The confluence of two things, related yet separate, are producing dangerous beliefs that are likely to get worse before they get better. On the one hand, there is the “believe women” trope. In order to counter generations of women being ignored and disbelieved, the current trend is to presume women, as a sex, are accurate and truthful about their claims of assault, abuse and offense until proven otherwise.
Simultaneously, there is the “men are predators” trope, which metastasized in various directions such as “toxic masculinity,” which contends that all men are dangerous until proven otherwise.
The problem with both tropes is that people inclined to embrace the tropes may fail to accept the critical caveat, “until proven otherwise.” In other words, once something is presumed to be true, the belief becomes unshakable, irrefutable, and consequently people act upon their beliefs.
[A] woman in Arlington, Virginia, saw a man taking pictures of kids and suspected the worst: a creep on the prowl with his camera. Disgusting.
She quickly alerted a security guard and, according to a subsequent police report, told him she believed the man was photographing children he didn’t know, for presumably nefarious purposes.
Notably, this brings a third trope into the mix, that pedophilia is pervasive and all children are at risk. But had this been a woman taking pictures, no alarm would have sounded. Because it was a man, and men are predators, nefarious purposes was the default presumption.
The security guard went to investigate and made contact with the man. As it turns out, the guy was taking pictures of his own children: He was a dad on an outing with his kids. The guard went back to report this reassuring news to the lady. Case closed?
At this point, some might find it understandable that the woman was concerned and alerted a security guard. After all, it could have been a man engaged in impropriety. Men are, after all, presumed to be predators rather than presumed to be a parent. Better safe than sorry, even if some third party, having no basis other than the sex of the father, believed it her duty to intervene rather than be complicit in the possible abuse of children.
Fortunately, she went to a security guard rather than call the police, who might have approached the situation with a more forceful perspective. And it was determined that he was a father, not a predator, although the two are not mutually exclusive. After all, a father is still a man and captive to his toxic masculinity.
But the woman believed she was right to be fearful. She was right to presume the man was a predator. She was right to believe the children were in danger from the man. She believed, and her belief is entitled to the weight of truth. This was her lived experience, and didn’t that matter?
The suspect then intervened, deployed pepper spray and sprayed the victim, before fleeing the scene on foot.
So the suspect is a woman in her 20s or 30s—a pepper-spraying maniac—and the victim is the man taking the pictures. (The dad sustained non-life threatening injuries, which were treated at the scene by medics.) The suspect was so obsessed with the idea there are predators everywhere that she literally couldn’t accept reality when confronted by it.
But was she a “pepper-spraying maniac,” or was she a well-intended believer in a series of fear-instilling tropes who believed, with absolute certainty, that it was her duty to protect children from the harm wrought by this male predator? And if she believed it, was it not sufficiently real to act upon, first to alert security and thereafter to engage in the use of force, pepper spray in this instance, to protect these poor children from this man’s predation? And if she didn’t act, was she not complicit in the abuse of children?
It’s possible that this women suffers from mental illness giving rise to delusions, but it’s also possible that she pieced together a series of beliefs grounded in fear that compelled her to act. So she pepper sprayed a dad taking pics of his kids. In her mind, wasn’t this worth it rather than have children subject to some toxic predator male’s nefarious conduct? Wasn’t it her solemn duty, upon seeing something she believed to be potentially wrong, to act upon, even to the point of using force? After all, silence is complicity, and who would want this women to be complicit in the abuse of children?
You may note a theme developing here, that we’re becoming a society that presumes evil, and assumes fear, and acts upon ideological beliefs rather than facts, which are no longer accepted as facts because they conflict with ideological presumptions.
In the example above, at least the woman only had pepper spray rather than a gun. But the misguided presumption that caused her to believe a man with children must be a predator giving rise to a duty on her part to intervene is becoming the institutionalized understanding of responsibility.
There are a series of tropes compelling intervention, despite the fact that an outsider rarely has any grasp of what’s going on beyond her presumptions. Yet, from “see something, say something,” to “silence is complicity,” to the express duty to intervene, people are pushed to act just in case, even if they have no idea what’s happening, whether there is impropriety or not, or if there is something improper happening, which party is in the wrong.
Was it far more likely that a man with children was their father rather than a child molester? Of course. Chances of the man being a pedophile were minuscule. And yet, the belief system being instilled in people compels them to believe in the extreme outlier of danger, evoking fear, compelling them to take action to protect against this non-existent fear. And the belief that whatever belief this woman had was beyond doubt pushed her to use force.
As these ideological tropes become more widely accepted and deeply ingrained, scenarios like this will play out with greater frequency. And the people doing it will believe themselves to be heroes for protecting others, even though the only place their fear exists is in their own head. After all, when you’re certain that your fear is real, what else can you do but act to stop it, no matter what.