The Sacred Rites Of Believing The Victim

A wise man once said that social belonging can be measured by how intensely and sincerely one participates in society’s collective trances. One can be said integrated, say, in a country like the USA, exactly as much as they cheer and shout at their screen during the Superbowl, cry or shudder when they think about 9/11, or put their soul into the Christmas Carol they sing in December.

I, once, felt integrated in this peculiar kind of trances through which feminism processes public reports or accounts of sexual abuse, and which consists in reaffirming ritually that we believe the victims.

It all started, I guess, with #MeToo. Believe Women, then, meant that men (i.e., society as a whole) should believe what feminists were saying about the high prevalence of sexual victimization amongst women, which was deemed largely underestimated. It also meant that the common practice of systematically casting doubt on the testimonies of women claiming to have been sexually victimized — the perverse twisting of the presumption of innocence into a presumption that she’s lying — should stop. I believed, then, in those two ideas. I still believe in them.

I am not the first one, though, to be wary of the way those general ideas about how society should function were translated into practices — one of them being this kind of public ceremonies spontaneously happening around stories of sexual abuse, and in which the acolytes ritually proclaim that they, personally, believe such or such specific person coming out as a victim. “I believe her”, they say (it’s usually a “her”) — and the word “believe” is used, here, at its full potential. Because they don’t say “I believe her” as a judgment on this particular situation, but as an testament of their will to resign their judgment so as to fall completely under the dogma that victims should be believed. They sometimes insist on how much: “unconditionnally”, “absolutely”, “no questions asked”, as if to make crystal clear that their trust is as blind as possible. In a lot of cases, they don’t even know exactly who is the victim, or what do she says, but they still, by principle, “believe her”. Sometimes, the piece of information that prompt such a ritual is as vague as “A and B have been accused of sexual misconduct” or “there have been acts of sexual violence at event X”, and people respond that they believe, not only that, but also everything the victim say, whatever that is.

This is not to say “#MeToo has gone too far”. First, it would be a knee-jerk reaction, and also, as we will see, one can intepretthe existence of those rituals as a sign that #MeToo has not gone far enough. That is not even a way of making fun of feminists engaged in those behavior. If I insist on their peculiarity, it is because I would like my reader to look at them with a less accustomed eye. Of course, those declarations make sense in their context. For us, who are living in this culture, they play a social purpose and respond to emotional needs so instinctively understood we might feel no need to question. I am not calling them rituals to suggest feminists are irrational or naive, but to emphasize those are declarations that makes little sense if you do not understand them as symbolic gestures that instinctively feel right for those who perform them and those they are performed for.

What I am interested in is: What are those social rites? What is happening? And why? For which consequences? And, finally, what else could happen instead?

Philosophically, an interesting question could be: what does one means when they says they “believes the victim” in a particular situation — especially, when they doesn’t know who the victim is, or what is to be believed about them? Evolutionnary psychology and marketing (which are almost the same intellectual field) would say it is mere “virtue signaling”, ergo that they does not mean anything else than “I am a good person / a good feminist”. But I think it would be really reductive to stop at that. Of course, some participate in those rituals for PR-related reasons, but I don’t believe they all do. And it would then pose another question: why would such a sentence signal virtue? No matter what the function of such a claim is, the question remains of what meaning is attributed to those words, by speakers and listeners alike, and what emotions and representations are associated with them.

So, once again, what “believing” means in such a sentence?

I assisted live, once, to a heated showdown between queer activists calling out each other on the stage of a public event — a tragic, public display of trauma and anger that would