Brett Kavanaugh: Through A Shotglass Darkly

I’ve been tempted to weigh in on the Brett Kavanaugh spectacle, but have largely restrained myself, being content to revisit my previous postings on essentially the same issues. In the present tribal atmosphere, it can be difficult to speak a word of sense on these issues and not be pumelled by one side or another.

I am not a conservative and am not responsible for what conservatives say — so their (often woman-hating) rants don’t interest me much as a point of rebuttal. I am a liberal (though not a knee-jerk one), so I find myself more incensed at what my fellow liberals say when it’s not informed by careful analysis and amounts to little more than pandering or meme proliferation.

To state what should be obvious, there’s a massive political overlay to the human drama between Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and accuser Christine Blasey Ford. The fact that it’s become a political dogfight further complicates an already complicated matter: namely, how to deal with an incident which allegedly took place 36 years ago?

The more hysterical the atmosphere becomes, the more cool, detached, and even non-empathetic I become, as if recoiling from the shout-my-rape-story-in-an-elevator mentality which seems to have taken over.

In a society, a marriage, or even the individual human psyche, there is perhaps an ideal balance between reason and emotion. I am pro feminist, and support the goal of creating a society where women have equal opportunity, equal rights, equal choice, and can thrive and prosper in whatever roles they choose for themselves. I would even agree that tempering rationalism with more feminine emotion can be a good thing. Rationalism often explains away injustice, while emotion feels it and responds to it in a dynamic way. That is very good! We need a more compassionate society where we identify with each other’s pain, and respond to it with caring.

I was very moved by Rachel Maddow’s spontaneous response to incoming reports about the Trump administration’s family separation policies, which I also oppose. Props to Rachel for being a thinking, feeling, caring human being!

That being said, I can see the downside of emotionalism when taken to greater extremes, to the point where it threatens to overthrow reason. Emotions can be choreographed and orchestrated, raised to fever pitch and used to justify wholesale attacks on individuals and groups. That’s what happens in a moral panic.

Having seen moral panics before and having studied them, I tend to stand back from the fray and stubbornly refuse to endorse political slogans like “believe the women.” I think “believe the women” is as unworthy a slogan as “believe the men,” “believe the transgender people, “believe the Albanians,” “believe the Rastafarians,” or “believe the Evangelicals.” As human beings, we are simply not that trustworthy. Membership in a certain demographic fails to remedy this problem.

During a moral panic, partisans employ so-called “atrocity stories” to construct a political narrative which seems to justify their policies or actions. Take the case of Donald Trump and his VOICE program, which (I kid you not) stands for Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement. (For a satirical look at the VOICE acronym, see here.)

Statistics suggest that immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born Americans. But in creating VOICE as a platform for highlighting atrocity stories concerning immigrant crime as told by “survivors,” Trump is trying to manipulate the emotions of the public, to the point where they’ll support his often irrational and draconian policies targeting immigrants. This includes kidnapping immigrant children and whisking them off to remote locations in the dead of night. (See CNN video.)

Trump’s use of VOICE constitutes base demagoguery, and bears the fallacy of seeking to define a phenomenon solely through anecdotes which are not representative and don’t lead to sound public policy. Unfortunately, the left does this also.

“I’m a rape victim, so Christine Blasey Ford MUST be telling the truth!” is a cry heard often, or at least a variation on it: “Such-and-such victims’ rights group says that x percentage of women are victims of sexual assault, therefore Christine Blasey Ford MUST be one of them!”

Our justice system stinks, but at least during a trial some effort is made to avoid these particular fallacies and stick to the facts of the case, not blur the facts by bringing in someone else’s experience which is understandably meaningful to them, but has no bearing on the instant matter. If trying a defendant for an alleged street mugging, a prosecutor is not allowed call witnesses who were victims of other unrelated street muggings, just to work the jury into an emotional lather where they’re more likely to convict.

Identity politics is a problem on the left, as is its close cousin: presumed victimhood. Yes, racism exists, sexism exists, homophobia exists, religious intolerance exists. These are real problems, but so is a victim mentality and all the baggage (both political and psychological) which gets dragged in with it. We on the left need the courage to cry b.s. whenever people retreat into victim mode when challenged on the accuracy of their accounts or the clarity of their thinking. (The politically correct response is that when asking alleged victims to speak accurately and think clearly, we are “revictimizing” them.)

The rise of victimhood as an identity choice or by-product of bad therapy has led to the acceptance of a host of memes which excuse or even glorify the would-be victim. This flies in the face of the oft-repeated platitude that women who “come forward” have “everything to lose and nothing to gain.” In truth, they walk into a ready-made identity with numerous rewards, including attention, sympathy, and even monetary rewards down the line. In some nether regions of the vast feminist universe (which I generally support) victim feminism remains the rage, and “coming out” as an “abuse survivor” is more or less de rigueur in those circles — how you get your ticket punched.

It’s politically taboo to talk about this, but we’ve all met people who are constantly in victim mode, and show not the least interest in putting negative experiences behind them. Indeed, this is the symptom pattern for people who have been exposed to a certain type of bad therapy (hopefully rare). In this type of therapy, people are persuaded to focus obsessively on an incident from their past, to bring it into the present, and to turn it into their entire raison d’ĂȘtre for being, their all-consuming passion.

I’m embarrassed to say this because it’s so politically incorrect, but I admit that when listening to Christine Blasey Ford testify, my first reaction was “Here is someone who’s operating 100% in victim mode, and has been doing so for many years.” Is this a result of bad therapy? The kind of therapy which fails to help the client live joyfully in the present, but instead keeps them reliving (and obsessing over) an incident from their past?

I have no idea what happened 36 years ago. Dr. Ford’s story could be, quite simply, the truth. Brett Kavanaugh may have sexually assaulted her. Or he may not have. Or the truth may lie somewhere in the uncomfortable gray zone whose boundaries we are still actively negotiating, having to do with what goes on at teen drinking parties, and what participants of both genders expect from the experience going in.

Sexual assault is NEVER okay, even at a teenage drinking party. It’s a crime. Waiting 36 years to report an alleged instance of sexual assault is not a crime, but it is ethically questionable, especially when the first report to anything resembling a judicatory body comes on the eve of a political dogfight, and is sprung (to mix animal metaphors) like a rabbit out of a hat. No politics involved? Really?

The memes surrounding victimhood create what’s called a non-falsifiable proposition. Victims of sexual assault supposedly don’t report it. Non-victims of sexual assault also don’t report it. But if someone doesn’t report it for 36 years, that’s somehow interpreted as corroborating evidence, because that’s said to be what victims do. A little crazy, no?

Speaking of corroboration, hearsay is not corroboration! Suppose, for the sake of argument, that I make a false claim. If I make that false claim to ten people, those ten people do not corroborate the underlying claim. They only confirm that at some point in time, I began making that claim. This says little about the truth or falsity of the claim itself.

The Kavanaugh confirmation fight raises many troubling issues. The only easy answers come from demagogues on both the left and right. I don’t support his confirmation, but then I never did. His conservative views and prior judicial decisions were enough to disqualify him in my mind. And now, since his eccentric performance on September 27, he may also be considered unsuitable by reason of temperament, having appeared alternatively mawkish or rude and belligerent to questioners.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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