Say What You Really Mean

‘Believe women’ is a symptom of a larger disease.

Yesterday I learned something truly fascinating: I’m far more powerful than I ever imagined. Susan Faludi wrote an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that the hashtag #BelieveAllWomen is a “right-wing trap.” Conservatives, according to Faludi, hijacked the concept of “Believe women,” turned it into “Believe all women” and have now sprung that trap on Joe Biden. 

I was skeptical, but, hey, let’s see the proof. Were feminists truly trolled into going too far? Faludi searched for the origin of #BelieveAllWomen and found only three tweets, each from people with very small Twitter followings. Then, well, look what I did:

Then, in the fall of 2015, Hillary Clinton posted a tweet: “To every survivor of sexual assault … you have the right to be heard. You have the right to be believed.” To which Juanita Broaddrick, who alleges that Bill Clinton raped her in 1978, responded on Twitter on Jan. 6, 2016, “Hillary tried to silence me.” Conservative editor David French, who has a large Twitter following (more than 209,000 followers as of this writing), retweeted Ms. Broaddrick at once — attaching the hashtag #BelieveAllWomen, followed by four question marks.

As Faludi says next, “the breath was on the ember.” Interestingly—while Faludi links Hillary’s tweet and Juanita Broaddrick’s, she does not link mine. Let’s see them all, in sequence. First, here’s Hillary:

Months later, Broaddrick tweeted this:

And, finally, here’s the tweet that Faludi thinks helped light the fire:

Savvy social media users, let’s ask this—which statement was more influential? A tweet from a former first lady, former secretary of state, and favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination (currently with 27.8 million twitter followers) declaring that “every survivor of sexual assault” has “the right to be believed”? Or is it my months-later quote-tweet that got a grand total of five retweets?

But look what I (allegedly) launched. I helped make this happen:

And this:

Faludi argues that the real slogan of the #MeToo movement is #BelieveWomen, and “believe women” is substantially different from “believe all women.” Oh, and moreover, “believe women” didn’t really mean believe women. Here’s Faludi again:

This is why the preferred hashtag of the #MeToo movement is #BelieveWomen. It’s different without the “all.” Believing women is simply the rejoinder to the ancient practice of #DoubtWomen.

No, it’s not meaningfully different without the “all.” “Believe women” is decisively declarative, and it means something different from “hear women” or “respect women.” I shouldn’t have to type this sentence, but “believe” means “to consider to be true or honest” and to “accept the word or evidence of.” 

Words have meaning, and if you don’t intend the meaning, don’t use the word.

In fact, one of my chief problems with our partisan moment is that people are constantly, relentlessly, and transparently saying things we know they don’t really mean. And then, when you call them on it, they fall back to a position contrary to their actual words.

In his newsletter and podcast, my colleague Jonah Goldberg has been doing yeoman’s work calling out the motte-and-bailey fallacies rife in political argument. If you haven’t read Jonah, here’s his excellent definition of the term:

A motte-and-bailey castle is a traditional medieval fortification in which there’s a keep (the motte) surrounded by a field or courtyard enclosed by a smaller outer wall (the bailey). Under normal times, people work, stroll around, gossip about how well-endowed Hodor is, whatever. When invaders come, the peasants grab what they can and run inside the keep, because it’s far easier to defend. 

So in debate, a motte-and-bailey argument is when you make some strong, sweeping statement, and then, when challenged, you withdraw to a much safer and more modest position.

In fact, he defined the term in the context of expressing his own frustrations with “believe women.” If activists merely meant, “take women seriously,” then that’s what they should have said. 

But I don’t want to merely repeat Jonah’s frustrations. I want to get a bit darker. I want to get a bit more cynical about human nature and our political moment. I’ll let you in on a secret—the reason why activists are constantly overstating their case is not simply because they’re short-sighted or dishonest or hypocritical. Activists constantly overstate their case because—if they don’t—no one will pay attention to them

At scale, public indifference and apathy all too often swallows up nuance and precision.

I came to journalism from the activist world. I left commercial litigation in 2004, and from that moment until I joined National Review in 2015, I worked for nonprofits. I mainly litigated constitutional cases and managed constitutional litigators, but I also helped raise money and tried to raise public awareness of our work. One of my jobs was to help my employers break through the background noise of daily life and stand out from every other worthy cause to persuade you to click a link, sign a petition, or write a check. 

