Believing Cain

The talk of the town today is of course Politico's story detailing how two women who worked for Herman Cain at the National Restaurant Association in the 1990's accused him of sexual harassment, and were then given payouts to leave the organization (and made to sign non-disclosure agreements, of course). Although Politico relied extensively on anonymous sources for their story and obtained only some details about the alleged harassment, it does appear that they worked it pretty hard and didn't publish until they were confident about the facts they had.

There are two possibilities here when it comes to the allegations. The first is that the women's allegations are true, which would mean Herman Cain is a pig who preys on women who work for him. The second is that the allegations are false, which would mean Herman Cain is an innocent man besmirched by allegations he can't escape.

At the moment, we have no basis on which to determine which of those two is more likely to be true. When something like this comes up, until there is some real evidence (and even after), we tend to judge by how we felt about the person beforehand. Liberals who disagree with everything Cain believes are going to feel in their guts that he's probably guilty. Conservatives who like Cain are going to feel in their guts that it's a bum rap, and a true conservative like Cain would never do such a thing. There are also pre-existing ideas about sexual harassment that have nothing to do with Cain himself: liberals are more likely to think that it happens frequently when powerful men are in positions to victimize relatively powerless women, while conservatives are more likely to think that harassment claims are usually trumped up by bitter harpies looking to sabotage job-creators.

Whichever of those ideas you think has more validity, none of them tells us anything about whether Herman Cain is actually guilty of what he was accused of. And we may never know. Chances are that Cain is going to continue to refuse to answer any detailed questions about the incidents, and if the women hold to their non-disclosure agreements, they won't talk. Conservatives will no doubt convince themselves that this is all a liberal plot, and Cain can go on to lose the nomination race to Mitt Romney or Rick Perry, just as he was going to all along. He'll then get his show on Fox, and continue to be a hero to conservatives. After all, as long as you've got the right enemies, conservatives can forgive an awful lot.

And that's the strategy Cain is beginning to employ: make it a story not about sexual harassment, but about mean liberals and mean liberal media. As Cain's campaign said in a statement, "Fearing the message of Herman Cain who is shaking up the political landscape in Washington, Inside the Beltway media have begun to launch unsubstantiated personal attacks on Cain." As idiotic as that sounds to you and me, it resonates with people who don't want to believe the accusations, giving them a narrative they're comfortable with. Herman Cain will never be president, but he'll probably come out of this just fine, because he has never had a target audience outside the right anyway.

Comments

"... At the moment, we have no basis on which to determine which of those two is more likely to be true. When something like this comes up, until there is some real evidence (and even after), we tend to judge by how we felt about the person beforehand...."

True but irrelevant. It's not unusual, for example, for people who "hate child molesters" to rally to the defense of somebody they know who is accused of molesting a child, and even to take an overt "blame the victim" approach to the allegations if they turn out to be valid.

In cases like this, there often is no evidence except for the alleged victim's allegations - what they call a "he said, she said" scenario. It is fair to observe that the more often allegations arise, and the more often they're settled for cash and a signature on a confidentiality agreement, the more likely it is that there is some truth to the allegations. But no, unless you're the proverbial fly on the wall, you're not going to know with certainty what happened behind a closed office door, and there are plenty of scenarios that can be imagined in which Cain did nothing wrong.

I'm having a bit of trouble, though, with part of Cain's present story. I find it difficult to believe that there would be two cash settlements involving confidentiality agreements, but that nobody told Cain about either the settlements or those agreements.

Is it possible that in both cases the parties assumed that Cain simply would never comment on the alleged events, or publicly deny the allegations, such that the women were only concerned about getting their next job reference and not about whether Cain denounced them in public? Sure, I suppose that's possible. But if I were their lawyer I would have made sure that Cain was included among those who was to maintain confidentiality about the accusations and settlements, and that if he were to violate the confidentiality my client would be freed to defend her reputation. It is difficult to imagine, if I were twice wrongly accused, that I would never express anger at the accusers or at my employer for paying them off instead of firing them.

From the other side, if I were Cain's employer, felt that he had done nothing wrong, and were so confident of my position that I didn't even make him aware of the facts of the settlement or confidentiality agreement, I find it difficult to imagine that I would be paying out two separate settlements subject to confidentiality agreements that did not cover statements by Cain. If Cain remained in my employ, as he would continue to be my agent, it would be foolish not to instruct him to refrain from commenting lest he deny the accusations - something that could occur even if the accusations were true.

"... There are also pre-existing ideas about sexual harassment that have nothing to do with Cain himself: liberals are more likely to think that it happens frequently when powerful men are in positions to victimize relatively powerless women, while conservatives are more likely to think that harassment claims are usually trumped up by bitter harpies looking to sabotage job-creators...."

I'm again not seeing the relevance. There is no case to be made here that accusations made in the context of an obscure president of an obscure trade association - how many people are aware of either the National Restaurant Association or the identity of its president - were "trumped up by bitter harpies looking to sabotage job-creators". Even if you believe they were "trumped up" or that the accusers are "bitter harpies", and even if you believe that the president of a trade association is a "job-creator", the agreement to remain confidential in exchange for cash suggests that their motive was not to "sabotage" Cain.

I think most people, liberal or conservative, would concede that through most of human history, sexual harassment and misconduct has occurred with some regularity "when powerful men are in positions to victimize relatively powerless women". I expect that there are some conservatives who argue that reforms since the 1970's have all but eliminated sexual harassment in the workplace, and I expect that there is some difference between how liberals and conservatives as groups see the extent of the remaining problem, but I expect that conservatives on the whole recognize that problems remain.

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