Rob Ford, Sarah Thomson, and the Ever-Shifting Burden of Proof

Seriously now, when will this sideshow end? Every time it feels like things can’t possibly get any worse, Toronto politics finds a way to stoop to a new low. Rob Ford is engaged in yet another race to the bottom, one that he appears to be losing (or winning? I honestly can’t tell the difference anymore). It’s really just sad to watch.

The one thing that I’ve found most distressing is that nobody – and I mean nobody – has gone out of their way to actually defend Rob Ford. Sure, his supporters are attacking Sarah Thomson relentlessly, to varying degrees of vitriol and vigour, but there’s nobody saying, “Oh, Ford’s too much of a stand-up guy to do that.” It seems Ford’s public record is at least enough to make people think there might be some truth to the story. Or, as I tweeted a few days ago:

Nonetheless, it’s interesting to examine the attacks on Sarah Thomson, and the painfully-flawed logic behind them. Here are a couple of the standouts:

“She’s a politician, therefore she’s a liar and an opportunist.”

Ummm, what exactly is Rob Ford if not a politician? If politicians are liars and opportunists, then wouldn’t the automatic assumption be that Ford is also a liar? One would think that better politicians make for better liars; given that he’s the more successful politician of the two, wouldn’t that make him more likely to be the one who’s actually lying? His track record of proven, documented lies (Leafs game, anyone?) just makes this argument all the more ridiculous.

“If she was genuinely assaulted, she should have gone to the police right away.”

One’s immediate response to an assault, in and of itself, does not prove or disprove the actual allegation. Our legal system applies a certain burden of proof to all adjudicated matters, and sexual assault requires the same proof as other criminal charges – proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Given all the ambiguity surrounding the situation, there’s little to no hope of meeting that requirement in criminal proceedings, so I can understand why Sarah Thomson wouldn’t want to go that route. Not to mention the ordeal of a trial is often as traumatizing as the assault itself, sometimes more so; just ask a survivor of sexual assault if you’d like to know the reality behind it.

“Ford should sue her for defamation and make her prove it in court.”

First off, the onus of proof is on the person who files the suit, not the person who defends it. Even then, civil proceedings carry their own burden of proof; in most cases, it’s a balance of probabilities, meaning you have to prove your case just a bit better than your opponent. You have to prove that your position is more than 50% likely to be true, which is a much lower threshold than reasonable doubt. (That’s why O.J. Simpson was acquitted of criminal charges, but found legally responsible for Nicole Simpson’s death in the ensuing civil case.) Again, there’s too much ambiguity for a civil trial to have any hope of success; Ford would have to prove that he didn’t commit the actions Thomson has claimed, and simply attacking her character wouldn’t be enough.

“I’ve always said, I don’t know if she’s playing with a full deck.”

This gem comes from Ford himself, choosing a unique form of ad hominem attack that is often reserved for women accusing men of sexual inappropriateness. But this argument doesn’t actually prove or disprove anything. Whether one is sane or not has no bearing on whether they might have been victimized by sexual impropriety, and his statement does nothing to disprove the actual allegation. Being sane and being a victim are not mutually exclusive, which means he said it for no other reason than to attack her character.

Which brings us to the last (and most popular) attack on Thomson worth examining here:

“She’s just part of a leftist conspiracy.”

When all else fails, put on a tin-foil hat and blame it on the conspiracy. But it’s really worth examining the true meaning of the statement, and what it says about how sexual assault claims are treated. Exactly what burden of proof do we require before we believe a woman who claims assault? Not simply a balance of probabilities, or even proof beyond a reasonable doubt; we demand unquestionable and indisputable evidence, akin to a perfectly-clear video recording; anything less is simply deemed to be part of a conspiracy.

Here we have a man of privilege and power, a well-documented liar, a man who is believed to have lied under oath. A man who has been captured on video being verbally abusive to colleagues or opponents, as well as physically threatening reporters and bystanders. There are records of police coming to his home to attend to domestic disputes, he has been arrested while in the possession of illegal substances, admitted he flipped off a woman who told him not to use his cell phone while driving, and has been widely reported as rude, abusive and willing to lie his way out of almost anything. And yet, even with a history like Rob Ford’s:

It seems that the court of public opinion requires a higher burden of proof than any other court in the land.

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