I don't have any trouble believing that Christine Blasey Ford was assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh, who at age seventeen was the human equivalent of a can of PBR with a popped collar. His mendacity renders his denials as hard to believe as his definitions, and while he definitely convinced me he's really upset at these allegations, he didn't convince me that he doesn't know exactly what Dr. Ford is talking about. Everything we've learned about him indicates that he was basically Drunk Jock #3 in the credits of every 80s teen movie ever, and that guy definitely raped somebody.
Donald Trump is rightly getting flak from the left over mocking Dr. Ford’s accusations, particularly his rendition of her troubled recollection of the details of the attack. It was vicious and cruel in the style of a playground bully, the type of basic attack that is Trump's bread and butter. This isn't Trump just being an asshole, though. Cheeto Voldemort's patronus is a Dementor, and he's expectorating it all over us.
Trump's power is fear, and his insight is in how to apply fear to an entire identity. Just like his election, he's still playing to the minority: men. In mocking Dr. Ford, Trump is diving right to the heart of many people’s questions and concerns about the #MeToo movement: if we’re supposed to #BelieveAllWomen, how do you prove your innocence when the accusations are pointed at you?
Women: this is not trivial. I'm not going to pretend to grok your full rage and fury here, though I've read a lot of it recently, obsessively, painfully. I want to support you. Your anger is the fuel, the gunpowder. But the target isn't Brett Kavanaugh. It's all of the belief and social systems that lets him win despite multiple credible allegations of sexual abuse. We need to aim carefully. You may not sympathize with the question of men's innocence in the face of so much pain, but we ignore it at the peril of our legitimacy. Justice must be at the heart of all social change.
Kavanaugh is a perfect projection of the fear that Trump expertly stokes: a successful man on the cusp of one of the greatest victories we offer in this country, placed in danger because of accusations old enough to be elected President. As liberals, we’re inclined to suspect Kavanaugh of being nefarious in general. His ideology is everything we live to oppose, and anyone who could believe that a seventeen year old rape victim can be prevented from having an otherwise-legal abortion on the flimsiest of pretexts must have unhealthy attitudes towards women, right?
Well... maybe. To be frank, I haven't studied him well enough to feel like I have great insight into anything other than his pathetic behavior under pressure and his love of beer.
But if for a moment we do a little thought experiment, purely hypothetical, in which we imagine that he really didn't attack Christine Blasey Ford back in '82, and that the awful thing that happened to her was actually perpetrated by someone else... In this alternate timeline, even though he gets on the Court at the end of the day, we will have tormented this virtuous person, publicly shamed him, without just cause.
And what can he do to defend himself? Assuming he's not guilty, he doesn't know why she's saying these things. Maybe she's a political operative, but honestly that rings hollow. Maybe she's being played by the Democratic party - that does seem plausible, but they didn't put those ideas in her head. Honestly, she truly seems to believe he hurt her... she thinks it's the truth! Somehow, unfairly, she has convinced herself that he tried to rape her.
And he doesn't know what to say to make things right.
Again, let me state that this is a thought experiment, and that I believe Dr. Ford. But for those who don't, this is their reality. How can this hypothetical Kavanaugh, how can anyone who stands similarly accused, defend himself from this sort of allegation? This is the real and serious challenge to the legitimacy of #MeToo and #BelieveAllWomen: in its laudable attempt to overthrow centuries of imbalanced power structures, it asks us to ignore the presumption of innocence, without providing a framework for proving it. If we #BelieveAllWomen, then accused men are just guilty, boom, end of story. One accusation and it's over.
Put simply, it is fundamentally and deeply unfair to #BelieveAllWomen. Women make mistakes. Women get confused. And yes, women lie. Because women are human, and to be human is to do all of these things. To ask us to #BelieveAllWomen is to ask us to put aside basic notions of justice in an effort to combat monumental injustice. It is to say, "we know that this will mean the wrongful conviction of the innocent, but it will finally serve to bring punishment to the legions of the guilty."
Taking a quick step back, it is critical to point out that the fear that innocent men will be wrongfully accused must be weighed in opposition to the certainty that guilty men will go free. There is research to put a number on false claims of sexual assault, and they are exceedingly rare: around six percent of claims at universities are found to be false. Even if we arbitrarily doubled that number to come up with an estimate for the population at large, that's still almost a ninety percent chance that any given assault claim is legitimate. Were we to #BelieveAllWomen, all the time, it's not as if the jails would fill with the howls of the wrongly accused.
But still: we'd get it wrong sometimes. We'd punish an innocent. Particularly once that standard became widespread, its cynical abuse would be too easy. Liberals, after watching what Mitch McConnell did to Merrick Garland and then what he's done with Brett Kavanaugh, ask yourself how long it would take Republicans to turn #BelieveAllWomen into the very thing that they claim to fear? How long would it be until they weaponize it, just like Lindsey Graham basically promised to do?
Lindsey Graham is despicable. But he and Susan “Did you see the (R) for Republican” Collins are also not completely wrong. What is happening with Kavanaugh could set a dangerous precedent. If all it takes is an accusation to bring down a Democrat, well... I'm sure he'll be happy to find some accusers.
It is critical to the continuation of the #MeToo movement that we find some way to address the legitimacy of sexual assault allegations. For #MeToo to live, #BelieveAllWomen has to die.
