I have made a point to keep my blog free of all political discussion purposefully because I don’t run a political blog. 21st c. political discourse tends to be characterized by fear mongering, polarizing and pedantic language, a lack of civility, ad hominem attacks and other logical fallacies, and a ferocious but presently normalized invective that was not culturally familiar or acceptable twenty or even ten years ago. I am most likely the millionth person to observe that something has shifted in the last five years in the United States in terms of what Americans accept as ‘normal’ behavior from our local, state, and national leaders. Where we were once scandalized by a sitting president engaging in oral sex with an intern in the Oval Office, we now condone (in the form of electing him to office) a father’s brazen admissions of sexual attraction towards his daughter as well as permit a known sexual harasser and batterer to occupy the highest office of power in our country. This is where the culture wars, political partisanship, ideology substituting itself for good politics, and excessive corporate campaign contributions led us.
They led us to the great disaster of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee Friday, September 28. The nation was on pins and needles because this was not just another hearing. Something about this hearing felt nauseatingly familiar to many men and women tuned into C-Span, and I’m not talking about politics. Something else was afoot.
Judge Kavanaugh was nominated by Mr. Trump in July 2018 to replace Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. While I’m very interested in the political reasons for Mr. Trump’s choice not the least of which is Kavanaugh’s view that a sitting president cannot be indicted, I am far more inclined to examine Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-SC) outburst during the hearing in which he explodes in anger towards the Democrats questioning Kavanaugh:
“What you want to do is destroy this guy’s life, hold this seat open, and hope you win in 2020.”
The Republican from South Carolina then turned his attention back to Kavanaugh and asked: “Are you a gang rapist?” Kavanaugh replied: “No.”The Republican senator also asked Kavanaugh, “Would you say you’ve been through hell?” Kavanaugh responded, “I’ve been through hell and then some.”Graham expressed sympathy for the Supreme Court nominee and his family, saying, “I cannot imagine what you and your family have gone through.” He added, “I hope the American people can see through this sham…”Earlier in the day, Graham compared the judge’s treatment to Ford’s experience, the woman who came forward to accuse him of sexual assault.“I’m not going to reward people for playing a political game, I think, with her life,” Graham said. “She is just as much a victim of this as I think Brett Kavanaugh (is). Because somebody betrayed her trust, and we know who she gave the letter to.” (CNN)
Certainly, this outburst has a political context, but there is a wide stream of that something else flowing through this dialogue; and it should not to be missed. I want to break it down, but before I do I want to note that Sen. Graham spoke with Chris Wallace on “FOX News Sunday” prior to the hearing. Here’s what he said:
“What am I supposed to do, go ahead and ruin this guy’s life based on an accusation? I’m just being honest. Unless there’s something more, no, I’m not going to ruin Judge Kavanaugh’s life over this. But she should come forward. She should have her say. She will be respectfully treated…I will listen, but I’m not going to play a game here and tell you this will wipe out his entire life,” Graham noted. “‘Cause if nothing changes, it won’t with me.” (CNN)
There it is again–that idea that Kavanaugh’s life will be ruined somehow were Dr. Blasey Ford’s allegations found to be credible, and Graham is…what? The harbinger of Kavanaugh’s downfall should he hold him to account with rigorous questioning or further investigation? As CNN’s Editor-at-Large says, “If the very people who hold in their hands — and votes — the power to make or break Kavanaugh’s nomination are admitting publicly that almost nothing Ford says will change their mind(s), isn’t that the sort of rank partisanship that has gotten us into this morass in the first place?” Logically speaking, if Kavanaugh sexually assaulted a young woman in high school, then isn’t he the cause of his own ruin? Of course, a young man can hardly conceive that one day he might be a Supreme Court Justice nominee, but that is neither here nor there. Young men shouldn’t be drunkenly sexually assaulting young women and expecting to win a gold medal in ‘Character and Ethics’ a few decades later when past bad acts come to light. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s job is to sniff this sort of thing out and make certain that Supreme Court Justice nominees are fit for the role: beyond reproach. Sen. Graham and the entire committee lost sight of that role in the midst of their pursuit of power:
“A judge must be a person with strong character. A judge who has strong character has the ability to apply broad, general law to a narrow, specific set of facts without abusing the court’s authority, letting his or her personal views get in the way, or overlooking important facts and law…a judge should be a visionary. The judiciary is responsible for making sure our laws serve justice and uphold the Constitution. When our laws fail to do so, a judge should search for a way, within the confines of the law, to right a wrong and see that justice is done, even in the face of a disapproving majority. Finally, a judge should be a patriotic American. By this, I mean that a judge must be concerned for the country and the people the law serves more than his or her personal agenda or self-interest. Justices must have intellectual integrity. Supreme Court justices ordinarily are accountable only to their own consciences. Justices must be able to build consensus. The court’s opinions only have force when a majority agrees; fractured decisions leave people struggling to understand what the law means.” (What Makes a Great Supreme Court Justice?)
