What do you do when someone makes a claim of personal experience that just isn’t believable? Specifically, do you accuse them of fabricating the claim?
I’m sure many of you have heard by now about the anti-choice blogger who mistook an Onion article for a serious editorial. In a response to that article, he made the claim that the reason he thought the article was genuine was because he would “meet people like her in the field all the time.” Most readers of feminist discussion forums have encountered other experiences of dubious veracity, such as the tale of the poor man harangued for opening a door, or the malicious women’s studies professor who lowers the grades of her male students.
With most of these stories, I suspect they never happened, and are just invented to support the author’s point, but of course due to their nature I can never prove this. The best I can do is look for supporting evidence – an earlier mention of the experience, for example, or similar experiences reported by other (perhaps not so biased) people.
The options I can see for dealing with someone who makes an unbelievable claim to support their point:
- Give them the benefit of the doubt and treat the claim as true.
- Acknowledge your doubt, but treat the claim as conditionally true.
- Express your doubts to the truth of the claim, suggesting that the story may be misremembered or incomplete.
- Accuse the commenter of making up the story to support their point.
The consensus usually seems to be to give the claimant the benefit of the doubt, at least in the immediate discussion. The basic idea is one of creating richer discussions: with respect to verifiable data, requiring everybody to constantly cite their sources for everything they say bogs down the discussion (and indeed, is a common tactic for derailing a discussion). When it comes to claims of personal experience, where often no verification is possible the rationale is one of quid pro quo: if we acknowledge others’ experiences as genuine, people will give us the same benefit when we bring up our own personal experiences. This will create a more productive discussion than one personal data it is off limits, at least when we’re talking about a subject where there is not going to be much “hard data” or where “hard data” is likely to be biased.
Accusing someone of lying throws that social contract away, and opens the door to counteraccusations of lying, or of ignoring truth in favor of ideology. But what does saying “if she really said that, she’s wrong” accomplish? The impression is that of a “no true Scotsman” fallacy – that we’re just sweeping the inconvenient feminists under the rug.
Obviously, calling someone out on a fabrication isn’t going to convince them of the rightness of your position. The usual rationale for it is to appeal to third-party readers. However, these readers are also going to be able to come to their own conclusions; if that were the sole purpose, it probably wouldn’t be worth raising the point. However, the introduction of the fake anecdote tends to do more than just appeal to the people willing to believe it; it derails the conversation as other commenters respond in order to distance themselves from it.
So, readers, what do you all do when you’re confronted with this? How has it worked out?
One thing I would not ever advocate is accusing someone making a claim of rape, assault or abuse of making it up. These sort of claims should *always* be taken seriously, because victims of these crimes have had a long history of being ignored, or called liars, and because they’re intensely personal – it does a lot more harm for a victim not to be believed about these matters.