But it's not meant to be literal, you object. It's a hashtag for goodness' sake. No one is saying that we have to believe all women, all the time, uncritically. If a woman comes up to you and she says that the sky is pink because fuck the patriarchy, you don't throw up a resist fist and tell her to smash away. Honestly, you might do rather like Orrin Hatch and tell her to come back when she grows up. That's a really stupid thing to say.
The problem is, when everything is reduced to a hashtag, it only takes the barest sleight of hand, a tiny demento patronum, to mischaracterize an entire movement in a way that is absolutely damning. You know, like how all of us liberals are laughing at Brett Kavanaugh for being a drunk because he's embarrassed at how much he drank in college and doesn't want to admit it in front of the entire world? Nobody is suggesting that he still acts that way, but the late night shows are nothing but punchlines about what a boofing drunk he is. And we're eating it up, because we are absolutely willing to throw out a massive amount of context - that was him thirty years ago - if it makes the guy on the other side look bad.
The same thing happens to #BelieveAllWomen: those of us who align ourselves with it know that it doesn't mean that we can't still exercise critical faculties, but for those who are seeing their guys get knocked off left and right based on unprovable-yet-credible allegations, it's hard not to cry foul. "It's always us, never them. That can't be right!" (Leaving aside the many Hollywood liberals who've been convicted in the court of #MeToo, it is possible that there's something about not trusting women to manage their own bodies that correlates with a willingness to treat those bodies as things. But that's a different article.) In an effort at self-preservation, it's easy to mischaracterize accusations against your guy as unjust. And we don't yet have a standard for how to judge these accusations.
When you want to believe, you can find evidence in tea leaves. When you don't want to believe, that's when you start asking for proof.
We need to know how to convict someone of a #MeToo accusation, and by extension, how to exonerate him.
This isn't one we've faced lately as liberals. Al Franken's guilt was documented in photos. Reasonable people can disagree as the the severity of his conduct, but not as to whether he did it. Weiner, Schneiderman... neither one of them really dragged it out into a full-blown scandal.
The only one we've really got is Bill Clinton. Remember Paula Jones? I barely do, and I certainly don’t remember Juanita Broderick, and Leslie Millwee. We didn’t #BelieveAllWomen in 1998. If it happened now, would we support Clinton's impeachment?
Yeah. Not a simple question when it's your guy. Your President! (Some of you are mentally accusing me of being a man defending men, but I still get into debates with Democratic women who think that Al Franken should still be in the Senate.) I'd like to think we would have taken a harder look, but especially when you had many of the same guys who are this very moment voting Kavanaugh onto the court saying that Clinton had to be impeached for lying under oath (to say nothing of the accusations by Jones, Broderick, and Millwee), when Newt Gingrich was walking around with a perpetual boner at the thought of bringing down a Democratic President... we rallied around Clinton. The harder the Republicans fought, the more we sounded just like they do now.
Clinton, like Kavanaugh, definitely lied under oath. Clinton, like Kavanaugh, had multiple accusers of sexual misconduct. Unlike Kavanaugh, at least one of those he eventually acknowledged, but he still denies most of it. So Clinton has admitted to some of his bad behavior, lending credence to the multiple other accusations against him, and yet he still maintains a position of respect in the Democratic party. When he's depicted from the right as a rapist, we trip over ourselves to cry foul hyperbole.
If we want them to give us Kavanaugh, we've got to give them Bill Clinton. And the next one, and any of the next ones to come. We have to hold our guys to the same standard as their guys.
I'm not sure what the standard should be, precisely. I think that multiple credible accusers is a pretty good place to start. Two? Three? I'm not sure. But both Clinton and Kavanaugh seem to meet the bar, and the case against Clinton is a lot stronger than the case against Kavanaugh.
Witnesses? Do we demand witnesses? I think “no”, given that sexual assault is typically a private affair, but some form of corroboration has got to be part of it. Contemporaries don’t remember the party that Dr. Ford so clearly does... but we do have evidence that Kavanaugh himself submitted that he went to similar gatherings. We have plenty of evidence that he was a heavy and belligerent drinker. We have some weak corroboration of Debbie Ramirez’ account that he put his penis in her face. Overall there's a fair bit of evidence that this is a highly believable scenario.
What do we make of her lack of details? There’s a lot of talk about the disruptive effect of violent assaults on memory, most of which I find compelling. I don’t imagine many mugging victims have a perfect recall of the events surrounding their assaults, either. It seems like the research supports the idea that the holes in Dr. Ford’s story are fair. Certainly she’s smart enough to make up a better story if she were fabricating.
We just have to remember to apply the same standard the next time it’s a Democrat. To be fair to the victim, and listen to her pain, accepting that it may cause pain in us. We have to condemn the good liberal men who are bad actual men, to draw a line that cannot be crossed and hold that line even when it costs us. We have to come up with the rules, and then play by the rules, even when they don't. We have to insist on the rules, make examples of our own under the rules, and shout about the rules at the top of our lungs when they are violated on either side of the aisle.
Sexual assault isn't political. Ask any victim, and I'm betting that her attacker's views on tort reform aren't really on her radar. But in the current tribalist climate, we have to prove that it's not political. We have to prove that we hold anyone accountable, regardless of race, class, party, gender, or opinions on tort reform. We also have to prove that it's not just a weapon to use on our opponents: that as much sympathy as we have for victims, we also carefully consider their testimony before condemning anyone.
We have to prove that there are rules, that they are fair, and that they apply to everyone. Or they will apply to no one, and the next time we get Drunk Jock #3 nominated to the Supreme Court, women's pain will just be politics as usual.