Alas, Sen. Graham indicates that holding Kavanaugh to account is akin to ruining his life, but this is not something that jibes with Graham’s past actions or his ambitions.
“Graham, who was first elected to Congress in 1994, came to national attention in 1998. He was a member of the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton. Graham then served as a “manager” of Clinton’s Senate impeachment trial.
The irony of his demonstration is that Graham, who wants to chair the Judiciary Committee someday, sought to use a sex scandal to take out a president at that time. Now, two decades later, Graham is defending a Republican Supreme Court nominee from accusations of sexual misconduct.” (Politico)
Moving on, the first question that Graham asks of Kavanaugh is whether he is a gang rapist. That would be a legitimate question if Judge Kavanaugh were accused of gang rape, but Dr. Blasey Ford never alleged that Brett Kavanaugh gang raped her. She never declared, “Brett Kavanaugh is a gang rapist.” So, why ask such an absurd question? Well, this question is a logical fallacy called argumentum ad absurdum in which someone appeals to the extremes in an attempt to disprove something. Notice that Sen. Graham did not ask Kavanaugh whether he had engaged in forced sexual touching with Dr. Blasey Ford. That would have been a legitimate question. No, Graham comes up with some absurd caricature that offends the imagination, triggers victims of rape, and strikes skeptics as ridiculous: “Judge Kavanaugh as high school gang rapist?” P’shaw! No, he’s not a gang rapist! Well, if that’s not right, then the whole allegation must be false; and therein lies the deception and utter brilliance of argumentum ad absurdum. Brett Kavanaugh, however, can be innocent of gang rape and still be guilty of sexually assaulting Dr. Blasey Ford. It was, well, an absurd question.
Sen. Graham’s next question makes Brett Kavanaugh look pitiable, and it is a brilliant juxtaposition considering the public just watched a prosecutor take Christine Blasey Ford apart for four hours under high pressure questioning in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Who looks like a victim now? The victim of sexual assault or the alleged perpetrator? It was a clever redirect.
Sen. Graham then goes on to offer sympathy for Kavanaugh’s “suffering” going so far as to call the hearing “a sham”. He then takes it further by comparing Kavanaugh’s present circumstances–being heavily scrutinized, questioned, and potentially investigated–to Dr. Blasey’s high school sexual assault at Kavanaugh’s own hands. Yet this is the purpose of a hearing! A Supreme Court Justice nominee is supposed to be heavily scrutinized and questioned. If I, as a citizen, am supposed to abide by the laws this man interprets, then I want to know that he isn’t guilty of breaking any himself particularly in the realm of sexual violence.
So, what is all this then? What is the “something else” that we are witnessing aside from obvious partisan politics and sniping? This is gaslighting. Perceptual manipulation and minimizing in the public forum.
