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Devastating consequences

The problematic debate over he said/she said

Most of the stories we tell have happy endings. A preponderance of stories making national headlines tell of tragic ones. In either case, once the story ends, we can react to it, learn from it, and move on to the next.

A third class of endings prove less tidy. It might be the screen going black at the conclusion of Sopranos, or the top spinning at the end of Inception. Such uncertain finishes invite the audience to decide what kind of outcome makes the most sense, and which conclusions may be drawn from the wondering.

It can be a playful, academic exercise. But only when matters are trivial.

The San Diego Repertory production of Actually, performed at the Lyceum Theatre through November 4, depicts higher stakes. Two characters, male and female, recount the sequence of events leading up to a college campus sexual encounter, ponder whether it was consensual, and deal with the confounding questions arising in its aftermath.

To call this work topically relevant would be like calling a U.S. Supreme Court decision legally binding. The recent nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to that court, and the contentious congressional hearing that followed when Christine Blasey Ford publicly accused him of sexual assault, made the problematic debate over he said/she said accounting a national conversation.

We the public were left to draw our own conclusions. Human nature dictated that we side with the individual we wanted to believe, based on our own experiences or affiliations.

It’s impossible for us, as observers, to get this assuredly right, and only the pitfalls of getting it wrong are clear cut. Believe the accuser and risk punishing the innocent; believe the accused and risk letting the guilty get away with it. Adding to the confusion is that we live in an innocent-until-proven guilty culture, so as a matter of principle, it’s troubling to bestow guilt based on the contested testimony of a single individual.

In that sense, there’s short-term political incentive to hope the accuser is lying. It’s easier to believe no crime has been committed, so we may move on from an apparently unsolvable problem without having to endure any painful rumination.

But such rationalization is troubling for many reasons, not the least of which being that most crimes do not take place in public. We can only know they exist when a victim stands up to report it. And if the controversy over Kavanaugh can teach us anything, it’s that remaining silent so our society can avoid conflict leads to devastating long-term consequences.

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Actually
<em>Actually</em>

Most of the stories we tell have happy endings. A preponderance of stories making national headlines tell of tragic ones. In either case, once the story ends, we can react to it, learn from it, and move on to the next.

A third class of endings prove less tidy. It might be the screen going black at the conclusion of Sopranos, or the top spinning at the end of Inception. Such uncertain finishes invite the audience to decide what kind of outcome makes the most sense, and which conclusions may be drawn from the wondering.

It can be a playful, academic exercise. But only when matters are trivial.

The San Diego Repertory production of Actually, performed at the Lyceum Theatre through November 4, depicts higher stakes. Two characters, male and female, recount the sequence of events leading up to a college campus sexual encounter, ponder whether it was consensual, and deal with the confounding questions arising in its aftermath.

To call this work topically relevant would be like calling a U.S. Supreme Court decision legally binding. The recent nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to that court, and the contentious congressional hearing that followed when Christine Blasey Ford publicly accused him of sexual assault, made the problematic debate over he said/she said accounting a national conversation.

We the public were left to draw our own conclusions. Human nature dictated that we side with the individual we wanted to believe, based on our own experiences or affiliations.

It’s impossible for us, as observers, to get this assuredly right, and only the pitfalls of getting it wrong are clear cut. Believe the accuser and risk punishing the innocent; believe the accused and risk letting the guilty get away with it. Adding to the confusion is that we live in an innocent-until-proven guilty culture, so as a matter of principle, it’s troubling to bestow guilt based on the contested testimony of a single individual.

In that sense, there’s short-term political incentive to hope the accuser is lying. It’s easier to believe no crime has been committed, so we may move on from an apparently unsolvable problem without having to endure any painful rumination.

But such rationalization is troubling for many reasons, not the least of which being that most crimes do not take place in public. We can only know they exist when a victim stands up to report it. And if the controversy over Kavanaugh can teach us anything, it’s that remaining silent so our society can avoid conflict leads to devastating long-term consequences.

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