Epistemic Status: speculative, looking for feedback
You’re in a tight-knit friend group and you hear some accusations about someone. Often, but not always, these are rape or sexual harassment accusations. (I’ve also seen it happen with claims of theft or fraud.) You don’t know enough to take it to court, nor do you necessarily want to ruin the accused’s life, but you’ve also lost trust in them, and you might want to warn other people that the accused might be dangerous.
What usually happens at this point is a rumor mill. And there are a lot of problems with a rumor mill.
First of all, you can get the missing stair problem. Let’s say Joe raped someone, and the rumor got out. People whisper to each other that Joe is a rapist, they warn each other to stay away from him at parties — but the new girl, who isn’t in on the gossip, is not so lucky, and Joe rapes her too. And meanwhile, Joe suffers no consequences for his actions, no social disincentive, and maybe community elders actively try to hush up the scandal. This is not okay.
Sometimes you don’t get a missing-stair situation, you get a witch hunt or a purge. Some communities are really trigger-happy about “expelling” people or “calling them out”, even for trivial infractions. A girl attempted suicide because her internet “friends” thought her artwork was offensive and tormented her for it. This is also not what we want.
Sometimes you get a feud, where Alice the Accuser’s friends all rally round her, and Bob the Accused’s friends all rally round him, and there’s a long-lasting, painful rift in the community where everyone is pressured to pick a side because Alice and Bob aren’t speaking.
And a lot of the time you get misinformation spreading around, where the accusation gets magnified in a game of telephone, and you hear vague intimations that Bob is terrible but you are getting conflicting stories about what Bob actually did, and you don’t know the right way to behave.
I have never gotten to know a tight-knit social circle of youngish people that didn’t have “drama” of this kind. It’s embarrassing that it happens, so it isn’t talked about that much in public, but I’m starting to believe that it’s near-universal.
In a way, this is a question of law.
The American legal system is a really poor fit even for dealing with some legitimate crimes, like sexual assault and small-scale theft, because the odds of a conviction are so low. Less than 1% of rape, robbery, and assault cases lead to convictions. It can be extremely difficult and stressful to deal with the criminal-justice system, particularly if you’re traumatized, and most of the time it won’t even work. Moreover, the costs of a criminal penalty are extremely high — prison really does destroy lives — and so people are understandably reluctant to put people they know through that. And, given problems with police violence, involving the police can be dangerous.
And, of course, for social disputes that aren’t criminal, the law is no use at all. “Really terrible boyfriend/girlfriend” is not a crime. “Sockpuppeting and trolling” is not a crime.
Do we have to descend to the level of gossip, feud, witch-hunt, or cover-up, just because we can’t (in principle or in practice) resolve disputes with the legal system?
I think there are alternatives.
My proposed solution (by no means final) is that a panel of trusted “judges” accepted by all parties in the dispute compile a summary of the facts of the case from the accuser(s) and accused, circulate it within the community — and then stop there.
It’s not an enforcement mechanism or a dispute-resolution mechanism, it’s an information-transmission mechanism.
For example, it means that now people will know Joe is an accused rapist, and also know if Joe has explained that he’s innocent. This prevents a few problems:
- the “missing stair” problem where new people never get warned about Joe
- the problem that Joe faces no consequences (now his reception will likely be chillier among people who read the summary and think he’s a threat)
- if Joe is innocent, he’ll face less unfair shunning if people get to hear his side of the story
- it prevents inflated rumors about Joe from spreading — only the actual accusations get printed, not the telephone-garbled ones
There are a few details about the mechanism that seem important to make the process fair:
- Accused and accusers must all consent to participating in the process and having their statements made public, otherwise it doesn’t happen
- Accusers should be allowed to stay anonymous
- Everybody can meet with the judges at the same time, or one on one, if they choose; accused and accusers do not have to be in the same room together
- Judges should not have any personal stake in the dispute, and should be accepted by both accused and accusers
- The format for the report should be something like a password-locked webpage, an email to a mailing list, or a Google doc, not a page on the public internet
- The report should be limited to what accused and accusers say, and some fact-checking by the judges — maybe a timeline of claimed events, maybe some links to references. But not a verdict.
I’ve heard some counterarguments to this proposal so far.
First, I’ve heard concerns that this is too hard on the accused. Being known to have been accused of anything will make people trust you less, even if you also have the opportunity to defend yourself. And maybe people, not wanting to make trouble, will still use gossip rather than the formal system, because it seems like too harsh a penalty.
I think it’s fine if not every dispute gets publicly adjudicated; if people don’t want to take it that far, then we’re no worse off than before the option of public fact-finding was made available.
It’s also not obvious to me that this is harsher to the accused than the social enforcement technology we already have. People are already able to cause scandals by unilaterally making public accusations. My proposal isn’t unilateral — it doesn’t go through unless the accused and accusers both think that transparency can clear their names.
Another criticism I’ve heard is that it gives a false sense of objectivity. People know that the rumor mill is unreliable and weight it appropriately; but if people hear “there’s been a report from a panel of judges about this”, they might assume that everything in the report is definitely true, or worse, that the accused is just guilty by virtue of having been investigated.
This is a real problem, I think, but one that’s difficult to avoid completely. If you attempt to be objective in any setting, you always run the risk that people will mistake you for an oracle. It’s just as true that objective news coverage can give people a false sense of trust in newspapers, but journalistic ideals still promote objectivity. I do think giving an impression of a Weight of Authority can be harmful, and is only somewhat mitigated by practices like not handing down any verdict.
But I think information-sharing is the mildest form of restorative justice. Restorative justice is dispute resolution within a community, or between offender and victim, rather than being mediated by the state. It usually involves some kind of penalty and/or restitution from the offender to the victim, or some kind of community penalty (like shunning in various religious congregations.) Given the failures of the criminal-justice system, restorative justice seems like an appealing goal to me; but it’s hard to implement, especially in modern, non-religious communities of young people without firm shared norms. If you’re uncomfortable merely publishing accusations and defenses, there’s no way you’re ready to impose restitution within your community. Maybe that’s appropriate in a given situation — maybe loose friend groups aren’t ready to be self-governing communities. But if you have aspirations towards self-governance, from small-scale (communes) to large-scale (seasteading and the like), figuring out dispute resolution is a necessary step, and it’s worth thinking about what would be required before you’d be okay with any community promotion or enforcement of norms.
I’d actively welcome people’s thoughts and comments on this — how would it fail? how could the mechanism be improved?