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How tribalism overrules progressive tenets like “believing women”

J.K. Rowling’s support for Johnny Depp shows that “believe women” only takes us so far.

'Murder On The Orient Express' World Premiere - Red Carpet Arrivals John Phillips/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

In early December, after months of silence, J.K. Rowling finally spoke in defense of Johnny Depp, who will play the titular evil wizard in the 2018 Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them sequel The Crimes of Grindelwald.

Depp has been accused of domestic abuse, with a great deal of credible evidence provided. And Rowling has long been a supporter of charities that help victims of domestic abuse, and may be a survivor herself. Yet Depp plays a major role in the new Harry Potter sequel franchise, based on Rowling’s books — and Rowling says that’s with her blessing.

“I accept that there will be those who are not satisfied with our choice of actor,” Rowling wrote in a statement on her website. “However, conscience isn’t governable by committee. Within the fictional world and outside it, we all have to do what we believe to be the right thing.”

And so, she declares, “based on our understanding of the circumstances,” Rowling and her fellow filmmakers are “genuinely happy” with Depp’s casting.

Rowling is not specific about what her “understanding of the circumstances” is — presumably because of legal reasons — but the implication here is that she believes Depp did not abuse his ex-wife Amber Heard, which by extension implies that Heard was lying when she said he did.

Fair enough; Rowling is a major force, and she probably does know something about the situation that the rest of us don’t. But without access to that knowledge, all we can read into Rowling’s statement is the implication that Heard lied when she accused Depp of repeatedly hitting and kicking her. That the bruises on her face when she reported him to the police were fake, that the pictures of broken glass and smashed bottles were staged, that the video she took of him screaming at her was misleadingly edited, that the doctor’s report showing that Depp cut off the tip of his finger was unrelated, and that the years of text messages documenting his abuse were all part of a cunning plot to destroy an innocent man. (Heard, incidentally, donated her divorce settlement to charity.)

For a woman who has done as much work with victims of domestic violence as Rowling has, this is a puzzling position to take. But it’s part of a larger trend that’s begun to emerge over the course of the great reckoning of powerful men accused of mistreating women: Over and over again, people and institutions that ostensibly support the #MeToo and “believe women” movements have found caveats in their opinions when the accused man is someone who is on their team.

Multiple Democrats, including Keith Olbermann and bloggers at the Daily Kos, invent conspiracy theories to defend Al Franken. Celebrity feminist Lena Dunham makes a public statement declaring that an accusation of rape against one of the staff writers for her show Girls must be “one of the 3 percent of assault cases that are misreported every year,” citing her “insider knowledge.” And J.K. Rowling, a longtime advocate for survivors of domestic abuse, tells the world that she is sure this accused abuser is just fine.

This trend demonstrates the power of tribalism, how our identification as part of a “team” can overrule even values that appear to be deeply held. And it shows how insidiously violence against women is baked into our culture, so that even those who seem to want to fight against it feel compelled to look the other way once it stares them directly in the face.

False accusations are rare. Most progressives know that. But some are willing to invoke them anyway.

To be clear, I’m not trying to suggest that J.K Rowling is secretly a hater of women and a supporter of those who batter women. I’m certain that she genuinely wants to help survivors of domestic abuse, and that her charity work comes from a place of compassion. I also think that Lena Dunham is honestly a feminist who does genuinely want to help rape survivors, and that many of the Democrats who suggested that Franken was the victim of a conspiracy theory really do want to put their political power to work helping women rather than those who hurt them.

But that does not change the fact that for all of these people, when push came to shove, the desire to protect “their team” overwhelmed a probably deeply held belief that it is important to support and believe women. And in protecting “their team,” these people have ended up playing into one of the biggest myths of rape culture: the false report.

“Rape is incredibly common (about one in five women experience sexual assault), and false reports are rare (2 to 8 percent),” Emily Crockett for Vox wrote last year. “So if a woman comes forward about being assaulted, Occam's razor suggests she's probably telling the truth.” Similar numbers hold for domestic violence: One in three women experience intimate partner violence throughout their lives, and the rate of false reporting is low.

Moreover, there are few good reasons for a woman to come forward with a false accusation against a powerful, well-connected man: The most likely outcome is that he will skate through the ensuing fallout with no permanent damage, while her name will be dragged through the mud.

Presumably, an advocate for domestic violence survivors like J.K. Rowling has some awareness of these facts and figures. Dunham, who cited them in her statement, absolutely does. Olbermann, who has a history of spinning conspiracy theories around assault victims, probably doesn’t believe them if he does know them — but if those who associate themselves with the Democratic Party truly want it to be seen as the party of women, Olbermann and other liberals have a responsibility to internalize those figures.

And yet all of these people and institutions made the same basic argument: She is probably lying … for some reason. Leeann Tweeden is probably lying about Al Franken because she is one of “the ratfucking Republican operatives [who] try to weaponize the MeToo movement and use liberals’ decency against us.” Aurora Perrineau is probably lying about Girls writer Murray Miller, based on “our insider knowledge of Murray's situation.” Heard, who seemed to go out of her way to discredit the idea that she would get anything out of a false accusation, is probably lying about Depp, “based on our understanding of the circumstances.”

Is it within the realm of possibility that Heard is lying? Sure. Theoretically she could be, as Dunham suggested of Perrineau, within that small percentage of false accusers. But it’s statistically highly unlikely. To believe Depp’s claims unquestioningly, you have to overlook a lot of math — and that’s even before the evidence Heard provided comes into play.

There’s no reason that we know of for Rowling to think that Heard is lying, beyond the fact that Heard accused someone who is on Rowling’s “team” — and that was enough to turn her from a victim of domestic violence whom Rowling could support into an opponent trying to destroy the team. So if the team was to be preserved, Heard had to be lying, evidence and statistics be damned.

If people and institutions that know how rare false accusations are can make such claims when it suits their interests, it does not bode well for the rest of the world. This is how rape culture survives. This is how violence against women lurks in the shadows. This is how predators flourish. Because the people who know better are consistently willing to protect their own — even when that protection comes at the cost of believing women.

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