As I count down to a long overdue vacation next week, I find myself in the bind of needing to close an excessive number of open loops while lacking even remotely sufficient focus to do so effectively. Quelle tragédie. But it is hard to feel as though I’m having a bad week when I compare my circumstances to those of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Prudence and fairness demand that I preface my remarks by noting that any allegations against the Monsieur remain to be proven before a court of law, and I’m sure that I’m not aware of all the relevant facts of the case. From a legal perspective, DSK is entitled to a presumption of innocence with respect to the charges brought against him.
The issue that has captured my interest, however, is how an ordinary citizen, considering what he or she has come to know about the affair, forms an intuition about whether the alleged criminal “did it” or “didn’t do it.” Or, to be a bit more provocative: to what extent are the accused entitled to a presumption of innocence in the court of public opinion? I’m not really going to discuss the important question of whether media outlets bias their coverage in a way that sways public opinion (it’s inevitable that some will) or whether there’s a feedback loop between public opinion and the outcome of a particular legal process. I just want to focus on one of the key distinctions between Citizen and Juror. The Juror is supposed to arrive at trial with a blank slate. The Citizen has no such obligation. Under what circumstances does the Citizen form an intuition about the likely guilt or innocence of an alleged criminal? When is that intuition reliable? When do Citizens develop conviction in that intuition, given that they clearly aren’t privy to all the details of the proceedings?
To tip my hand: I rapidly formed a very strong intuition that DSK did something wrong to that maid. What I believe to be my intuitive heuristics are relatively simple. (I’m going to use ‘powerful’ and ‘powerless’ colloquially here, but since we’re discussing intuition I’ll allow my Readers to make sense of the shorthand.) First, powerful people in cushy settings are usually forgiven their indiscretions. Second, a powerless person usually faces highly asymmetric downside risk if he or she challenges a powerful person. Third, powerful people usually have the means to create compelling positive alternatives for the powerless (i.e., the proverbial “hush money”). These three prior beliefs about the world suggest to me that it’s highly unlikely that an allegation of the sort in this case would ever have seen the light of day. If there had been meaningful uncertainty about whether or not a crime had occurred, perhaps the maid wouldn’t have reported it for fear of losing her job, or the hotel would have found a way to cover it up, or DSK’s people would have arranged for a discreet apology in the form of former Presidents. In the state of the world where this didn’t happen, this framework would tell me that there’s likely to be very little ambiguity about what actually came to pass.
Putting aside the questions of power and privilege for a moment, I’d add as a fourth heuristic that allegations of sexual assault can be extremely costly from the perspective of the accuser, and I believe it’s widely understood that these crimes are generally under-reported as a result. So I’m also intuitively more likely to believe the accuser in a case of sexual assault than I would be in, say, a commercial dispute.
I have a number of intelligent friends whose prior beliefs about the world are similar to mine, yet led them to an entirely different framework for assessing the likely merits of the case. In their view, it is so improbable that a case of this nature would have been made public, the most likely explanation is that it was the work of a careful international conspiracy. DSK is a powerful figure, after all, and the IMF has certainly not made any friends in certain parts of the world. Wouldn’t he be likely to have enemies who were capable of orchestrating a set-up whose objective was not to have him convicted but to have him functionally removed from public life for the foreseeable future? I can accept this as a reasonable starting point, even though it completely contradicts my own intuition.
As responsible Jurors as well as Citizens, it is essential to re-evaluate such intuitions in light of whatever evidence becomes available for consideration. To the extent that corroborating details can be found, I think it would strengthen my (already pretty high) belief in my intuition, but it might or might not weaken the beliefs of those holding a conspiracy theory view (after all, what is a good conspiracy without corroborating evidence?). But, if there were ever findings of mysterious liaisons between this maid and a Eurocrat in some shadowy back alley… that would dramatically lower my belief in my interpretation.
Another question that has plagued me is: why do some powerful people take such huge personal and professional risks for the sake of a little action? I can’t imagine risking a lifetime’s worth of work and influence for something so fleeting… but I’d imagine neither could have a younger version of DSK.