flyers posted around an Oregon campus that warn of a widespread sexual assault problem, a college official said the following: “Believing survivors means let’s sit down and understand each other’s experience. Let’s believe what that person said, he or she has experienced, that we have experienced. It may not be the truth, as has been determined, but it is that person’s truth and what they were going through.”

When I express my agreement with William Blackstone, I’m often accused of also necessarily saying that victims of sexual assault shouldn’t be believed. After all, if you believe that accused parties are innocent until proven guilty, you necessarily believe that anybody who accused another of wrongdoing is lying unless they can prove otherwise, right? Not quite.

I think the biggest problem with arguments about whether individuals who accuse others of wrongdoing should be believed is the use of the word “believe.” I’m of the opinion that if one individual accuses another of sexual assault, outsiders shouldn’t automatically believe the accuser nor should they automatically believe that the accuser is lying. Instead outsiders should be inquisitive. They should want to pursue an investigation so that the truth may be discovered.

Far too often people claim that an individual who accuses another of sexual assault should be automatically believed. On the opposite side of the spectrum is the automatic assumption that an individual making such an accusation is lying in order to bring harm to the accused. Neither attitude is productive because both attitudes establish judgements without investigation. It would be akin to a scientist, upon making an observation, concocting a theory to explain that observation and declaring that theory as fact without testing their theory through experimentation to determine whether it’s plausible or incorrect.

Being inquisitive when an individual accuses another of wrongdoing guards against punishing the accused if it turns out they didn’t wrong the accuser while also allowing the accuser to be punished if it turns out that they did wrong the accuser.