Readers, that is hard. Narratives get simple, fast. And unless you’re a particularly deft communicator, you quickly learn that shades of gray don’t raise funds. It’s good guys vs. bad guys, and there are two states of being—victory or crisis. The good news is that not all giving is fear-based. There are people who look for hope and give money based on success. Victories raise money. Victories increase engagement.

The bad news is that a giant amount of giving and activism is based on raw fear. There is virtually no market for a problem that isn’t a disaster. Your public will veer toward putting out the raging fire over tossing a few cups of water on smoldering wood. A crisis is thus a terrible thing for a fundraiser to waste, and if a crisis doesn’t exist, it must be made. 

This, in a nutshell, a key reason why both sides of the culture war believe they’re losing. Both sides are constantly inundated with the language of existential threat. Consider how “believe women” manufactures its own Manichaean reality. There aren’t three positions in this dualistic world. There are only two—believe or disbelieve. Which side are you on? 

In short, as Americans look out at a dumbed-down world of sloganeering, hypocrisy, and hysteria, they’re looking at the world they made. Yes, elites have failed. Yes, elites are hypocritical. But Americans have also failed. In many ways, the political market has worked. It has given the people what they want. 

One other thing ... 

I’m a regular reader of Andrew Sullivan’s excellent Friday essays in New York magazine, and while he’s consistently thought-provoking his essay last Friday raised a key point that influences our public debate about COVID-19 more than we appreciate. The wave of death America is experiencing is happening almost entirely out of the public eye:

There’s a strange similarity between the casualties of a plague and those of a war in modern America: we never see the bodies. I have yet to see a Covid19 patient in the terminal phase of the illness; I’ve never seen one being forcibly intubated; I haven’t seen video of the coughing fits of the victims; we never absorb why some are strapped to their beds, so they don’t rip out their ventilators in their desperation to breathe. There are no photos of the dying; and very few that even show the toll of survival. These human beings, old and young, are being shrouded by understandable medical privacy, but also hidden from us.

More:

When and if your parent or grandparent falls ill, and is taken to the hospital, you cannot visit. You cannot comfort or hold; you cannot be there when they panic or lash out at a nurse; you cannot hold their hand as they struggle to breathe; you cannot stroke their head as they die. You cannot ask the questions they cannot, or just hold their hand in the night. There are good reasons for this, in containing the virus, and I fully understand them. But the unintended cruelty of it all is the mark of a plague death. With the elderly, who make up a disproportionate share of the death toll, the isolation can just be an intensification of where they already were: left in nursing homes, segregated from the young, waiting to expire. But the final loneliness must be terrible.

The isolation goes beyond the hospital. There are no real funerals. More than 91,000 Americans have died of a single infectious disease in a mere two months. In normal times, a wave of death that large—concentrated as it is in distinct American cities and states—would also unleash a wave of public mourning. Friends and acquaintances would share in the grief. We’d see the long processions. We’d hold and comfort surviving family members. 

As it is, countless millions of Americans are experiencing mass death entirely as charts and graphs. A gravely sick coronavirus patient is whisked away, never to be seen again—except by their closest family members in small, private memorial services. And if history teaches us anything about death, it’s that we don’t truly feel numbers. We can distance ourselves from statistics. 

This isn’t an argument against reopening. In most places in the United States, reopening isn’t just wise, it’s inevitable. People cannot remain locked down indefinitely. In places like Tennessee—where I live—the medical system was never overwhelmed, the disease did not achieve the kind of community spread it achieved elsewhere, and a prudent opening is entirely proper. I do think, however, that some of the scorn and skepticism about the severity of the disease is an artifact of the isolation that Sullivan so vividly describes. 

One last thing ... 

The Last Dance is over, and I’m convinced. No, not that Jordan is the GOAT. I’m convinced that he did not push off against Bryon Russell in his legendary last shot. Jordan’s right—all of Russell’s momentum is to his left. Jordan’s hand on him was irrelevant. He was stumbling anyway. I’ve been wrong for 22 years.

Photograph by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty Images.