Brett Kavanaugh: Through A Shotglass Darkly 2

UPDATE 2 In Part 1, I began exploring the issues raised by the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. I keep writing on these issues in the hope of finding the right tone, persuading those with an open mind how we can make progress, so that women are satisfied their voices are being heard and changes being made, and men are satisfied they’re not being unfairly targeted. No one in either camp has asked me to be a negotiator, but as an essayist I’m free to offer suggestions and look for things we can all agree on.

The idea strikes me with some force that women could spread the word among themselves, and help to educate the next generation, that if you’re sexually assaulted you need to report it promptly to the proper authorities, such as the police or a rape crisis center. You need to be interviewed immediately.

There may be many reasons why women don’t report sexual assault, or wait years to do so, and even then don’t report it to a body having some legal authority to act, but rather to the media (including social media) or to a partisan political figure. But such failure to report in timely fashion or to the proper authorities poses serious problems for the complainant, for the accused, for investigators, and for society at large.

Sexual assault is a serious crime. The main way to ensure that it is taken seriously is to report it promptly to the appropriate authorities. However difficult this may be, it’s one way to make a major dent in the incidence of such crime — a way that most people (both women and men) can agree upon, because it’s consistent with principles of fairness and due process.

There’s a lot of shoddy thinking coming from extreme camps on both sides — that is, from man-haters among women and woman-haters among men. Solutions will be found mainly by people in the middle — by women and men who love and respect each other, who share a sense of outrage at sexual violence, and who want to see a society where women and girls feel safe from such violence.

The very existence of sexual violence is something which drives a wedge between men and women, causing them to retreat into their separate camps. So, lessening actual (undisputed) incidents of sexual violence should be a major goal. Obviously, for men this means not engaging in sexual violence! For women, it means making use of social control mechanisms meant to curb sexual violence, (again) through prompt reporting.

This is not to suggest that the available mechanisms are perfect. They are not. Still, many police departments have revised their procedures so that a woman with a sexual assault complaint can speak to a female officer who has training in this field, and will treat the complainant with sensitivity.

Sexual assault is not pleasant, and neither is speaking about it with strangers; but filing complaints and seeing the process through is one sure-fire way to reduce the incidence of sexual assault. If women who are victims of sexual assault make a point of reporting it promptly, those men who still haven’t gotten the message that sexual assault is wrong and illegal will find themselves being prosecuted for it. This will send a strong message of deterrence.

At the same time that women need to up the statistics for reporting clear incidents of sexual assault, I think they also need to be very clear about what isn’t sexual assault. Bad dates are not sexual assault. Clumsy (but utterly nonviolent) attempts at courtship are not sexual assault. Consensual sex about which you later feel regret or have recriminations is not sexual assault, even if decades later you feel you’re a completely different person who would not consent today, and should not have consented at the time.

There are gray areas having to do with relationship dynamics, the consensual use of drugs and alcohol, and parties at which both men and women know in advance what type of activities to expect. But my main point here is that there are many clear instances of sexual assault which go unreported. Focusing on creating a culture where women and girls know they need to report such instances promptly is a positive step we can all agree on.

There’s a backlash against certain excesses of #MeToo. This backlash is felt by people who value rationality and due process, and don’t feel that everything can be upended on the basis of the raw emotion of the moment, and the demands which raw emotion makes.

Some women have implied that names, dates and places don’t matter, only the feeling that abuse happened. In what sense is this true or not true? It may be true emotionally, but it’s obviously not true legally. That’s why one of the best things we can do is encourage women to file complaints promptly so that they’re interviewed by someone who will get names, dates and places which can be used as evidence in a court of law.

Why is this important? There’s an underlying problem in society of sexual abuse of women and girls. But there are also cycles in which this problem escalates into a moral panic, with frantic finger-pointing and abandonment of due process. The periods of moral panic lead to backlash and are actually counterproductive to the larger goal of ending sexual abuse. So are false reports, which do happen.

To understand these issues we need to study their history, at a minimum going back to the 1990s and the whole repressed memory movement. This was spawned in part by books like Courage To Heal, which said in essence that if you feel abused or have certain psychological symptoms, then you probably were abused. You have to rifle through your past, locate an abuser, and ultimately name and confront him. This psychological fad led to a high incidence of false claims based on feelings rather than facts. “Abuse survivor” became a ready-made identity with its own culture, support system, and a sign on the door saying Join us, sister!

