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#MeToo in the Supreme Court

Drunk boy assaults girl at high school party: sound familiar? Following the footsteps of many before her in the #MeToo movement, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford has formally accused Brett Kavanaugh, the GOP nominee for the Supreme Court, of sexual assault. With his Ivy League pedigree, a television-ready family and more than a decade of experience as a federal jurist, Kavanaugh seemed to be yet another familiar (albeit controversial) white-bread appointee in a historically white, male-dominated Supreme Court. Yet removed from the saccharine picture of academic and professional success were the details later described in Ford’s account of the assault. Ford, currently a clinical psychology professor at Palo Alto University, described in a public statement how a 17-year old Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed, physically groped her body and attempted to pull off her bathing suit, confessing, “I thought he might inadvertently kill me.” 

With the publication of this information, an onslaught of character assassinations, accusations and threats have been levied by an infuriated public—not toward Kavanaugh, but at Ford. Due to the onslaught of death threats against her and her family, Ford has been forced out of her home. Furthermore, the nation’s top legislators, including President Trump, have openly questioned her character and integrity, while inflammatory conservative commentators have actively peddled theories deriding her motives. This convoluted public atmosphere of collective disbelief and skepticism echoes all too closely other familiar sexual assault narratives that have dominated news media in the #MeToo movement. 

As with most cases that are governed by the whims of powerful men, the interests of these men are viewed as institutionally paramount—above morality, above justice, above women. For far too long, their victims have been treated as collateral damage in their ascent to power. The  well-known accusations against Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy further paint these inequities, having only been seen as aberrations in careers otherwise marked with distinction by a forgetful public. Predatory men with power to hide behind peddle a false image of moral infallibility by virtue of their illustrious titles. That era, however, is quickly coming to a close. 

With the national reckoning that has come with the #MeToo movement, contemporary America has shown a growing intolerance for powerful men who abuse their positions to prey upon women. The central message—that no one is above accountability—has ricocheted through Hollywood, demonstrated most recently with the ouster of CBS C.E.O Les Moonves amid accusations of sexual impropriety, and within Washington, with the departure of Al Franken from the Senate. Yet despite these very public successes, the structural inequities that incentivize silence remain deeply in place.

The burden of proof, most notably, is still being placed squarely upon the victims. Those who come forward risk having their lives upended and scrutinized by a scandal-thirsty public. And even with these high costs, the outcome of accountability is never guaranteed. In the equation of sexual assault, despite our recent public reckonings, power and privilege still weigh heavily against truth and accountability. From this, one wonders where this entrenchment of privilege—and the practice of masquerading it as moral impunity—begins in our society. And, as with most acquired social practices, one must look to our educational institutions.

An open letter signed by more than 200 alumnae of the Holton-Arms School, the elite preparatory school Ford attended, shows that the sexual assault described by Ford is “all too consistent with stories [they] heard and lived while attending Holton.” At these schools, whether it be Holton-Arms, Kavanaugh’s Georgetown Prep, or Duke, scholarly achievements and athletic accolades are prioritized over ethical development. Why should an institution attempt to emphasize the latter if the former produces titled—and potentially generous—alumni? Institutions that possess patinas of wealth, power and privilege are thus complicit in hiding and obscuring violence. Brett Kavanaugh himself inadvertently encapsulated these unspoken truths with his flippant joke in 2015 that “what happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep.”

The result is an educational environment where “good” is conflated with “successful,” where shiny accolades absolve moral shortcomings. The result is a cycle that produces men of certain stripes—those who never have to face consequences—who become untouchable behind the cloak of wealth and prestige. With the fall of former Missouri Governor Eric Greitens and Charlie Rose, Duke University is undoubtedly complicit in a system that treats victims of the powerful as periphery determinants in their road towards success. At the end of the day, the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is out of our hands. However, as an institution that will inevitably produce men and women in similarly powerful positions, we must ask ourselves: How are we keeping our Kavanaughs accountable?

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