#BelieveSurvivors means what, again?

by Hilary Jerome Scarsella, Director of Theological Integrity

A lot of this angst in the news these days around believing women could be sorted, I think, with some focused attention on what belief actually is in day-to-day human experience. In current popular resistance to the idea of believing women and survivors of sexual assault, folks are treating belief as if it is a magical state entirely unwarranted by reason, like a child’s belief in Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny. But even these examples suggest that belief is more than that. Children who believe that these holiday characters are real actually do have good reason: the adults who they trust to help them learn about the world have, in most cases, told them so.

Belief, as in a child’s reasonable belief in Santa Claus, can be inaccurate. But let’s remind ourselves that thoughts and judicial rulings and data sets and scientific studies can be inaccurate too. The goal cannot be to reach a kind of certainty that is absolutely impervious to error, because that kind of certainty does not exist anywhere, with regard to any subject. Imposing it as the bar survivors have to meet in order to win your support is really just a disguised strategy for avoiding the reality of sexual violence. The goal, rather, is to have ***good reason*** to say we know or think or believe one thing as opposed to another. Belief is always accompanied by reason, and it is always accompanied by a way of being in the world that is shaped by that reason. You cannot get to belief separate from knowledge and action.

So when folks say “believe women” or “believe survivors,” it’s flat out wrong to interpret this statement as a prompt to give your cognitive assent to a position that is not warranted. It is, to the contrary, shorthand for making the argument that there ARE justified warrants for, in general, 1) considering testimonies of sexual assault truthful instead of untruthful, and 2) organizing relationships and politics and law accordingly.

It’s also a plea for folks to live out this belief day-to-day. Here is an incomplete list of what it means #BelieveWomen and #BelieveSurvivors in action:

  • Know what sexual violence is and how it works on systemic and interpersonal levels.
  • Know enough that you have the ability, in general, to recognize authentic survivor testimony when you hear it.
  • Speak & act up on behalf of survivors and others vulnerable to sexual violence.
  • Support survivors interpersonally, socially, and politically.
  • Respond to disclosures of sexual violence in ways that empower the survivor and hold those responsible accountable.

These are verbs, friends: know, recognize, speak, act, support, empower, respond. This is what it means to believe survivors.

And here’s a final tidbit to consider:

‘Belief’ is one of the most rich and complex actions (yes, actions) that human bodies and minds can take. Centuries of religious and political history insist on this. Belief or refusal of belief in God or capitalism, for example, is informed by the convergence of countless kinds of knowledge (experiential, economic, social, historical, spiritual) and can influence everything from decisions individuals make about how to raise their kids to global levels of poverty and prosperity in a given era. Belief is powerful. It is an action that structures the world.

Christian folks, particularly those of conservative and evangelical persuasions, tend to hold religious belief in high regard. I’m not here to take issue with that, but I do want to suggest that we take a moment to observe that these same folks who hold religious belief supreme (and, here, I mean specifically those national political figures who cast themselves as conservative or evangelical Christians) are now, in the face of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, simultaneously flattening the concept of belief on the political stage in order to discredit it as an appropriate response to testimonies of sexual violence. Belief in Christian testimony to Jesus as Lord and Savior is defended as admirable sans objective evidence, while believing survivors’ testimonies to their own bodily experiences is cast as unreasonable in the absence of forensic corroboration. No doubt, the issue is more complicated than this single paragraph can address, but the double standard is clear.  Either belief in the face of uncertainty has the potential to be rich and textured and warranted, or it must, as a rule, be naive. Folks can’t have it both ways.

I am in favor of preserving the notion of belief as having the capacity to be powerfully nuanced and transformative. Belief is not the same as certainty. But it is always accompanied by reason and it is always lived in action. To believe survivors is to accept the well-reasoned, thoroughly researched, evidence-based argument that survivor testimonies tend to be truthful. (Not familiar with the research? Time for you to whip out Google.) It means understanding sexual violence well enough to judge the evidence and recognize authentic survivor testimony when you encounter it. It means understanding the systemic dynamics that exacerbate sexual violence and tempt folks to distrust survivors. It means interrupting those dynamics and acting in solidarity and care with survivors and those vulnerable to sexual violence in the future. It means organizing family and society and the workplace and Congress and the Supreme Court in ways that structurally resist sexual violence and heed the truthfulness of survivors’ testimonies.