Froma Harrop commentary: He hit? She hit?
Summary: The problem of choosing facts to believe is not confined to celebrities. Book publishers and universities are blacklisting people based on unverified "accusations," "allegations" or "complaints." They often don't even reveal exactly what the accused had allegedly done. Don't these institutions have an obligation to first determine the truth behind the charges -- and if they find reason for concern, how serious the misdeed?
There's no way for an outsider to easily judge the dueling claims in the court battle between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. The actors completed their whirlwind divorce years ago but continue to volley accusations of physical abuse in what has turned out to be a battle for public opinion.
The most expert insight probably comes from the couple's marriage counselor. Laurel Anderson said the abuse during their marriage was "mutual."
Still one can find fault with the tactics applied by one of the combatants. Heard played dirty when she wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post portraying herself as a "public figure representing domestic abuse." Depp insists he never laid a hand on Heard and is suing her for defamation. She is countersuing.
First off, the "public face of domestic abuse" is a title Heard bestowed on herself. This was a "he hit her, she hit him" story, and The Post was remiss for publishing Heard's unverified claims without a response from the other side.
Heard complained that as a result of the bad publicity, photographers were following her and the tabloids posted unflattering pictures. "I felt as though I was on trial in the court of public opinion." Perhaps she was, but writing an op-ed in The Washington Post is not exactly the way to reclaim one's privacy. On the contrary, it handed the gossip industry new material.
Heard didn't help her case when she attached it to #MeToo movement. Originating in the abuse and harassment of women in Hollywood, #MeToo did serve a purpose. But many women have exploited #MeToo as a weapon designed to extract revenge, money or publicity. Or to stop an honest conversation about an interaction that was, at bottom, messy.
Theirs was obviously a tempestuous marriage. But it is also safe to question Heard's motives in making this a "women must be believed" story. Women don't have to be believed. They should be listened to, yes. But then, so should men.
Depp's former lawyer characterized Heard's claims as an "abuse hoax." Maybe, maybe not.
Heard says that Depp slapped, kicked and headbutted her. He says he didn't come close to hitting her, "nor have I ever struck any woman in my life." He further accuses her of having thrown a vodka bottle his way that smashed and severed a finger.
Again, what may be true or not is impossible for bystanders to guess. Heard wrote that Depp's alleged use of drugs and alcohol periodically led to violence, after which he would sober up and apologize. If Heard wanted out of such a marriage, she certainly had good reason. But it doesn't automatically follow that he physically hurt her. Complicating the story, Heard has admitted that she struck Depp while on Ambien.
And if Depp joked about killing her -- "Let's burn Amber!!!" -- that kind of bombast is typical in a fraught breakup. It doesn't mean he seriously thought about doing it. This brand of hyperbole is often aired in divorce courts.
What these accusations have done, Depp claims, is hurt his career. Heard complains that this sordid story has hurt hers. Both could be right, but then again, careers in Hollywood can go up or down for various other reasons -- age, changing tastes, good or bad reviews.
The problem of choosing facts to believe is not confined to celebrities. Book publishers and universities are blacklisting people based on unverified "accusations," "allegations" or "complaints." They often don't even reveal exactly what the accused had allegedly done. Don't these institutions have an obligation to first determine the truth behind the charges -- and if they find reason for concern, how serious the misdeed?
The court of public opinion is the wrong place to do this.