People who lived through that era understand the dangers of moral panics and psychological fads. People who temper emotion with intellect recognize the parallels between the current period and that period in the 90s when it became a social, political, and therapeutic necessity to “come out” as an “abuse survivor.” To respawn that era will not be of genuine benefit to women.

We can help curb sexual assault by making sure women and girls know they need to report it promptly to police and provide details. Unfortunately, Christine Blasey Ford is a polarizing figure because her type of claim is one which many people find troubling. It conforms to a particular M.O. where there’s an above average incidence of false, inflated, or confabulated claims — sometimes sincerely conveyed, but still inaccurate. Factors which can make claims of sexual assault appear less credible include:

– Not reported until years after the alleged event.

– Never reported to police, but only to the media or to a partisan political figure in connection with advocacy on a hot-button issue.

– Place/date/time absent from report.

– No corroboration.

– Therapists and/or attorneys involved in shaping client’s account of past events.

It may be statistically true that some women who are genuine victims of sexual assault don’t report it until years later. Unfortunately, this tends to create a non-falsifiable proposition. In addition, the long delay makes it difficult to gather evidence and arrive at a true reckoning.

Some advocacy groups and media personalities are making the emotional demand that complaints which are problematic for the above reasons must be believed unquestioningly. This is an example of overreaching, and leads to backlash. Sadly, there are plenty of provable examples of sexual assault which are reported contemporaneously, with checkable details and no obvious political overtones. These make a much better rallying cry for activists than Christine Blasey Ford’s more problematic account.

At the time of the UVA rape hoax which was published (and later retracted) by Rolling Stone, I remember reading a message from a father who loved his daughters very much. He felt he needed to explain to them that just because you feel something doesn’t make it true. Feelings are important, but they’re not true north indicators. If daily life tends to trivialize our feelings, therapy culture can sometimes go to the opposite extreme, placing feelings on a pedestal. There needs to be a good balance between emotion and rationality.

Placing one’s feelings on a pedestal or assuming they are paramount in any situation is not always a sign of emotional health. It can be a sign of immaturity, narcissism, and self-indulgence. Not all therapy is good therapy. In some types of bad therapy, clients are conditioned to obsess on feelings, rather than handle the natural ebb and flow of feelings in a mature way, and temper feelings with facts and intellect. The combination of survivor-oriented therapy with victim-oriented politics can make for a witches’ brew.

I certainly don’t mean to come on like Joe Rational here. I can see the weaknesses of excessive rationalism. Back in the 1960s, U.S. foreign policy “experts” sat around smoking pipes, asking each other “How much napalm should we order this week? How many Vietnamese villages filled with women and children do we want to incinerate?” This was based on a “logical” foreign policy doctrine called the “domino theory.” There was no empathy for the living, breathing human beings who were being targeted. The same might be said of the Trump administration’s family separation policies, which are a “logical” way to discourage people from crossing the border, but are cruel and inhumane. (What’s next, strafing them with Agent Orange?)

Excessive rationality can excuse grave injustice happening right under its nose. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, this includes the harassment of religious and spiritual minorities by so-called “deprogrammers” and “exit counselors” who likewise feel a false sense of entitlement to impose their (largely secular) world view on populations with whom they disagree. There is some overlap here, because various types of operatives with a social, political, or personal agenda tend to use atrocity stories as an emotional fulcrum to leverage their objectives. But where the atrocity stories are false, atypical, or delivered in a demagogic manner, we should rightly cry foul.

To sum up: An objective which reasonable men and women can agree upon is to reduce incidents of sexual assault by encouraging prompt reporting, followed by thorough investigation of timely claims. That’s not the only thing which can be done, but it’s a high percentage move. By cooperating on that, we could forge alliances which would eventually make it easier to tackle thornier issues.

