December 31, 2010

Assange and the Presumption of Innocence

The misinformation campaign started by Julian Assange's Australian lawyer regarding the rape charges behind Sweden's extradition request continues, aided and abetted by a mess of hyperventilating fanbois (some of whom are female). In the next few days, I'll collect and address a mess of misrepresentations, conspiracy theories, rape myths, and logical fallacies here, mostly so I don't have to argue with them one at a time, over and over again. And again. And again.

Part 1: If you don't say Assange is innocent, you're saying he's guilty! Presumption of innocence!!!
This is the argument of a fanatic, frankly, and it's disturbing to keep finding it posted about here and there. It's also a perfectly false dichotomy, generally accompanied by a whopping dose of double-standard.

The presumption of innocence is a standard that's incorporated in many, if not most, Western, industrialized legal systems. It is, in fact, a good thing, allowing people to retain most of their rights while allegations are being examined. I say most, because people are generally required to cooperate to a certain extent in determining the truth behind an accusation--to participate in trials either directly or through a representative, to be subject to certain questions, whether they answer them or not.

Even here, however, there are procedures in place that require a generally independent judiciary to make some preliminary evaluation of the credibility of the accusation before cooperation can be compelled. Whether you agree with the decisions of judges in Assange's case, those procedures are being followed in Sweden and in the UK.

However, the presumption of innocence has also been adopted, to varying degrees, as a social standard for protecting the reputation of those accused of a crime. It's in the conflation of the legal and social standards that the problem arises here. Fanbois want this standard to be applied to Assange in the court of public opinion the same way it is in the legal system. However, at the same time, they are willing to convict Assange's accusers of lies, hysteria, and complicity with a global governmental conspiracy.

I've seen two defenses of this practice. The first is to note that the accusers are not charged with anything in Sweden. In addition to this argument coming from the same group who insist it's meaningful that Assange has not had charges formally filed, making all parties equal in this respect, this is part of that conflation of legal and social systems. A social double-standard is still a social double-standard (rising to the level of hypocrisy in this case) even if the legal status of the two parties were different, which they aren't.

The second defense of this practice isn't something I've seen baldly stated, but it's implicit in the idea that anyone not raining down on the heads of the alleged victims is saying Assange is guilty. That's the assertion that in order to maintain Assange's innocence, the women must be considered to be lying.

This is the false dichotomy. It relies on a misunderstanding of what a presumption actually is. If it's not clear to you what I'm talking about, go back to the part where I explain why the presumption of innocence is a good thing. In short, a presumption of innocence doesn't mean that we say we know anything about the truth behind an accusation. It means just the opposite.

In the social realm, it means we don't impose sanctions because it isn't our place to decide what the truth is, that this being a legal matter, we allow the legal system to move before rushing to judgment and acting on those judgments. It means we say we don't know.

In short, it means growing up and dealing with the uncertainty that is inherent in our not having been a party to anything that happened or being privy to anything but the most superficial and ambiguous indications of what's going on in the heads of either Assange or his accusers. It means waiting. That this is difficult for fanbois doesn't change what the presumption of innocence actually is.

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