It has been a fascinating few weeks in American politics. Brett Kavanaugh, the conservative federal judge nominated by Donald Trump to replace the retiring Anthony Kennedy on the US Supreme Court, has been accused of sexual assault and harassment by three separate women, all of whom claim that the incidents took place more than three decades ago when they and Kavanaugh were in high school and college. On Thursday, the US Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing in which Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was interrogated by senators seeking to ascertain the truth of her claim that Brett Kavanaugh assaulted her thirty-six years ago. Kavanaugh was also given a chance to present his side of the story at this hearing, using the opportunity to repeatedly declare his innocence and decry what he referred to as a campaign of character assassination orchestrated by the Democrats to derail his nomination.

 As is often the case with accusations of sexual harassment, ‘proof’ of the kind that might be able to verify exactly what happened is hard to come by, especially when the alleged offences took place so long ago. Nonetheless, Dr. Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee was both compelling and credible, and is arguably backed up by more circumstantial evidence regarding Kavanaugh’s character and habits gleaned from accounts by some of his contemporaries as well as from the diaries and calendars the judge maintained at the time. On the other hand, having learnt from the spectacle of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings in the early 1990s, when Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Thomas resulted in an all-male panel of senators subjecting her to often insensitive and dismissive treatment, the Republican party, the Trump administration, and others backing Kavanaugh have calculated that in the era of the MeToo movement, it is best to strike a balance between being respectful of women alleging sexual assault while simultaneously working to discredit and ignore what they have to say. As such, while Kavanaugh and his supporters claim they respect Dr. Ford and do not doubt that she may have been subjected to an assault of the type she has described, they have continued to insist she is mistaken about the identity of her attacker while also attempting to stymie a more comprehensive investigation into the allegations. While an FBI probe into the incident has now been authorized, the tenor and tone of all but two relatively moderate Republicans in the Senate suggests that there is little that can be said or done to change the party’s stance on Dr. Ford’s allegations.

 There are couple of things to be learnt from this entire episode. For one, as evinced by the tremendous abuse and opposition she and the two other accusers have experienced, speaking out against sexual harassment and assault is extremely difficult, even at a time when the MeToo movement has raised awareness of the issue around the world. When supporters of the movement insist that all accusations of sexual harassment must be heard and investigated, it is not because there is an automatic presumption of guilt or innocence; rather, it is precisely because the broader social context within which men and women interact is often one in that produces and perpetuates a power imbalance that allows men to get away with inappropriate and even criminal behaviour without any fear of consequences. As such, insisting that women be heard and believed is a necessary first step towards ensuring that justice is served; after all, for all the talk of how the lives of men might potentially be ruined by false accusations, the truth is that the MeToo movement as a whole has only resulted in a handful of criminal convictions, many of the men accused of harassment have been able to get on with their lives with few repercussions, and most of the women making accusations have had to deal with widespread abuse and vilification. It takes tremendous courage to make accusations of the kind Dr. Ford has made against Brett Kavanaugh, and simply dismissing them out of hand for want of ‘proof’, without even engaging in an investigation, does a disservice to all victims of sexual assault and harassment.

 Secondly, the events of the past week have also provided an interesting insight into how patriarchy and power infuse our expectations of how men and women are supposed to act and present themselves before society. Throughout her testimony, Dr. Ford remained calm, polite, and even apologetic, cooperating fully with the senators questioning her. This was in contrast with Kavanuagh’s conduct; alternating between enraged shouting and maudlin crying, Kavanaugh openly attacked Democratic senators in the Judiciary Committee, accused his opponents of being part of a vast left-wing conspiracy, engaged in combative exchanges with his interlocutors, often refused to offer straightforward answers to straightforward questions, and repeatedly cited how his achievements in school, college, and professional life somehow established both the strength of his character and his suitability for the Supreme Court. It was a performance that raised questions about Kavanaugh’s temperament and impartiality should he be elevated to the Supreme Court, but also provided a good example of patriarchy and male entitlement in action; the overarching impression one got, not only from Kavanaugh but also his exclusively male Republican supporters on the Senate Judiciary Committee, was that the very possibility of his engaging in sexual assault was unthinkable, and that a man of his position and background was being unfairly targeted for something he could not have possibly done. It was as if they felt their collective responsibility to Dr. Ford was to hear her out and then completely ignore what she had to say.

The reality is that the antics in the US Senate this week have nothing to do with principle. Republicans now have the opportunity to swing the balance of the Supreme Court in their favour for a generation, and wish to do so before they potentially lose control of Congress in the upcoming mid-term elections. Towards that end, the nakedly partisan manner in which they have pushed for Kavanaugh’s appointment to the court, and their brusque dismissal of attempts to get to the truth of the allegations made against him, simply underscores how, for many men in power, sexual harassment and assault remain trivial issues that can be ignored in the pursuit of political goals.

 

The writer is an assistant professor  of  political science at LUMS

hassan.javid@lums.edu.pk