Monday, September 17, 2018

Why We Must Take Christine Blasey Ford's Accusations against Kavanaugh Seriously

Just as Brett Kavanaugh looked poised to handily secure confirmation of his Supreme Court nomination, the news broke: Sen Dianne Feinstein was in possession of a letter alleging some kind of sexual misconduct when Kavanaugh was in high school.

With nothing more to go on than that, I wasn't inclined to say much about the case. After all, whatever this was, it was something that happened decades ago while Kavanaugh was still a minor. I was imagining some kind of sexual harassment allegation. Sexual harassment of young women by young men in high school is a serious issue, but for reasons I'll discuss in a moment, I was hesitant to make too much of such charges when, it seemed, they were being dredged up decades later in an attempt to derail a political appointment.

But then the substance of the accusations came out. The accuser went public, taking ownership of the allegation and the risks that go with that. This wasn't a charge of sexual harassment but of attempted rape. And the way it came to public light didn't suggest a political motivation but a deeply personal one: a victim trying to find the voice to speak in a culture that too often shames and silences the victims of sexual assault.

Why We Shouldn't Support a Sweeping Policy of Smearing People for their Past Mistakes

Before turning to why we should take the Kavanaugh accusations seriously, I want to be clear about what I'm not arguing. I don't think it's useful for us to start digging through the pasts of every public figure, smearing them with the stains of long-ago wrongs--especially if our collective understanding of those wrongs has evolved dramatically over the time since they were done. When I say I think we should take these charges seriously, I don't want to be misunderstood as endorsing some sweeping principle of this sort.

To see why, consider an example from my own life. When I was in the seventh grade, I was standing behind a girl in the orchestra room before rehearsal started (I think we were standing in line to sign some kind of form), and one of the older boys swept past us both, slithered his arm past me, and "goosed" the girl. That's what we called it then: goosing. It was an innocent-sounding name for the act of pinching someone's buttocks.

The girl let out a gasp, turned around, and saw me. Her expression changed as soon as she met my eyes. Shock at having been pinched in the butt changed to a different kind of surprise. She said something like, "Wow, Eric, I never imagined you were the type to do that!" And she gave me a smile of a kind that I, being the smallest kid in my grade who still looked like a fourth grader, was used to. It's the kind of smile that the babysitter gives to the round-cheeked little boy who professes his love. She's letting him down, of course, but she finds it harmless and kind of cute and she doesn't want to hurt his feelings.

I blushed, but I didn't deny having groped her ass--because, although I'd never have done something so brazen myself, that had more to do with fear than a sense of its moral wrongness. I didn't see what had been done to her as a violation. I don't know how she experienced it--at least not before she decided that it came from a boy she classified more among those she'd babysit than among those she'd date. But I do know that years later, during my senior year in high school, my girlfriend arrived at school in tears, feeling violated and humiliated and furious. She told me that some guy had grabbed her butt on the bus.

It was the first time that I thought of that act as a violation. A part of me wanted to minimize it, to tell my girlfriend that she was overreacting, to say that the guy was just "being playful" or something like that. But instead I listened to her and thought, "Maybe I'm under-reacting." Others, predictably, called her hysterical.

I'm pretty certain that I never "goosed" anyone in the years between those events--but it was a common enough occurrence in the halls of my junior high and high school. It was usually the more confident guys who did it, the ones that looked older than their years, played sports, actually dated girls instead of pining for them while standing against a wall. The guys we were all supposed to admire and wish we were more like. And the girls would jump and then--in my memory of the events--would give the boys a "naughty-you" flirtatious look. And the boys would shrug and smile.

If I never goosed anyone myself, what held me back was not a sense that such an act was a form of uninvited sexual touching, and hence a violation of someone's bodily autonomy. What held me back was, in part, the near certainty that the look I'd get would not be a naughty-you-flirtatious smile but a look of contempt. Or, worse, the look the babysitter gives to the little boy when he professes his love.

When I think of it more deeply, there's another reason I didn't do it: I didn't feel entitled to. But this was a judgment about my own status: I wasn't an alpha male. I wasn't one of those guys we all admired, the guys who had tacit permission to goose anyone they wanted. In other words, I subconsciously internalized a worldview in which entitlement to touch women's bodies didn't come from women but from one's status in the male hierarchy.

If I had goosed someone in those years, it would've been because I'd finally decided to push myself off the wall, shake off my timidity, and "make a move." And I wouldn't have perceived that move as assault. It would have been a move up the ladder of male hierarchy, a move designed to show my confidence in myself and my worth. And if asked, I would've described it as a playful, flirtatious overture.

I don't see it that way anymore. In the years since then I've thought about the culture of patriarchy, a culture which socializes both boys and girls in ways that promote and facilitate the sexual exploitation of women. Seen through that lens, the practice of "goosing" is hardly innocuous. That girls are socialized to treat it as no big deal, to laugh off an uninvited touching of their buttocks, is not a harmless feature of their socialization. That young women like my high school girlfriend are characterized as "hysterical" when they respond as she did to being goosed--that plays a role in the creation of the culture of silence and shame that has enabled predators like Harvey Weinstein to get away with sexual assault for decades.

I don't remember ever goosing anyone. I'm sure that in many other ways I was enacting little rituals and ways of talking whose cumulative effect was to provide cover for the Harvey Weinsteins of the world. But suppose I did goose someone and I don't remember doing it. Should that be held against me today?

I don't think so, but this isn't really about me. There are men and women who are far more effective agents of social change than I am who, years ago, were part of the problem they are now working to change, who routinely and without much thought acted out the oppressive and exploitative scripts they'd inherited. Back before they woke up.

