I was inspired to write this post by the mainpage coverage the Yale basketball team has been getting. Otherwise, it doesn’t have much to do with them in particular*, since I’m going pretty much entirely with generalities here.
One generality I agree with is that we should “believe the victims,” but that starts to break down in the hypothetical situation where you know the accused really well, and the accuser not at all. Even the usual legal language is uncomfortable with rape cases, since calling the victim a victim presupposes the accused’s guilt in a way that doesn’t tend to apply with other crimes. By the same token, referring to the victim as “the alleged victim” has a really ugly and unpleasant ring to it.
There have been plenty of cases where a guy’s been guilty as hell, but before the damning evidence comes to light, they have a multitude of friends, colleagues, teammates, whatever listing their positive qualities like proof of innocence. Yes, somebody can be a loyal, generous friend, kind to animals and helping old ladies cross the street, and also the most horrendous rapist. Definitely not mutually exclusive with being popular and likable.
It’s easy to say from a distance that those people need to take ten seats and STFU, but what about that hypothetical situation where you know someone really well, the accusation seems completely at odds with everything you know about them, and they look you square in the eye and say “I didn’t do it,” and god help you, you believe them? If you honestly have full faith in someone’s innocence, is it still unethical to support them in public fashion? You might turn out to be dead wrong in the end, and even if not, there’s an argument to be made that any show of support for an accused rapist harms rape victims, creates a chilling effect for reporting future crimes, etc. That likely won’t prove much of a comfort for mister hypothetical when you explain how you’ll be rooting for him . . . internally, behind closed doors.
Is there a moral obligation to withhold public support from accused rapists, regardless of your personal feelings about their innocence? Is that obligation unique to sexual assault, or does it apply to other crimes as well? I’m leaving out blood relatives of the accused here, since that’s something of a different can of worms.
*Technically, we don’t know if the deal with the Yale basketball team has anything at all to do with sexual assault, but as others have pointed out, the rumors have hung in the air long enough that the lack of a specific denial has gotten pretty telling.