Was it really asking too much for Amber Heard to be heard without prejudice? | gaby hinsliff

B.elevate all, or nothing. Either every word this woman says must be true, or nothing is. After sifting through the bitter ashes of Johnny Depp’s brief and often ugly marriage to Amber Heard for weeks, his attorney, Camille Vasquez, offered the jury that she heard mutual defamation suits only that absolute binary choice: no picking and choosing, no room for ambiguity, complexity, or imperfect victims. Either Heard had endured something “really horrible,” or she was capable of saying absolutely anything. It was a false dichotomy, but a ruthless strategy to remove any lingering doubts in a trial in which expert witnesses on both sides had repeatedly contradicted each other. And, apparently, it worked.

On Wednesday, the jury of five men and two women reached its grim conclusion, ruling that the woman we all saw sobbing on the witness stand had lied about being a victim of domestic and sexual violence. The jurors had seen mobile phone images of an enraged Depp charging his way through the kitchen, and read the text messages he sent to a friend about wanting drown or burn and “fuck his burned corpse”. She was seen breaking down describing an alleged sexual assault. And apparently, they believed in nothing but everything.

“The jury has given me my life back,” said a victorious Depp, who was awarded $10.35m (£8.25m) in damages for a newspaper article in which his ex-wife called herself a “public figure who represents domestic violence,” facing “the full force of our culture’s anger at women speaking up.”

Heard, who lost her lawsuit but was awarded $2 million over suggestions from her ex-husband’s attorney that she and her friends had “manipulated” their apartment to make it look more like a domestic crime scene, was defiant to the end. The verdict, she said, “turns the clock back to a time when a woman who spoke out and spoke out could be publicly shamed and humiliated. She pushes back the idea that violence against women should be taken seriously.” Although only, perhaps, if we accept the dangerous premise that Vásquez raised before the jury, with its clever echoes of the disturbing absolutism that permeates social media culture: that you either #believe in all women, or you treat them all as liars. Because those are not, and have never been, our only options.

Heard presented herself as an ordinary woman, a survivor through whose glittering Hollywood prism countless experiences of abuse by ordinary women could be viewed. Her article in the Washington Post primarily advocated renewing a key piece of domestic violence legislation to protect victims. Her legal team warned the jury that by refusing to believe Heard, they would effectively be telling women around the world that they shouldn’t believe them either. If she really was lying through her teeth, it would be a terrible, terrible thing that Heard had done, not only to Johnny Depp but to all those other women; so terrible, in fact, that many women would find it almost impossible to believe that she could have done it.

Indeed, British domestic violence experts warned even before the verdict came out that the extraordinary vitriol heaped on Heard on social media was stirring up old fears in victims about coming forward. The fear of humiliation and ridicule is never far below the surface. And why shouldn’t it be, when this harrowing trial was treated in some quarters as a mere celebrity feud, broadcast live around the world on YouTube for the convenience of viewers?

Monica Lewinsky, a woman whose own trauma was once similarly exploited for public entertainment, called it “cut porn” – a form of exploitation in which the voyeuristic viewer is uncomfortably complicit. But still, Depp’s supporters organized girls’ nights to see him, and on the social media platform TikTok, young women mockingly re-enacted snippets of Heard’s testimony. One of the most brutal surprises of this trial has been how many women, some claiming to be survivors of the violence, joined the #JusticeForJohnny hashtag alongside men’s rights activists and right-wing athletes. Minutes after the jury delivered its verdict on Wednesday, meanwhile, BBC Sport presenter Gary Lineker tweeted an exceptionally ill-judged gag: “Depp wins and gets Heard’s immunity.”

If there’s a ray of hope emerging here, it’s that the small but historically overlooked minority of domestic violence victims who are men might finally be taken more seriously. Perhaps it is also good news for those few men on the receiving end of the 3%-6% of rape complaints estimated by the investigation of the Ministry of the Interior as false. But it’s potentially better news for the men involved in the other 94%-97%.

Newspapers now understand with chilling clarity the risks they take by naming high-profile or wealthy men as abusers. His victims will also see that by speaking out they risk not only a wave of misogynistic hate (Heard said he received daily death threats) but potentially ruinous financial damage.

Heard did not name Depp in her carefully constructed Washington Post article, insisting in court that the article was not even solely about him. Though she publicly accused him of abuse after her divorce, she also wrote that “like many women, she had been sexually harassed and assaulted when she was college-age,” or in other words, before she even met him. But that didn’t save her from it.

Lawyers for musician Marilyn Manson, who is currently suing his ex-fiancée, Evan Rachel Wood, for defamation after she accused him of physical and sexual abuse, they will no doubt be looking into this case intensely, but they will not be alone. This verdict is already being called “the end of #MeToo”, as if in the future no woman telling horrible stories about a powerful man could be believed because she was not. Yet it is deeply unhealthy to treat a high-profile case as some kind of yardstick by which the rest of humanity must now be judged.

So how do you prevent this verdict from reversing all the hard-won progress for women survivors of abuse? The answer doesn’t lie in chanting “believe all women,” a mantra that implies the only way to overcome centuries of misogyny is to treat single women above suspicion. It’s a good campaign slogan, but it doesn’t sit well with a justice system based on the principle of believing the evidence, even when that sometimes leads to awkward directions.

All women really ask of men, and possibly vice versa, is the opportunity to be heard without prejudice. What happened or didn’t happen between Johnny Depp and amber heardright now that modest goal seems increasingly temptingly out of reach.

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