Dear Princess ‘Ishka,
2017 has been a year of revelations. One of the things that has struck me the most has been my reticence to believe victims. Why was I so suspicious when the words of the witnesses of the Chechnya gay purge started being reported in April by Novaya Gazeta and later confirmed by The Guardian? Why was it so hard to acknowledge the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, as there was evidence it started at least in February, under the eyes of Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi? Why couldn’t I believe at first the allegations of actresses against Harvey Weinstein in October, which led to an unprecedented upheaval of allegations against sexual abusers in the heart of the liberal and politically correct Hollywood?
These three apparently disconnected happenings, have something in common: they concern victims talking and an audience listening. In one word, they are about the credibility of testimony.
Many philosophers have wondered how can we ascribe credibility to testimony. This is not the question of my current concern. I will rather focus on a psychological question. We don’t want to believe everything that the news report but, at the same time, we ought to believe things that, other things being equal for us, are based on sufficient evidence from our point of view. The question is then the following: how, despite enough evidence obtains, we remain sometimes skeptical about the truthfulness of testimony? To put it differently: why, in the face of evidence, we still find it hard to believe actresses denouncing their harassers, to trust reports on the Rohingya diaspora, or to concede credibility to victims of systematic deportation, detention, torture and assassination of male homosexuals in Chechnya?
Here it seems that my three examples diverge significantly. Indeed, it seems that what was hard to believe in one case was different in another. In the case of the Muslim minority of the Rohingya, for instance, it was the silence of a (not-anymore-?) champion of human rights such as Aung San Suu Kyi to hold me from accepting the accusation of ethnic cleansing. Actresses reporting Weinstein were easier for me to believe, but the delicate enterprise of understanding harassment and the worry of focusing too much on mediatic scapegoats prevented me from taking a strong position on the matter, whereas I didn’t treat with the same circumspection friends of mine taking part in the mass-campaign against sexual harassers.
I found the horror of Chechnya particularly unbelievable. How was it possible, in 2017, that concentration camps were still a reality? How could anyone possibly forget the horrors of Nazi-Germany? At first, I took it as an exaggeration. “Perhaps they are ‘just’ oppressed” I said to myself “like it is common practice in many homophobic countries, but the allegations are way too dramatic for my understanding”.
Chechnya is defined an “ultra-conservative” country of the Russian Federation, with a certain degree of independence, which means that the federal law goes hand in hand with the local Islamic beliefs. It was when the political and religious head of state, Ramzan Kadyrov, declared that there were no homosexuals in his country that I started looking deeper in the related articles. And my trust in the victims’ reports is now beyond my personal ability to doubt.
So what was the nourishment of my skepticism? The strength of my former beliefs? The complexity of a scandal? The extraordinary nature of a terrible event? All of them, for sure, but there is something more.
What links the three kinds of skepticism is, in my opinion, the fact that we tell ourselves stories about reality to make it more easily intelligible. These narratives we construct attempt to be as rational as possible. We ascribe motivations and plans to the characters populating our world, and causal chains to events that shape our reality.
Sometimes, this way of “rationalizing reality” is improper. Sometimes we fail because we have been blindly worshipping a hero, who was after all a human being – we forgot that all heroes are. We have confused a simple ideal with a much more complicated individual life. Sometimes we prefer to focus on the conspiracy, rather than on the burden of accusing someone of sexual abuse, as if the abuse itself wasn’t enough of a burden already. Sometimes, our world must be just more rational, more secular, less oblivious than what it is. And when we discover its filth, we are overwhelmed by anxiety and we unconsciously stick with all our mental strength to our clear and rational (and wrong) depictions.
2017 has been a year of revelations. I am especially grateful for those which took place within myself.