If we hold everyone individually accountable for such things, we are in danger of dealing with our collective guilt by scapegoating individuals who may not only have been less responsible for our culture's wrongs but who may now be part of the effort to change it for the better. And it's fine to say that those people should come clean about their pasts and the things they used to do which now they stand against. But the deeper we are socialized into a pattern of behavior, the more invisible it is to us. I don't remember everything I did in high school, especially not those actions and events where everything conformed to the established social scripts. What I'm likely to remember the most are the moments that forced me to confront my socialization--the challenges to them, or those moments when the darkest aspects of my socialization became apparent. What I will remember are those events that called me to decide whether this was who I wanted to be.

The more routine expressions of our social scripts are likely to fall into the fog of our personal histories. If the things lost in that fog are held against us today, now that the wrongness of those things has become clear, it's more likely an effort to scapegoat individuals than an effort to take collective accountability for making things better. And beneficiaries of the status quo are more than happy to protect the exploitative regime by encouraging such scapegoating sacrifice of those who are fighting for reform.

This is why a sweeping policy of holding individuals accountable for mistakes made long ago, mistakes that express collective sins for which we should take collective responsibility, is troubling to me. Our decision to hold someone accountable for the wrongs of their youth cannot be based on such a sweeping principle. But it cannot be selective based on party affiliation or group membership, because then it's just partisan hypocrisy. It must be more nuanced than that.

Which brings us back to Kavanaugh.

It's Sexual Assault, Not Sexual Harassment 

The accusation leveled against Kavanaugh is not that in his youth he recited routine scripts of sexualized talk that we now recognize to be verbal harassment. It isn't that he participated in common rituals--such as goosing--that we now see as part of a deeply troubling pattern aimed at training women to quietly accept uninvited sexual touching (or to minimizing it on pain of being dubbed "hysterical").

The accusation is one of attempted rape.

Goosing, and the accompanying social pressure to treat it as harmless or playful, is part of what has come to be called "rape culture." As I understand it, that term refers to all of these smaller things that cumulatively both encourage patterns of sexual exploitation and make it easier for sexually exploitative men to get away with rape (and other crimes of sexual objectification and humiliation). It is one thing to be unconsciously complicit in such a culture, to blindly perpetuate patterns of thought and action that provide cover for sexual predators. In cases like that, what we need to do is cry out, "Wake up!" And if they've already woken up, then we must urge them to be part of the effort to change things for the better.

But it is one thing to be a banal and mostly oblivious participant in a cultural evil. It is something else to take advantage of that culture, to be among those who use it as cover to victimize and abuse. Even if it's a one-time offense. Here, it's important to distinguish between two kinds of one-time offenders: those who realize their error, repent, do penance, and forge a new path; and those who duck their heads and enjoy the advantages of a social system that hides their crime. Those who pursue the latter course have not merely violated another human being and gotten away with it. They are by their actions endorsing the social forces that enabled them to get away with it.

Even if they never again practice overt sexual assault, their relationship to the system that enables perpetrators has changed. As beneficiaries of that system, especially if they use those benefits to rise to success, they become its cheerleaders, however silently.

If you attempted to rape someone and then rose to power and prominence because the culture of shame and silence kept your crime a secret, you are wearing that culture of shame and silence like your own private invisibility cloak, valuing it the way the Harry Potter valued his. If you act as if it's just fine to enjoy your privileges, then you're acting as if the things that made those privileges possible are just fine, too. And if what made those privileges possible is a culture of shame and silence, then you're its secret fan.

This is why what Kavanaugh did or did not do so many years ago matters so much. Because it's about who he is today. If he is guilty of the charges leveled against him, then he has been benefiting all these years from that culture of shame and silence that kept his crime hidden from the high school teachers who wrote his letters of recommendation, from the colleges that gave him his degrees, from those sitting on his confirmation hearings, from everyone who ever had a say in his rise to prominence and power.

You cannot benefit so much for so long from rape culture without a part of you being its silent cheerleader. And if Kavanaugh really did commit this crime so many years ago, then his current behavior--his unwavering denials--means that even now he is hoping that rape culture will come to his rescue, that it will help him rise even higher, to one of the most powerful positions in the world.

If Kavanaugh really did do this thing so many years ago, it is not an isolated aberration from his youth but something that he has continued to underwrite and support every day of every year since he committed that terrible crime. The choice to enjoy the protection of his invisibility cloak is an ongoing choice that he makes anew every day. If he did it and came clean all those years ago, repented and sought to do penance for it, then we could call it a thing of the past. But he's done none of those things. So either he is not guilty, or he has been benefiting year in and year out from social forces that have enabled him to get away with attempted rape. And he seeks to benefit from them now.

This is why we need to take Christine Blasey Ford's allegations seriously today. It would be different if the nature of the allegations had all the marks of a smear-campaign. But there is a clear history of Ford talking about this trauma from her youth in contexts that had to do with personal and relational healing, not political opportunism. And events unfolded in a way that indicates that Ford herself, after considerable struggle, had decided against going public for reasons of personal welfare. This narrative fits the profile, not of political opportunists, but of those who are struggling to stand up to a culture of shame and silence, one that has kept them from speaking publicly for a long time and that threatens to beat them down if they speak today.

It is a different matter whether political opportunism on the part of others played a role in these allegations becoming public when they did. I'm sure there is plenty of political opportunism to go around. But these allegations have their origins in something very different. They are serious. They speak to who Kavanaugh is today, not just to what he did so many years ago.

And so the allegations must be treated with gravity and attention, considered on their merits, before Kavanaugh is elevated to the highest honor attainable to any person in his profession.