“Allegedly” is one of those words that people stick in front of disputed things, and it serves the useful purpose of signaling that the dispute exists. But there is another way people use it as well, and that is less about signaling dispute and more about introducing it. And it works! For me, as a reader, when I see the word “alleged” tied to something, it makes me more critical, more doubtful, and more aware that some other people don’t think the thing in question is true.
So, I find it rather disturbing when people use the word “alleged” for things like sexual assault, abuse, and online harassment. In this context, the word is used as a rhetorical trick, even (especially?) when the event itself is not really in doubt, to create that doubt. People use this word, in short, to minimize the experiences of women.
There are many ways we use language to minimize women and women’s experiences, but the use of “allegedly” with otherwise unquestioned events is, in my opinion, an especially underhanded sort of sexism. When faced with sexism, it implies other interpretations. And by doing that, it pretends those other interpretations matter. But of course, rape, assault, abuse, and harassment aren’t defined by intent; these actions are defined by what happened and the consequences for the person who was targeted. It doesn’t matter whether the intent is in doubt—the action is what matters.
Lately I have noticed that when the action is well proven, the word “alleged” still keeps cropping up. If a man grabs a woman’s arm hard enough to cause bruises and is caught on video doing it, that is not “alleged” assault—that is just assault. If someone threatens to rape you and says you should go die in a comment section on your blog, or on YouTube, or in real life, that is not “alleged” harassment—that is simply harassment. It doesn’t matter whether the author later disclaims his own words as a joke, or says he was just upset for a moment, or even apologizes. The act remains and there is nothing “alleged” about it.
I do understand the discomfort of media when dealing with sexism. Men and women in media, and indeed all women, have been taught implicitly that the experiences of powerful men are more important than the experiences of any woman. To report the well-documented truth sometimes (I would argue often) conflicts with that premise. It’s hard to go strip out the equivocation when the bent of a social system is telling you something is wrong.
Even well intentioned reporters may not stop to think about why they feel discomfort with stating women’s experiences as proven. The word “alleged” is a band-aid on that feeling when the cause is mislaid—they imagine because they aren’t comfortable stating the event as proven that, in fact, it must be unproven. Once you presume that, it’s easy for confirmation bias to do the rest. The writer who uses the word may never realize that their initial discomfort was not because the event in question was unproven so much as because it was clearly proven, but the truth of it challenged a power structure.
So the word “allegedly” persists in this context not as a way of signaling true dispute, but as a way of softening the blow. The men in these events have abused positions of power, and yet we shy away from acknowledging that and holding them accountable. Instead, we focus on the women. We focus on their credibility. We suggest they are mistaken, or exaggerating. With a wink and a nod, we all pretend that it’s totally reasonable to dig deeper, ask tougher questions, and reject women’s experiences by default when they make us uncomfortable. They must be wrong. Somewhere, they must be wrong.
And if you dig deep enough, everyone is wrong somewhere. There’s always something that doesn’t add up. Truth is messy, and biases are hard to spot. Doubt is wise—but you can’t apply it only to things that make you uncomfortable. You have to apply it the things you, yourself, think.
You can always find some excuse to justify your prejudice if you try hard enough. You have to try a lot harder if you want to excise it.
Image Credit: Ernst Gräfenberg