Quote of the Day:

As I wrote last week: Do we want a world in which sexual harassment is rampant? Obviously not. But do we want a neo-Victorian regime where an accusation is as good as a conviction, and tight chaperonage is necessary to protect priceless, irreplaceable reputations from being unfairly besmirched?

–Bloomberg columnist Megan McArdle 

We've already taken note of Megan McArdle's provocative column on the "vanishing burden of proof" in accusations of sexual harassment (or abuse) lodged by women.

Today, in a second, must-read column on the MeToo movement, McArdle asks how we can gain justice for women, while at the same time being careful not to punish innocent men.

Some men will inevitably be falsely accused and others will have committed lesser transgressions (in the current climate, we may lose sight that some transgressions are less serious than others).

McArdle sets forth the dilemma confronting us:  

You can think of crimes as a sort of pyramid: At the top, there are a relatively small number of actions that we can all clearly agree merit the severest sanction, if proven. And then, as you slide down the walls of the pyramid, a growing number of cases that are less and less bad. At the base of the pyramid is a gray area where reasonable people can disagree about whether the evidence is strong, or the behavior alleged merits any sanction.

What happens if we try to apply the sanctions that are clearly merited for the guys at the top to the guys in the middle? What happens if we try to move the line down until it encompasses more and more of the guys at the bottom?

One risk is that the public will eventually rebel — and that when they do, the public won’t distinguish between the top of the pyramid and the middle, because the people trying to raise awareness of a problem have deliberately blurred the lines. There’s a real risk that in the resulting backlash, the baby will get thrown out with the bathwater.

The same logic applies to the burdens of proof. If unsubstantiated claims are accepted at face value, then eventually enough will turn out to be false that many future claims will be disregarded — whether they are plausible or not, whether they are substantiated or not. That was the harm done by cases like the Duke Lacrosse scandal, the UVA rape case, the Tawana Brawley accusations, and many others. But there’s another potential harm we also have to think about.

The other potential harm McArdle points out is that we establish a norm that a single, unsubstantiated accusation is enough to get the accused fired. What, asks McArdle, would men do to prevent what she calls an "economic death sentence" in the form of a false accusation?

Well, obviously reduce unchaperoned contact between men and women in the workplace. McArdle writes:

This would obviously be bad for women, who would lose countless opportunities for learning, advancement, friendship, even romance — the human connections that make us human workers superior to robots, for now.

On the radio recently, I pointed out that this might be a logical result of a “one strike and you’re out” policy. The host, aghast, remarked that this was obviously not what we wanted. And of course, that isn’t what anyone wants. It might nonetheless be the logical result of the rules we’re setting up.

McArdle recalls the Pence Rule (the veep never has lunch or is alone with a woman not his wife) and the opportunities she would have missed if it applied, citing a professor who conducted independent study in his house and whose sagacious advice McArdle says made her a better writer.  McArdle suggests we may be headed into a neo-Victorian world in which a single, unsubstantiated accusation can destroy and that men will take precautions to protect themselves and that this won't be good for women.

She also mentions an excellent piece by Claire Berlinski ("The Warlock Hunt") that argues that the #MeToo movement has morphed into a moral panic and that women will be harmed, too.