Why is it gaslighting? This is where I have to speak politically for a moment. This hearing was indeed a sham largely because the GOP is trying very hard to confirm Kavanaugh before the midterm elections. I understand their zeal and impatience. They have an agenda, and they want to see it through. This hearing was a formality for the conservatives. Sen. Graham’s irate posturing and belligerent bloviating accusing the DFL of a sham was manipulative. The entire hearing was a sham from the beginning. The GOP did not seem interested in the true quality of the contents of Judge Kavanaugh’s character or past actions that might reveal his deeper nature. If they were, then Sen. Graham would have been open-minded and quietly considered every word Dr. Blasey Ford spoke last Thursday during her four hours before him and his colleagues. The Senate Judiciary Committee would have called for an FBI Investigation right away and postponed all proceedings. Some things just matter more than a political agenda.
Had this been the DFL pushing through a favored nominee with little opposition due to lack of votes, then it would have likely played the same way. Their hearing would have been a formality, too. Each party has its own idea of who should occupy this most coveted seat on The Bench. That being said, what is more important? The next two to six years of the GOP political agenda, or the next forty to fifty years of judiciary competence, ethics, and rigor? I know that POTUS has openly boasted about: grabbing women by the p*ssy (2015 “Access Hollywood” Interview), treating women like sh*t (New York Magazine), calling women who breastfeed disgusting, and going so far as to find 12 year-old girls attractive among so many other offensive and misogynistic misdeeds (Telegraph), but Mr. Trump’s anomalous, abnormal, and likely personality-driven behavior should never be normalized because it is not, in fact, normal or something to be modeled. In fact, America’s elected officials should raise the bar–or, sadly, return the bar to its previous height–and demand excellence from each other in conduct, behavior, speech, personal and professional ethics, and character regardless of their party affiliation.
The issue at hand should not be: “There wasn’t a problem with Kavanaugh until you pointed it out; therefore, you must be the problem, ____________.” (insert Dr. Blasey Ford, another accuser, or DFL) . In my mind, the most pressing issue is the possibility that a Supreme Court Justice nominee may very well have sexually assaulted at least one woman, and the majority of the GOP does not seem to care about that. This reeks of cronyism, elitism, and that old institution that must crumble: The Boys’ Club (well, you know, generally for privileged white boys and men).
For many people, this “something else” feels so familiar because it is familiar. For survivors of sexual violence, we’ve seen our perpetrators defended while being blamed ourselves because we “looked” like we wanted it. Our perpetrator didn’t understand; we should feel sorry for him/her. S/he sure is going through hell now being held accountable. Besides, they have such a bright future. Why make a big deal out of a misunderstanding? (That’s minimizing or trivializing, and that’s a form of gaslighting)
Perhaps we were told that we didn’t remember it like it happened (This is called countering, and this is a form of gaslighting). The following ever-popular accusation is often made and was made by Trump himself: “If it really happened, then why didn’t you come forward?” You need only look at the four-hour ordeal Dr. Blasey Ford has been subjected to not to mention everything else she is currently enduring to understand why men and women don’t come forward after sexual violence. I was raped when I was 22 years-old on a date, and I never told anyone. My refusal to disclose doesn’t mean a rape never happened. It only means that I didn’t talk about it. Period.
Gaslighting is pervasive, and one can encounter it in myriad environments both professional and personal–and political it seems. Be savvy. Pay attention. When you begin to feel crazy, like you’re the only sane one around, start really listening to what is being said to you or around you. Educate yourself on perceptual manipulation aka gaslighting. Learn about logical fallacies. Logical fallacies are commonly used in political arguments and rhetoric. The culture of our political system can change. It changes when we vote and get involved.
So, get out and vote in the people who line up with your values and ethics, and vote out the people who do not. Also, pay attention to how your current political favorites behave when they are politicking. Do they rely on gaslighting and logical fallacies to push their points and agendas? Do they often align themselves with those who do? Carefully consider that. It matters. A lot.
- From Theater to Therapy to Twitter, the Eerie History of Gaslighting
- The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life
- Logically Fallacious: The Ultimate Collection of Over 300 Logical Fallacies