The #MeToo movement has provided a much-needed service by changing the way men and women talk about and treat accusations of sexual violence. Accusers — mostly women but not all — have been able to step out of the shadows and speak about their experiences, to not have those experiences immediately dismissed even if they involved powerful figures.
That is an important development. But there is danger here, too. It comes in making the quantum leap from listening, to instantly believing.
This has been brought home to Minnesotans in the campaign of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, now the DFL-endorsed candidate for state attorney general. A six-term congressman who last year became co-chair of the Democratic National Committee, with a rapidly rising national profile, Ellison stands accused of domestic violence by former live-in girlfriend Karen Monahan, who says Ellison attempted to drag her off a bed during an argument and verbally abused her.
She claims to have a video of this episode but will not release it. She says she should not have to, because it “sets the expectation for survivors … to show and prove their stories.” Ellison has flatly denied the accusations, saying that “this video does not exist because I never behaved in this way and any characterization otherwise is false.”
Those two positions are poles apart, with no middle ground. There either is a video or there is not. If there is, Ellison will have been caught in a serious lie that could bring his rise to an abrupt halt. If there is no video, Monahan will have been found in a lie.
This country cannot afford to go back to a time when women’s accusations were too often discounted. This moment has been too long in coming. But neither should Americans entirely jettison what has been the standard for jurisprudence in this country since its inception: that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, and that the burden for that proof lies with the accuser. To do so would result in a society where individuals could accuse another of some sexual misdeed and expect societal judgment to be passed immediately.
Ellison’s daughter, Amirah Ellison, in a post about the accusations, speaks eloquently of wrestling with the opposing forces in this ugly episode, with “the beautiful momentum that the #MeToo movement has built” and what is in her opinion, “a profound anger at the injustice of these false accusations.”
The terrain here is still fresh. A backbone of the movement has been the rightful demand that women be heard when they come forward. And the mere attempt to seek additional information from accusers is seen by some as victim-blaming. But there still must be an allowance made for the need to gain greater understanding of a situation — to sort out the truth when there are conflicting versions of events.
Monahan’s accusation relied on the existence of a video to give her greater credibility. It is not unreasonable to now ask that such proof be produced, and well before the general election. Voters will have much to weigh in this race. The attorney general is the state’s top law enforcement official and should be held to the highest standard of legal and ethical behavior. The need for additional information in making that assessment should be respected.