Two major narratives have emerged from the Christine Blasey Ford-Brett Kavanaugh hearings last Thursday (among many others.) They are this:
- That Dr. Ford is credible and has clearly been hurt, but that she can’t have been hurt by Kavanaugh
- And, that Kavanaugh was just another 17 year old boy, and we shouldn’t hold him accountable for things his younger self did almost 40 years ago.
Besides being two contradictory positions to hold simultaneously (how can he both have not done it, and also have been doing it in a “boys will be boys” manner?), these two talking points highlight some very disturbing ideas for how we conceive of how men and women are perceived in our culture still, despite the great forward advances made in women’s liberation and the feminist and #MeToo movements. Namely, we again see that men are believed and excused, while women are disbelieved and subject to their story being told for them anytime they challenge the patriarchal narrative at work in American culture.
Let’s start with Dr. Ford. Last week, she sat before Congress and the entire country, and told her story. She did not equivocate. She did not stutter, or stammer, or misremember, or come across as duplicitous or manipulative. She did not have anything to gain by exposing herself to the public in this way, but she did have a lot to lose.
And yet, she carried on, and she told her story, a story that received plaudits across the political divide. Both Republicans and Democrats praised her bravery and her honesty, lamenting what she has been through.
And yet, despite this bipartisan praise, despite the almost unanimous credulity afforded her, in the end, a political talking point won. Instead of belief in her story leading to action against the perpetrator of her assault, she was met with the response that she must have “misremembered,” that her memory failed her, that she could not accurately recall the boy who attacked her. Every part of her story, the pundits said, was believable – except the part where she named Brett Kavanaugh as her abuser.
This absurdly on-script example of mansplaining is almost too much to believe. This is the kind of thing you read only in SJW writings about patriarchy, right? These kind of blatant examples of willful disbelief of a woman are more example than reality, we think. But yet, here we are, with scores of Republican congressmen, and cable news talking heads, and everyday Americans, telling Dr. Ford that her story – her experience – is wrong, and that this is how it should be told instead.
This is exactly what the #MeToo movement, and feminism in general, has been trying to tell the world for decades. Consistently, women, especially abused women, have their stories dictated to them, and are told how to act, what reality actually is, and that they are wrong, in order to protect men. For too long, this is a major reason why millions of the abused haven’t come forward with their stories, because too often, when they do, they are told they are wrong, that they misremembered, that they must be mistaken, or that making an accusation will only make things worse.
It’s probably a sign of the cultural moment we’re in, when the patriarchal structures of society are finally being identified by people across the political and ideological spectrum, and real efforts to dismantle them are becoming part of the mainstream conversation, that this situation of abusive gaslighting has been so public and pronounced. What is happening, and our response to it, is simple: you cannot say Dr. Ford is believable and credible, that her story is true, and yet deny it’s central detail. You either believe her, or you don’t. You must decide which it is, and you must act accordingly.
Expect More of Our Boys
On the Kavanaugh side, even those who declare his innocence in the face of Dr. Ford’s testimony have latched onto this idea that this was just an example of “boys will be boys” behavior by a 17 year old. Consequently, they claim, even if he did do it, he really shouldn’t be punished for it all these years later.
This is highly problematic, on a number of levels. This concept of “Boys will be boys,” that teenage and college age men can get drunk and commit terrible acts and have it excused as somehow part of their nature as male human beings, is a really terrible standard to set for our boys. I know, as the father of a boy, that I expect so much more from him. I know he will mess up as a teenager and young man, that he will likely drink and make some bad decisions. I also expect him to generally do the right thing. I know that I, and his mother and his stepmother and his stepfather, will work all through his life to instill a strong set of values, centered around respect for others and for self, values we hope will ring strongly in his head when he is 17 and tempted to do something stupid. I also know, and expect, that if he makes bad decisions, he should be punished, not for punishments sake, but for his own growth, and for the benefits accrued to society through fair consequences administrated fairly and equitably to all people.
The evidence points to the fact that Brett Kavanaugh assaulted Christine Blasey Ford in 1982 at a party. He has never been held accountable for his actions. Further, he has repeatedly lied and dissembled, casting doubts on Dr. Ford and effectively gaslighting her. He has been given the benefit of the doubt time and time again, and he has never had any impediment to his climb up the rungs of power and prestige.
I’m sure that Kavanaugh is no longer the person he was at 17 years ago. I don’t doubt he’s a good father, and husband, and basketball coach, and a strong legal mind. But, he was never held to account for his actions. The appointment to a Supreme Court seat, after these revelations, would be a reward to him, a reward for his continued lying and dissembling.
But, it would also be a message to boys everywhere, that “boys will be boys” and they, too, can get away with acts of wrong, as long they are consistent enough in their lies and discrete enough that it can be swept under the rug for years and years. It is a message that, once again, these actions will not be taken seriously by our society, that the accumulation of power by men is more important than the right to a life free from abuse and assault by for women.
Further, it’s a message to women everywhere, that again, they don’t matter, that their stories are unbelievable, and unimportant. That no matter the advances made for women over the last decades, in the end, it means nothing practically.
Sin of Pride
Writing as a Christian and a theologian, this also strikes me as a moment of severe collective sin, a sin of pride that has continued to plague human society for centuries. We have elevated the rights and needs of men over and above those of women. We have built idols to the powerful men who run our society, excusing their behavior in almost all instances. We show through our actions as a society, especially if this confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh moves forward, that our own pride – pride in our own ability to set the rules of the game, pride in our ability to play God, pride in our ability to elevate some over others – has again overridden any sense of morality at work in our collective activity.
This sin of pride obscures our reliance on God. It tells Brett Kavanaugh, and all others like him, they are entitled to the honor they are receiving, the position they are holding, the power they are wielding. It tells them that they are powerful because they deserve it more than others, that they are in fact God, and thus accountability doesn’t apply to them. H. Reinhold Neibuhr captures this so well, when he writes, “Every one who stands is inclined to imagine that he stands by divine right…It is the man who stands, who has achieved, who is honored and approved by his fellowmen who mistakes the relative achievements and approvals of history for a final and ultimate approval.”
Inordinate self-regard – pride – is the source of this moment. It is pride that tells us that we know better than Dr. Ford what happened to her. It is pride that tells men like Brett Kavanaugh that they don’t have to face the consequences of their actions. We are all complicit, as long as we each continue to downplay the power of patriarchy and mysogony in our society. This pride will be our downfall, as we arrogate more power to ourselves and refuse to acknowledge our limitations finitude.
We have to expect more of our boys. We have to believe women. We have to. We have to.