Content warning: this column contains references to sexual assault.
Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is considered an expert in trauma. A clinical psychologist by training, she has conducted extensive research on the psychological effects of traumas such as child abuse, the September 11 attacks, and hiding one’s sexual orientation from loved ones. Until last Sunday, almost no one knew that Dr. Ford had experienced trauma of her own, or that it involved Donald Trump’s nominee to fill Justice Anthony Kennedy’s seat on the Supreme Court, Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Ford alleges that at a high school party on a sweaty night in July 1982, Kavanaugh drunkenly held her down on a bed and attempted to remove her clothes, as he put his hand over her mouth to keep her screams from being heard. Senate Republicans immediately characterized Ford’s allegations as a desperate last-minute plot by Democrats to prevent Kavanaugh’s confirmation. President Donald Trump, who himself has been accused of sexual harassment by at least 12 women, tweeted his own criticism of Ford, questioning why someone would keep serious allegations of assault to themselves for more than 35 years.
Dr. Ford is scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, and Kavanaugh and Republican leadership are frantically trying to discredit her, clinging to any shred of evidence they can muster. Even as Kavanaugh refuses to back down, I believe Dr. Ford. Mostly because too many of my friends from both high school and college have a story much too similar to hers, but also because I know that right now, there is at least one future Brett Kavanaugh right here at Duke.
Think of it this way. Kavanaugh grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, as the son of a high school history teacher and an attorney. Bethesda is located in Montgomery County, one of the country’s wealthiest counties, as well as one of its most educated. Kavanaugh attended Georgetown Prep, an elite, all-male boarding school that also counts Neil Gorsuch, another Trump Supreme Court appointee, as one of its alumni. After attending Prep, as it is affectionately termed by students and faculty, Kavanaugh went on to attend Yale for both his undergraduate and law degrees, and after that, on to a successful career as a judge for nearly three decades. Brett Kavanaugh is lucky enough to have benefitted from incredible privilege and success from the moment he was born.
I’ve never met Brett Kavanaugh, but I know exactly how he operates—maybe not always with malicious intent, but certainly always buoyed by the privilege that has ensconced him from the very beginning. I see tens, hundreds of future Brett Kavanaughs every day on campus. He had it made all throughout high school–played on a sports team or two, enjoyed a large circle of friends, got good grades, took a pretty date to prom every year. He seamlessly transitioned to Duke, and now, he is everywhere, whether it’s Devines on Thursday night or in the Vondy line between classes. He doesn’t mean to cause harm. He just has never stopped to consider that there are times when he cannot get what he wants.
In the discussion that has swirled around the party culture shared by Kavanaugh and his friends, both sides have emphasized that things were much different in 1982 than they are now. My generation has witnessed conversations on consent, the evil of pervasive sexual harassment, and female empowerment come to the forefront of our cultural discourse, some of which would have been unfathomable when Kavanaugh and Ford were in high school. Despite the changes in cultural awareness, the gross imbalance of power still exists. Young women are still made to feel uncomfortable just for telling someone to stop or that they aren’t interested. It remains less trouble to suffer through an awkward moment rather than speak up and create conflict. Women remain at a disadvantage so long as those in power refuse to legitimately listen to their stories.
Maybe Brett Kavanaugh knows what he did was wrong. More likely, Kavanaugh and the others like him are largely unbothered or even unaware of the harm they cause. Maybe the Kavanaughs of the world dismiss the momentary discomfort when someone squirms under their touch that lingers just a little bit too long, and move on with the rest of their lives. Maybe they apologize, and maybe those they harm even forgive them. Maybe, just maybe, some of them recognize the wrong they’ve done and try to make things right. But this “maybe” is more than enough reason for pause.
I believe Christine Ford. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you believe her accusations to be purely political theatrics. Maybe you’d like to give Brett Kavanaugh the benefit of the doubt. Maybe you’d like to wait until Ford testifies to pass judgement. But regardless of whether or not Kavanaugh actually attempted to assault Ford in 1982, the fact that the allegation is credible should give you, me and every single United States senator pause.
Even if confirmed, Kavanaugh’s legacy will now always include Christine Ford. Even if the Senate does not find Ford’s allegations enough to vote against his appointment, this “maybe” will follow Brett Kavanaugh for the rest of his life. Maybe Kavanaugh didn’t do it. Maybe, if he did, he recognizes the trauma he has caused and wants to try to repair it. Either way, “maybe” will follow him forever—and maybe it shouldn’t follow him all the way to a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court.
I would like to believe that Brett Kavanaugh did not go to that party in 1982 looking to assault someone. I would like to believe that the reason Kavanaugh attempted to assault Christine Ford is simply because it had been proven to him over the previous 17 years of his life that he could act however he wanted without repercussions. This is why Brett Kavanaugh is not special: there are far too many others exactly like him, moving through this world unaware of the destructive effects their actions and their impunity have on others.
So, if you feel that you may be a Brett Kavanaugh in the making, I would encourage you to think about what things are like on the other side of your interactions. Our campus also has its fair share of Christine Fords, and as she will demonstrate Thursday morning, their stories can only be silenced for so long.
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