A Bit 'o Random Musings on Politics, Religion, and Anything Else That Passes Through My Crazy Head

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Justice and Jane Austen in the #MeToo Era

There's a line that has been running through my mind from Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice this weekLet me start with some context from the novel. During a conversation where Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth Bennett, Elizabeth accuses Darcy of (among other things) separating her sister Jane from Jane's love interest, Mr. Bingley. Darcy writes her a letter to respond to her charges, stating that he had carefully observed Jane and Bingley together and was convinced Jane wasn't in love, so he did in fact convince Bingley to desert Jane. He writes:

That I was desirous of believing [Jane] indifferent is certain- but I will venture to say that my investigations and decisions are not usually influenced by my hopes or fears. I did not believe her to be indifferent because I wished it;- I believed it on impartial conviction, as truly as I wished it in reason. (emphasis added)

Essentially what Darcy is saying is that his own desire for something to be true did not influence his conclusion that it was true. Except, this is not what happened. His own preconceived notions did influence his perception of reality and caused him to make a grave error of judgement. Jane and Bingley actually are in love, and he has deceived himself into thinking that this is not the case.

What possible relevance could this novel plot point have to today's news? Well, you may have heard a little bit about the man nominated to fill a Supreme Court vacancy, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, and the women who have accused him of sexual assault. On Thursday, one of his accusers, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, testified in a Senate hearing that Kavanaugh assaulted her at some point in the early 1980s [Note 1]. Kavanaugh also testified at this same hearing that this accusation was untrue.

Right now, we find ourselves in a situation where one of these people is lying or mistaken. Both stories cannot be true - either Kavanaugh assaulted Ford, or he did not. While I've been following the news coverage, today was the first day I had a chance to actually watch the opening statements made by both parties.

Now that I have watched the hearings, I feel like I can confidently compare Senate Republicans to Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Literally one day after the testimony of Ford and Kavanaugh, Senate Republicans chose their side: they chose to believe Kavanaugh over Ford. They have convinced themselves that their desire to believe him did not influence their decision, but I think this is incorrect.

Republicans have railed against Democrats bringing this up too late in the process, to which I say: "so what?" I fully concede that the Democrats have handled this wrong - there are ways that they could have brought this up earlier and still maintained Ford's requested (and deserved) confidentiality. But THAT IS NOT THE MOST IMPORTANT ARGUMENT TO HAVE. To quote Mandy on The West Wing, "You are fighting the wrong fights and you're doing it for the wrong reasons." That process argument is important, but the more important point is: did Kavanaugh sexually assault Ford? By railing against Democrats for being political, you are sidestepping the salient point, which is: who do you believe?

Even this part of the story has parallels to Pride and Prejudice - in the same part of the book, Elizabeth accuses Darcy of further misconduct towards her friend Wickham, but Darcy is actually in the clear - it is Wickham who has wronged him. Similarly, the Republicans could be COMPLETELY right about the Democrats playing politics, but it doesn't absolve them of the responsibility to seriously examine Ford's claims and not just confirm Kavanaugh because they agree with his politics.

Watching the statements today, I can understand Kavanaugh's anger if he is falsely accused. However, we owe it to Ford and sexual assault survivors everywhere to treat claims seriously, even if corroborating evidence isn't available. I found both witnesses compelling and emotional, but I ultimately believe Ford. Some of the reasons, in no particular order:

- Who has more reason to lie? I think that is important to note here. Kavanaugh wants a job as a Supreme Court justice, Ford wanted anonymity and has not sought the spotlight. Kavanaugh has a much greater incentive to be dishonest. Ford does not seem to fit the pattern of those types of people who make false claims of assault. If the Senate does not confirm Kavanaugh, Trump will likely nominate another conservative to replace Kavanaugh who would likely vote similarly. I really don't think Democrats are going to take the Senate - and if they do, I think they should vote on whoever Trump picks (*cough* Merrick Garland *cough*).
- "I went to Yale" does not strike me as a great defense - plenty of people who go to Ivy League colleges are Grade A jerks. I wasn't a fan of Kavanaugh citing this as part of his proof that he would never sexually assault someone. Several of his college friends have stated that he has mischaracterized his drinking habits in college - in other words, he lied. Kavanaugh seemed to me a bit entitled and egotistical (but hey, I assume most powerful people are).
- Ford has told numerous people over the past several years that she was sexually assaulted by a man who became a federal judge. This seems like a really long con on the off chance that Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court.
- Kavanaugh repeatedly referred to statements by friends that "refuted" Ford's testimony. Yet those statements merely provided that those individuals named do not remember the events. I don't recall parties that I attended last week, let alone decades ago. This does not prove or disprove either side.
- Many of my friends have worried that this will start an era where any allegation of sexual assault will completely ruin a man's reputation. I'm going to set aside that this prioritizes men's reputations over women's pain as survivors of sexual assault (which is a HUGE concern for me - I could write a whole 'nother post about it). I simply don't yet see this as a concern. None of these allegations have been brought forward against Neil Gorsuch, confirmed by the Senate just a year and a half ago. No allegations have surfaced against many other politicians and candidates. Instead, statistics suggest that the vast majority of sexual assaults are not reported, simply because women don't think they'll be be believed. President Trump can easily find another conservative who does not have these allegations against them.

These events make me worry about the message sent to survivors of sexual assault - are we saying that if you come forward, we will automatically believe the man? If we find both witnesses credible, how do we decide what to do? In baseball, there is a concept of "tie goes to the runner" - how do we handle this in a sexual assault context? Do we default to always believing the man? Or always believing the woman?

Ultimately, I can't say for certain what happened in 1982. After all, it was before I was born! But based on what I've seen, I think there is enough of a chance that Ford is telling the truth that I don't think we should put Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court.

If you've made it this far, thanks for reading through what is, at best, a very lukewarm take on a hot button issue. Tune in next week, when I compare modern politics to Jane Eyre - everybody's got a crazy wife locked in their attic! [Note 2]

Note 1: Throughout, I will be referring to Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh by their last names. I mean no disrespect to either.
Note 2: Kidding. Mostly. Also, "spoilers" if you haven't read Jane Eyre. It's pretty great.