One of the many ways that communication can fail in its task to provide honest and accurate information and opinion to others is something we can roughly call equivocation. Let’s define that term as the deliberate use of a word in two or more senses. So, for instance, I could say that I was in Milwaukee, when I knew that my listener would assume I was referring to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, when in fact I was in Milwaukee, Oregon.
Most equivocations are a bit more subtle than that. So, for instance, when faced with undeniable evidence of misconduct by a co-employee whom I wanted to protect , I might say that I was not fully aware of that misconduct until this undeniable evidence was produced, even though I had been told of that misconduct previously.
So it is with the words “allegation” and “proof”. There are many levels of allegations. There are baseless allegations. There are bald allegations. There are rumored allegations. There are substantial allegations. There are credible allegations. There are well-founded allegations. There are civil and criminal legal allegations.
The same applies to the word “proof”. In the American legal system, there are at least three different standards of proof. There is the level of preponderance of the evidence, sometimes called the probabilior standard of proof, which is the standard used in most personal injury claims. There is what is called the “clear and convincing” standard, used in most civil claims of fraud. There is the highest standard of proof, beyond a reasonable doubt, used in virtually all criminal cases.
There are, however, other venues for allegations and proofs than just the courtroom. There is what we call the court of public opinion. There is also the venue of the workplace, the home, the worlds of entertainment, and, of course, the world of politics. If, for instance, a person in the workplace is alleged to have threatened violence to his co-workers — alleged to threaten to kill his fellow workers — what level of proof might we need to act against the subject of the allegation? If a publicly recognized entertainer — singer or actor or athlete — is alleged by a woman to have sexually abused her, what level of proof is required before we act against him? If a politician is alleged to have acted improperly, what proof is needed to throw him or her out?
I don’t have the answers to these questions, but we do need to make some basic rules about them. First, bald allegations are no basis for any action. People have rights in the eyes of the public just as they do in a court of law, albeit of a different level. Some proof is necessary to back up any allegation, and we need to determine how much proof is sufficient to take action. Second, it doesn’t help us to rely on customary views. There was a time, not very long ago, when sexual abuse was addressed mostly with silence, and that day is over. What we need to do is establish new customs, but this time based on rational decisions regarding proof.
Third, and most important, our decisions on allegations have to be truly rational, and not based on personal or political advantage. We cannot excuse Trump for his sexual predations, but we cannot condemn him without also condemning Bill Clinton for his. These standards that we need to set have to be set as a community, a rational community, and it must cross every political, philosophical and religious line. We have a chance here to return to being a community committed to the high moral call of the American ideal. So long as we refuse to do so, we continue to slide away from that ideal.