Truth Today, Gone Tomorrow

In 1794, George Washington wrote that “Truth will ultimately prevail where there is pains to bring it to light.” Gone, however, are the days when such sentiments held true. In the age we live in, truth has lost its power, value, and even allure. What, then, is the value of telling the truth, or even asking for it?

In the spookier days of October, I spent several enjoyable hours watching the Scream movies, a seemingly innocuous (though truly witty and well-produced) franchise from the 1990s. In between Ghostface’s vicious slashes was woven a more subtle narrative about the violence of Hollywood, with the third film even explicitly referencing the obsession with sex present in the industry. This was especially striking because of the recent breaking of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, followed in more recent weeks by numerous stars’ falls from grace. But how could this all have come as a shock? As the Scream movies showed, allegations of abuse in Hollywood are nothing new; they have been seemingly common knowledge in the public for decades, and now it seems as though everything is coming to a head.

The most fascinating element, however, is not the revelations concerning industry giant Kevin Spacey’s predatory past, nor the long-awaited answer to the question of who abused Corey Feldman. The most fascinating element of this story is the ambiguity of truth, and the breakdown of one of this country’s most sacred principles: innocent until proven guilty. This principle is – rightly so – integral to the United States’ function as a free society. It becomes problematic, however, when we reach the point we are at now: what do we do when nobody has any idea what to believe?

An allegation is just that – an allegation. Without corroboration as truth, it serves only as tarnish; today, however, it seems to be more of a rust, and in the worst cases, a bullet to the heart. There is little separating the accusations against Bill Clinton or Donald Trump from those against Spacey and others in Hollywood; why, then, has the vigilante reaction been so strong? Why do so many rush to justice when the truth is still not yet known? How do average people develop the ideal that they are allowed to pass justice on events with which they are not even tangentially associated? This ultimately plays into the greater concept of vigilante justice, which has been explored by many in the past. However, it has never been a commonly accepted thread of justice. Instead, we have remained reliant upon the ancient tradition of Justinian: ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat. The burden of proof is on the one who declares, not on one who denies.

In recent weeks, the College has been transfixed by its own similar scandal: the investigation into psychology professors Todd Heatherton, Paul Whalen, and Bill Kelley for allegations of sexual misconduct. Details have been painfully lacking since the initial announcement. At this point, the only information available is as follows:

  • The College’s investigation regarding Heatherton is unrelated to the other two professors and concerned an out-of-state matter.
  • The allegations are unrelated to research involving human subjects.
  • Both the College and various local and state authorities – including the Attorney General of New Hampshire – are conducting investigations into the matter.

Information is truly sparse; indeed, it would be inappropriate for anyone to pass judgement upon the three professors when so little is known. That did not, however, stop NYU from terminating Heatherton from his position as a visiting scholar. While leave may be a more standard and appropriate reaction, termination begins to cross the line into vigilantism. The investigation is still underway, which means that the authorities themselves still do not know the full story behind what may or may not have happened. The College itself is in a similar situation. At this point, no one knows what even allegedly happened, let alone the truth. Why, then, do some feel the need to deal out their own justice?

The theme of vigilante justice seems to be growing in today’s society. Perhaps this is due to the sheer ambiguity of the times we live in. With fake news and general misinformation running rampant, nobody knows what to believe anymore. In a political arena so bitterly torn by two emboldened wings, vigilante justice is the new norm and misinformation is the currency of the realm. Those of us more reasonable folk are left on the sidelines, scanning the gridiron for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but it. It is our duty to uphold the principles of the democracy we have championed, and stand as the last vestiges against any radicalization that threatens tradition. In doing so, we must always seek Truth – wherever it may be found.