Friday, February 07, 2014

Prosecuting Woody Allen

In the past several days, Woody Allen has been accused of child molestation by one of his ex-wife's adopted daughters. Many have taken a hard line stance that he most assuredly must be guilty. I see their argument. It is far too commonplace for instances of sexual assault to never be reported, nor to ever be prosecuted. On college campuses, at parties, and in the company of acquaintances, women have been raped and assaulted. Their trust and boundaries have been violated. They must now try to cope with what happened. Few see justice in any form.

Those pushing strongly for Allen to face some sort of consequence see another instance of an evil man beating the rap. As is always the case in circumstances like these, feminists are some of the loudest beating the war drum. They wish to make an example out of him, using these lurid allegations as proof of his reprehensible deeds. Feminists see rapes and sexual trauma against women as epidemic. They ascribe to a view of guilty until proven innocent, even though our criminal justice system works in reverse.

Those who have been abused themselves have a very natural inclination to do all they can to bring offenders to trial. In this situation, the criminal justice system has little to offer survivors. The statute of limitations in this matter has long since expired. Woody Allen cannot be tried in anything more than a court of public opinion. Now, what is left of his reputation is under attack. Those with an ax to grind will not let up until he faces some negative consequence. Character assassination is the only avenue remaining. Many women have never forgiven him for the first set of similar allegations twenty years ago and subsequently his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, who was substantially younger than he was.

I myself think there is ample evidence that Woody Allen resorted to sexual abuse. These, I should say, are my personal, private views. But I feel that the famed director has a right to the benefit of the doubt until all the facts have arrived. Those who would deny him that much are believers in a sort of groupthink justice, even if their motivations cannot be faulted. They will never be satisfied until violence against women ceases to exist, and while I certainly support the sentiment, this problem is large and all-encompassing. It dates back to the instant our mammalian ancestors crawled out of the slime.    

A comparison or two is needed. Propaganda aside, the so-called Boston Massacre of March 1770 was little more than a skirmish. It was a glorified street fight between a hostile, taunting mob and the British soldiers in place to enforce authority. Pelting the British sentries with snowballs and small objects for some time, the combined impact was enough to coerce some of the troops to fire haphazardly into the crowd. Five colonists died, three instantly, and six were wounded.

What history has always responsibly noted about this event is the American commitment to equal justice under the law. Opting for vigilantism was the most popular sentiment of the time, but not the fairest one. One of our founding fathers, John Adams, later President, insisted upon granting the British soldiers accused of murder a fair trial and the right to defend themselves in court. He made an unpopular decision to defend the accused, though it was the correct one.

Eight soldiers, one officer, and four civilians were arrested and charged with murder. Six of the soldiers were acquitted, while the other two were convicted of manslaughter and given reduced sentences. The men found guilty of manslaughter were sentenced to branding on their hand.  

Feminists have called for a boycott of Woody Allen’s films, encouraging others to avoid seeing or purchasing them, whether they are shown at the theater or at a person’s residence. This kind of approach might be more successful, but it, too, has its limitations. Quakers participated in ethical consumerism many years before it was popular or even had a term assigned to it. They avoided buying cloth and dyes that were the product of slave labor. At times, they made their own garments, not unlike the actions of the colonists prior to the American Revolution. These new Americans did not wish to support Great Britain monetarily by any means.

Quakers are well-known for their embrace of abolition and their competent management of the Underground Railroad. But this is only part of the story. Once, believe it or not, Friends did own slaves. Slowly, but with time, slave owners gave up the practice, though some heavily resisted to the end. Within ourselves, we made great headway. I should note that we were, and are today, a small minority of the population. If only it had been that easy for the millions of others living in the United States. The country as a whole required a civil war to end the practice that we had concluded ourselves in relative peace.

I’m not sure how the Woody Allen affair will finish. Usually these sorts of controversies have their time in the sun. If no further charges surface, the issue will likely die out. As I said, popular opinion is where this battle will be fought. I do recognize the importance of defying the code of silence that keeps victims from reporting crimes. Yet, I’m not sure we’ve found the right tactic upon which to hang our hat. Prosecuting child molesters and violent offenders deserves new strategies. I never doubt the ingenuity of activists, but now is the time for new approaches.

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