The emergence of Tara Reade’s accusation of sexual assault against presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden has prompted the swift and sudden collapse of the #MeToo movement’s central tenet—that all women who come forward with such allegations deserve to be believed.
In fact, some who speak for the movement aren’t merely retreating on this point: They are pretending that feminists who wielded the #MeToo hashtag never claimed that all women should be believed. This is a transparent attempt to rewrite history and should be treated as such.
For a perfect example, see the journalist Susan Faludi in The New York Times: “‘Believe All Women’ Is a Right-Wing Trap,” reads the headline on her article. Faludi accuses conservatives of inventing the idea that feminists were demanding that all women be believed. According to her, “the preferred hashtag of the #MeToo movement is #BelieveWomen. It’s different without the ‘all.’ Believing women is simply the rejoinder to the ancient practice of #DoubtWomen.”
“Good luck finding any feminist who thinks we should believe everything all women say—even what they say about sexual assault,” Faludi continues. This directly contradicts her earlier admittal that she had in fact “encountered some feminists who seemed genuinely to subscribe” to the more extreme interpretation of the hashtag.
Faludi is narrowly right that “believe women” was the more popular phrasing among #MeToo activists, and that contrarians were more likely to introduce the word “all” as a means of pointing out how silly the concept was. But whether the phrase contains “all” is unimportant: It means the same thing, regardless. The command to believe group X is straightforwardly and obviously a plea to have faith in the entire collective entity. Faludi claims in her piece that “believe women” is actually the opposite of “believe all women,” but this is absurd. She is, to use a term beloved by victims’ rights advocates, gaslighting her readers.
One of Faludi’s examples of a sensible “believe women” statement getting twisted into a “believe all women” attack was Juanita Broaddrick—who accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault—calling out Hillary Clinton for hypocrisy. Hillary had tweeted, “To every survivor of sexual assault … you have the right to be heard. You have the right to be believed.” Faludi shames contrarians for cynically appending a “believe all victims” hashtag alongside a question mark, but it’s right there in Clinton’s initial tweet, between the words to and survivor. #MeToo advocates demanded a presumption of belief for every individual who claims to be a sexual misconduct victim: i.e., believe all women.
It was equally clear when Biden stated the mantra during the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings: “For a woman to come forward in the glaring lights of focus, nationally, you’ve got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she’s talking about is real—whether or not she forgets facts, whether or not it’s been made worse or better over time.” Biden was clearly instructing the public to believe even the allegations that seem doubtful or flawed: The all is unstated but quite implicit.
The problem, of course, is that the implication of this mantra is ridiculous. We know that some women lie—not because they are women but because they are human beings, and human beings are capable of all sorts of deceptions, large and small. It’s the task of journalists to consider claims, gather evidence, and help the public to make informed decisions. Belief is not really an aspect of this process.
In truth, believe-victims activists have been making generous use of the motte-and-bailey fallacy. This is a form of argument in which a person makes a strong, unreasonable, and indefensible claim—the bailey—and then falls back on an uncontroversial claim—the motte—when challenged. With “believe victims,” the bailey position was something like what Biden and Clinton said: Presume that each and every alleged victim is telling the truth. The motte position is closer to this: Respect and support alleged victims, and don’t automatically discount what they say. In the wake of Reade’s allegations against him, Biden has unsurprisingly retreated to the motte.
The “respect and support” position obviously enjoys broad support—only the crueler corners of the internet would profess that victims should be mistreated and rejected as a general rule. To the extent that the #MeToo movement encouraged people to be more supportive and more open-minded when women accuse men of sexual assault, it has helped fix a great injustice. But the movement’s sloganeering attracted well-deserved criticism, and the abandonment of the literal believe-victims standard is equally welcome and long overdue.
Let no one claim, however, that the mantra was some figment of the imagination, like the proverbial flickering gaslight.