Consistency on Sexual Assault Allegations

John Bowling
5 min readMay 4, 2020

The following is something I wrote April 14th after listening to the April 13th Advisory Opinions podcast. I submitted it to Arc, but was declined. I had simply scrapped the piece, but since Sarah Isgur has repeated this point at least two other times since then, including in the latest Dispatch podcast, IIRC, I figured I’d post it here.

In the Cut to Black episode of the Advisory Opinions podcast (released April 13, 2020), Sarah Isgur explains some of what she finds wrong with the conservative response to the Tara Reade sexual assault allegations against Joe Biden:

I think that just because mistakes were made in the past, in dealing with allegations does not mean that we need to force journalists to make the same mistakes this time to prove some sort of equity in allegations. And I think that it’s a good conversation for journalism to have to say what mistakes were made during the Kavanaugh situation that don’t need to be repeated this time… And somehow, the only way for journalists to prove that they’re not biased is to have the exact same coverage of an assault allegation against a Democrat. I don’t feel that way. I feel like journalism should be able to make mistakes and correct those mistakes.

…if you’re upset about how the Blasey Ford allegations were handled in the press, the worst thing you can do is then say “And from now on, we’re going to hold every story to that standard, and particularly this Reade story. We want the exact same treatment for Biden.” because the next time that there’s an allegation against someone you like, they’re gonna say, “Well, you just told us we had to hold this Reade story to the exact same standard as the Blasey Ford story.” So that is now the standard, which is that we treat all allegations basically as entirely substantiated, regardless of whether they are substantiated, and that reporters now serve this role of prosecutor to the reader, who is now the juror. (starting @ 3:26 and 20:07)

Isgur raises several good points, not all of which are quoted above. Journalist should be able to correct past mistakes. We shouldn’t push journalists to turn one mistake, that hurt someone we like, into another mistake if hurts someone we don’t like. However, I’d like to suggest that on the whole, Isgur’s response doesn’t correctly frame the response of many conservatives.

In the book Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong we read the following anecdote:

“In the opening days of my philosophy classes, I often find students vehemently defending subjective relativism: ‘Who are you to judge?’ they ask. I then give them their first test. In the next class period, I return all the tests marked ‘F,’ even though my comments show that most of them are of a very high caliber. When the students express outrage at this (some have never before seen that letter on their papers and inquire about its meaning), I answer that I have accepted subjectivism for marking the exams. ‘But that’s unjust!’ they typically insist — and then they realize that they are no longer being merely subjectivist about ethics.” (Pojman and Fieser, 7th ed. pp. 17–18)

We can understand the teacher’s behavior as an exercise in helping the students to discover, through personal experience, not just something about ethics — that subjectivism doesn’t work well in society — but something about themselves — about the sincerity or consistency of their subjectivism. In the anecdote, the student has learned their lesson and, thus, the teacher should be pleased with the “But that’s unjust!” response, under the assumption that the student will now abandon their subjective relativism.[1]

Now imagine if the student responded to the teacher in the following manner:

“If you’re upset about my subjectivism, the worst thing you can do is then grade my paper on a subjectivist basis because the next time that there’s a student evaluation of teaching, I’m gonna say, ‘Well, you just indicated to me that you’re going to treat me with the subjectivism that I said I believe in.’ So that is now the standard, which is that we treat each other on an entirely subjective basis.”

A student who responded this way would seem to be engaging in a bit of sophistry, or at the very least missing the point. The student already claimed to hold to subjectivism, prior to the teacher’s grading exercise. And the teacher isn’t seriously attempting to establish a new grading policy, but to reveal to the student he doesn’t actually believe it or, at the very least, has not thought it through sufficiently to be willing to live with the consequences.

And I would suggest that most conservatives view the Biden and Tara Reade allegation analogously to the teacher’s grading exercise (life being the teacher, in this case). Conservatives aren’t pushing journalists to establish a principle of equity. Most conservatives are probably too cynical to believe the establishment of such a principle is plausible. The goal is simply to shine a spotlight on a supposed principle that people already claimed to adherence to — “believe all women” was not qualified “in this one specific case, regarding Kavanaugh”, it was lauded as a corrective guide — and to make sure the general public doesn’t miss the lesson that it’s unworkable and/or wasn’t held to with sincerity.

Should conservatives, then, be pleased that Biden isn’t getting the same treatment as Kavanaugh regarding sexual assault accusations? The two key sentences in Sarah Isgur’s response are that “it’s a good conversation for journalism to have to say what mistakes were made during the Kavanaugh situation that don’t need to be repeated this time” and “journalism should be able to make mistakes and correct those mistakes.”

The question, then, is whether those who have adopted the mantle of a public influencer, be they a journalist, a celebrity, or a politician, and who claimed something along the lines of “We should believe all women” are acknowledging their mistake with regard to Kavanaugh or ignoring their mistake. If journalists, pundits, and politicians are not acknowledging their mistake, then there is nothing praiseworthy in the character of their response to the Tara Reade allegation. Conservatives aren’t trying to establish a principle, but reveal a lack of principle.

[1] A hard-nosed subjectivist might respond that they could sincerely and consistently maintain “But that’s unjust!” if they understood this in the standard, subjectivist sense of “I don’t like that!”

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John Bowling

Throwing half-baked ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks.