Law & the Courts

Kavanaugh Too

Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, September 6, 2018. (Alex Wroblewski/Reuters)
You can’t convict a person for being just the type.

There’s a scene in the 1984 John Hughes film Sixteen Candles that was meant to be played for laughs but seems like a horror in retrospect. The Geek character and the hunky all-American Jake are having a heart-to-heart over drinks at the end of a sloppy teen party. Of his passed-out girlfriend, Jake says, “I could violate her ten different ways if I wanted to.” The Geek responds, “What are you waiting for?” In any screenplay today, the two lines would have indicated the depthless malice of the two characters speaking them. But here, it’s just filler chit-chat between two of the male leads.

As stupid as the film is, it’s been on my mind ever since the Me Too moment in our culture started. It seemed like a perfect time capsule of evidence from not so long ago, about how men who were regarded by all as decent and well-meaning could act like sociopaths when it came to women. And in a small way (admittedly, a trivial way), it puts into context the many statements of women who have found some measure of satisfaction and even exaltation in the Me Too movement. The details of harassments often being so similar, women felt like other women were in some sense speaking for them.

And yet, now I see that this same spirit is being brought to the accusations made by Palo Alto University professor Christine Blasey Ford against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. To take one representative example:

The Huffington Post wrote an article on a group of alumnae of Ford’s high school — Holton-Arms, a private girls’ school in Bethesda — who are circulating a letter in support of Ford. They do not corroborate Ford’s story about Kavanaugh, but they say they believe her, writing that her story was “all too consistent with stories we heard and lived while attending Holton.”

That things like what is described in Ford’s letter “happened all the time” is, I’m sure, true. That it’s “all too consistent with stories” that people heard and their lived experience is also, I’m sure, true. But the questions is whether Brett Kavanaugh did something like this. Evidence that stuff like what he’s accused of happened to many people, or that prep-school guys like him always get away with things like this, is not evidence against Brett Kavanaugh. It is more like a cultural script in search of players to be cast in their respective roles later.

The head of NARAL Pro-Choice America, Ilyse Hogue, issued a statement — later quoted in the New York Times — contending that the accusation itself is enough to disgrace the nominee: “A woman’s identity should not have to be revealed to take her story seriously and pursue justice on her behalf. The charge of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh is disqualifying and we call on him to immediately withdraw his nomination for the Supreme Court.”

Really? Of course a woman’s identity should have to be revealed for us to take her story seriously. Ford’s allegations are taken seriously precisely because it is believable that she and Kavanaugh could have been at the same party at the time she alleges the attack happened. We treat Ford’s allegations much more seriously than we would treat the same allegation from someone else.

Evidence may yet be presented that incriminates Kavanaugh, and it may shift this conversation away from people generalizing from their own experiences. But until then, it is a dangerous thing to proceed toward a judgment, even a political judgment, based on prejudices such as “this thing happens all the time” and “it’s consistent with stories we know.” The sensation of finding archetypal victimizers and victims is what made false stories about Duke’s lacrosse players and the University of Virginia’s fraternity brothers go viral across the culture.

And this “he’s the type” style of accusation will not be used only on privileged men like Kavanaugh. It can, it has, and it will be used on anyone. Of course they’ll deny it. They always do.


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