The nature of our world is that people often have to fight for their rights — to organize and make demands. The demands of Dr. Martin Luther King’s movement, based on Gandhian non-violence, were eminently reasonable: the right to vote, and equal access to education. It’s so important when going up against a “system” which can be unfair and unreasonable not to mirror that unfairness and unreasonableness. An end to sexual violence against women and girls is an absolutely reasonable demand and something worth fighting for. But I don’t think it can be accomplished by upending the justice system to the point where accusation equals guilt. To quote Cathy Young from a Slate.com article written at the time of the UVA rape hoax:

Rape is a repugnant crime — and one for which the evidence often relies on one person’s word against another’s. Moreover, in the not-so-distant past, the belief that women routinely make up rape charges often led to appalling treatment of victims. However, in challenging what author and law professor Susan Estrich has called “the myth of the lying woman,” feminists have been creating their own counter-myth: that of the woman who never lies.

A de facto presumption of guilt in alleged sexual offenses is as dangerous as a presumption of guilt in any crime, and for the same reasons: It upends the foundations on which our system of justice rests and creates a risk of ruining innocent lives.

Our focus on getting justice for women who are sexually assaulted is necessary and right. We are still far from the day when every woman who makes a rape accusation gets a proper police investigation and a fair hearing. But seeking justice for female victims should make us more sensitive, not less, to justice for unfairly accused men. In practical terms, that means finding ways to show support for victims of sexual violence without equating accusation and guilt, and recognizing that the wrongly accused are real victims too.

— Cathy Young

As for the Kavanaugh nomination itself, I’m very disappointed he seems to have squeaked through. There was enough to disqualify him without the sexual allegations, and in retrospect it may be that the Democrats erred by focusing on those allegations, which came to dominate the hearings.

When Mitch McConnell flatly refused to give Barack Obama’s eminently reasonable Supreme Court pick Merrick Garland so much as a hearing, this took politicization of the Court to a new level. It was perhaps inevitable that a later Republican pick would run into a political buzz saw powered by the injustice of the Garland snub. The Republicans also erred by presenting Kavanaugh as an abstinent choir boy.

The lesson for Democrats is to continue to work toward a more just, compassionate, and inclusive society, while not pandering to victim feminism, identity politics, and not practicing the politics of personal destruction.

The lesson for the Trump administration? Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.

Michael Howard

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

Breaking: Run on chemical mace at Supreme Court gift shop. RBG buys five cans…

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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’être 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.

Al Franken and Democratic Remorse

Some democrats are lamenting the ouster of Al Franken and what it portends for the future. Is Mika Brzezinski the face of democratic conscience? Can feminism be fair and evenhanded?

Like democracy, feminism is a word which can mean so many different things to different people. Whose idea of democracy, and established by what means? Likewise, whose idea of feminism?

To some, feminism means equality for women, equal respect for women, equal opportunity for women, equal pay for women, equal choice for women, equal justice for women, and fully valuing women in whatever roles they choose to play. In this version of feminism, men are also winners, because (to whatever extent men’s interests enter into it) men then have mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, doctors, lawyers, colleagues, friends, and partners who are fully living their potential — happier, more fulfilled, and therefore also more able to give to others in every field of endeavor. Looked at in this way, even selfish men have a selfish interest in seeing feminist ideals succeed.

As for less selfish men, I think they embrace this ideal of feminism because deep down they know they can’t be happy unless women are also happy; they know they can’t be happy if any segment of our society is intentionally held back, disadvantaged, or devalued. Some men are (believe it or not) capable of great empathy, and are truly with women and for women in their struggles for equality.

Nevertheless, every difference between groups of people has the potential to divide them and devolve into tribalism. Because (like democracy) feminism is such a vast concept, there are versions of that concept which are less enlightened, and which don’t lead to peaceful coexistence, mutual respect, or shared love and trust between women and men. Some feminism is highly tribal and represents more of a naked power grab than an effort to achieve harmony through equality.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but some extreme feminism says, “You had the power; now we’re taking back the power by any means we can, and we’re going to make you suffer. You’re scared? We want you to be scared.” And as Bari Weiss implied in a New York Times opinion piece, some feminism ascribes to every woman everywhere an absolute unqualifed Truthfulness which (realistically) doesn’t apply to human beings in general, regardless of gender.

Some years ago when serving on a trial jury, I recall how we were all instructed that police, however heroically they may be portrayed in police procedurals, are just human beings like the rest of us. They sometimes lie, and are sometimes motivated by base instincts like greed and hatred.

