Kavanaugh & the crisis of reputation

Published

Illustrator/ Tsveti Popova

Adam Nicholson
Writer

Adam Nicholson asks whether there have been real repercussions from the ‘Me Too’ movement on the men accused

Content warning: this article contains references to sexual assault

When faced with allegations of sexual misconduct, Brett Kavanaugh, nominee for Supreme Court Justice, sought to reassure the American public of his essential decency, his record above reproach, and his composure under such pressure by snarling like a grieved bulldog and repeating over and over his fondness for beer. Mr Kavanaugh would like to remind you that he bears no ill will towards his accuser, Dr Ford, while in the next breath, face contorted in spite, he rants at phantoms whom he blames for contriving these allegations of sexual assault. He would like to remind you that as a father, husband, and former altar boy, he is obviously a man of decency, especially in matters such as these. Evidently, Mr. Kavanaugh is unfamiliar with the inequities and abuses daily perpetrated by fathers, husbands, and active church members; otherwise, he may not so readily throw in his lot with them by way of alibi.
Despite the righteous outrage surrounding this circus, it has a disquieting air of familiarity about it. A man in power is primed to rise higher. Someone bravely intercedes, revealing an assault from the past. And so it begins: the man rejects the accusation, laments his ruined reputation, pleads for sympathy, and all the while the conversations abound: “Why didn’t they come forward sooner? Why aren’t there more details? Perhaps they are lying.” Then finally the situation descends, politicised, and the heart of the matter is drowned in the chatter. This most recent case of Kavanaugh’s has the advantage of clarity, with each component starkly in relief.
Naturally, the centre of the issue is the assault itself. To buoy up their chosen man, Republicans and fellow supporters of the nomination cast aspersions upon Dr Ford and her testimony. Amidst personal attacks and threats, there is the cry of “false accusation”, usually in their paranoid minds by virtue of political reasons. It should be obvious, but amidst the cacophony, the facts can be easily lost. A review of research undertaken indicates at first that false reports range from 2% to 10%. However, in actuality even these statistics demonstrate Western societies antiquated approach to the investigation of sex crimes. As the National Sexual Violence Resource Centre (NSVRC) notes: “Many published reports do not clearly define false allegation, and often include data that falls outside of most accepted definitions.” Ultimately they conclude: “Research shows that rates of false reporting are frequently inflated, in part because of inconsistent definitions and protocols, or a weak understanding of sexual assault” and that “misconceptions about false reporting rates have direct, negative consequences and can contribute to why many victims don’t report sexual assaults.” A major study using both qualitative and quantitative methods, as quoted in the NSVRC’s overview, produced a result of 2.1% and is a more reliable indicator, although the official distinction between “false” and “baseless” accusations remains disturbingly unclear.
In essence, there are cases where evidence is lacking which are misleadingly labelled as “false”. Mr Kavanaugh’s case lingers in purgatory until the FBI investigation is published, but rather than observe a dignified silence, all of Kavanaugh’s supposedly stellar legal training has been dashed from his brain. His testimony, especially with regards to drinking, is riddled with inconsistencies and downright lies (referring to the “Devil’s Triangle” as a drinking game rather than a threesome being a somewhat strange example). The effect is simple; even if one was inclined to give Mr Kavanaugh the benefit of the doubt with regards to accusations of sexual assault, every subsequent sentence and statement issued from his mouth serves only to diminish his trustworthiness and demonstrate that his temperament is fundamentally incongruous with the sombre charge of a Supreme Court Justice.
More troubling, however, is the manner of defence men such as Kavanaugh take. Men in power oftentimes seem made of Teflon, with nothing seeming to stick. Every stain, no matter how black, can be washed out with only the most cursory of apologies. Yet here, the scene is an especially sorry one: a woman is assaulted, with boundless bravery she names her attacker, and the man mixes denial with a lament for reputations lost. Of course, the irony that their victims are labelled as liars and libellous, their own reputations tainted, is not remarked upon but passed over quickly. For instance, take the singular moment of his testimony in which Mr. Kavanaugh seemed to choke up, saying that his daughters still pray every night for Dr Ford’s soul. In this, he tries to convince his audience that as a father, he is incapable of such crimes, emphasising his apparent Christian piety, and all with the implicit undercurrent that Dr Ford’s soul is in need of saving. It is a means of underhandedly attacking a victim of assault a second time.
Naturally, sexual assault is not solely a crime perpetrated by men upon women. However, this public spectacle of reputations, revenge, and reparations appears specifically a relation between men in power and their victims, especially female ones. Moreover, with the statistics against them, it is staggering how prevalent the defence of false accusations remains. Likewise, the counterattack that their reputations have been tarnished by the allegations, and that therefore they are the true victims, is an abhorrent spectacle too long countenanced. Seldom is the obvious point made: if they wished to uphold their reputations as good honest men, then rape and public manipulation would never have entered their conduct.