There is much wrong with our justice system, and our jails are hell-holes. But at least the ideal of justice embodied by our adversarial system is that anyone accused is innocent until proven guilty, that a jury should be a trier of fact, that there should be due process, that the defendant should be fairly represented in the proceedings, and that the jury should not reach a verdict based on prejudice, but on the specifics of the case before it.

If any prosecutor or defense attorney tried to instruct the jury that their moral or legal duty was simply to “believe the women” (just because they are women), they would probably (and rightfully) be admonished by the court.

The demand by women for equality and justice is absolutely right and righteous. But it sails past the target when it demands that women as a tribe or as a gender should have a unique right not granted to any other tribe or gender that whatever they say must be believed — must be accorded unqualifed and unquestioning belief — simply because they are women. Pressing this view (as many are now doing) does result in backlash, because it’s an example of overreaching. It threatens notions of fairness basic to our democracy, and when put into practice, leads to gross injustices to men.

I would think the goal of enlightened feminism is not to turn the tables and create a system which favours women over men, but to create a system which is equally fair to both men and women. I would think the goal of enlightened feminism is not to exacerbate the so-called “war between the sexes,” but to find a way to lasting peace and understanding.

There’s also a very practical point to be made about backlash, which allows me to segue into a video clip from Morning Joe where Mika Brzezinski expresses concern about the manner in which Al Franken was dispatched by his senate colleagues, and what this could portend for women. Going to break (though not shown in the clip), Mika quips: “If I claim that somebody grabbed my butt, could I get him fired right now? Is that the reality?” No evidence or hearing required, was her implication. And I sensed her further implication was that this might lead to fewer women being hired, because they would be viewed as too much of a liability.

The clip is a mixed bag due to the dynamics, with Joe Scarborough interrupting Mika Brzezinski (nothing new there!) to make acerbic comments about some viewers who’ve apparently been hectoring (or even threatening) the two of them.

I don’t have all the answers, but Mika Brzezinski’s view, tempered by conscience, is one which I admire. I’ve seen similar concerns expressed by progressive women who are also mothers of sons, and whose identification with their sons leads them to feel that men are not an opposing tribe, and should not be assumed to be villains. These women are feminists, but they’re also wise enough to know that in any dispute between a man and a woman, gender is no guarantee of truthfulness, and taking sides based solely on gender does not result in any true and lasting benefit for women, but is rather a form of prejudice.

In other posts, I’ve touched upon the concept of a moral panic (here and here). Without revisiting all that, let me clarify that just because something has risen to the level of a moral panic doesn’t mean there is no underlying problem. Sexual abuse of women and girls is a serious problem in society. But when that problem is raised to the level of a moral panic in the media (with accompanying frantic fingerpointing and search for scapegoats), does this help or hinder the ability to make progress on the underlying issue?

I would argue that a moral panic tends to hinder. For one thing, it takes a great deal of psychic energy to sustain a moral panic, so they tend to burn themselves out after awhile. In the aftermath, people may end up being less sensitized to the underlying problem than they were before. This is because during a moral panic a problem is presented dramatically as an immediate and dire threat which will engulf society unless drastic measures are taken. There are communists hiding under every bed, satanists at every preschool, or every congressman is a sexual abuser. This overstatement of the problem leads to harmful overreactions in which some innocent people’s lives are ruined. This in turn leads to remorse, reevaluation, and a recognition that the problem was less severe and the danger less immediate than was claimed by the government, the media, or whoever spurred the moral panic in the first place.

To really put an end to sexual abuse will require gradual changes in society. Overheated rhetoric, frantic fingerpointing, inflated claims, and suspension of due process are counterproductive over time, leading to backlash and reduced sensitivity to the underlying problem (which is a real problem).

Given that feminism is a vast concept, perhaps there exists political feminism, humanistic feminism, even spiritual feminism. In political feminism, individual human beings are sometimes seen as expendable if this advances political objectives. Thus, in the video clip Susan Del Percio refers to Al Franken as “collateral damage.” This is why I tend to prefer spiritual feminism.

I’m sure the last thing most women want is for me to “mansplain” them feminism; but as I’ve written a few posts about the Al Franken matter, I wanted to try and tie things together in this post, which represents my evolving understanding.

Potent quote: “Trust me, Kirsten Gillibrand I want you to run for president, but you gotta keep it real.” –Mika Brzezinski (My translation: Don’t be a headhunter!)

Michael Howard

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

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