On September 27, the nation was riveted by the testimonies of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and then-Judge Brett Kavanaugh, before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Dr. Ford credibly described a seventeen-year-old Kavanaugh forcing her into a room and onto a bed, climbing on top of her, covering her mouth so she couldn’t scream, grinding his body against hers, and then trying unsuccessfully to remove her one-piece bathing suit. As all of this was happening, Ford recalled, she heard the sounds of laughter, Kavanaugh’s and that of his friend Mark Judge, the happiness of two buddies enjoying an activity together.
After Ford’s moving testimony, Kavanaugh took the stand and denied everything. Belligerent, by turns yelling and tearing up, he repeatedly informed the senators on the Judiciary Committee that he spent his time in high school studying, playing football, going to church—which was as automatic for him as brushing his teeth—and hanging out with his friends. He studied so hard that he got into Yale, all on his own.
Kavanaugh declared the entire proceeding a sham and a politically motivated disgrace orchestrated by the Democrats. He asked senators questions (such as whether Senator Amy Klobuchar ever blacked out drunk) rather than concentrate on accurately responding to theirs. He repeatedly displayed contempt for the proceedings through his sarcasm and his express pronouncements. He might as well have shouted, “Do you know who I AM?!”
Presumed a Liar versus Choirboy Lying
How did women react to the “Kavanaugh Affair”? Not all women reacted the same way. Some were loyal to Trump and therefore to Kavanaugh as well. Of those who were unhappy, they (we) took some comfort in the fact that senators said that they believed Dr. Ford had been truthful, even though they doubted her memory of long-ago events.
Listening to people assert that women frequently lie about rape becomes stale after a while. Maybe we were entering a new era, one in which people might challenge the accuracy of a recollection but would not invoke the old saw about how women routinely invent stories of rape.
While that appeared to be a positive step, there was a hidden side to the way in which many people denied that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted Ford. For example, the prosecutor “representing” the Republican senators asked Ford who had paid for her polygraph. Why ask that question if your position is that Ford was telling the truth but forgot what happened? A polygraph poses no threat to an erroneous but sincere story. Implying that someone else—perhaps someone with an “agenda”—paid for the polygraph suggests the belief that the witness is lying and that whoever paid for the polygraph played some role in determining the particular lie that the witness told.
If one were not invested in believing that Kavanaugh was innocent of the attempted rape of which Ford accused him, one would conclude, based on the evidence, that he was guilty. Ford was an extremely credible witness, and more importantly, she had no incentive to lie. The man whom she accused, by contrast, had every reason to lie and, indeed, demonstrably lied while testifying, and not just by saying that he was innocent. He claimed that the phrase “Renate alumnius” in his yearbook meant only that he was friends with Renate, a ridiculous claim on its face.
He said that the alleged witnesses to his assault on Dr. Ford had all stated that the attack did not take place. In point of fact, they said nothing of the kind. They did not recall what Ford described, but (a) their own experience at the party might have been unremarkable to them (because none of them was almost raped), and (b) one of the witnesses in question was an alleged accomplice, so it is hardly surprising that he would not corroborate Dr. Ford’s testimony, and he was also a confessed drunk. In addition to lying, Kavanaugh also misled his audience, characterizing himself as a virgin who spent all of his time studying, working out, and praying, when he was in fact, by many accounts, a frequent and aggressive drunk.
So the only reasonable conclusion is that Kavanaugh probably tried to rape Ford, based on the evidence. And then a pattern emerges. Many of the people who nonetheless maintain that Kavanaugh is innocent also maintain that even if he were guilty, that should not have obstructed his path to the Supreme Court. Put differently, many of those who deny that there was a sexual assault also devalue the importance of such an assault, if it occurred. I would suggest that the belief in the trivial nature of sexual assault may go hand in hand with the idea that it never happened.
Devaluation and Denial in Other Contexts
Consider a very different phenomenon, Holocaust denial (or revisionism). I spent some time on the main American Nazi web site recently. In doing so, I noticed that one needed to review only a few posts before encountering denials of the Holocaust. Yet at the same time, there were posts of Jews with a yellow star of David (which they had to wear in the runup to the Final Solution) along with references to “k*kes belong[ing] in the oven.” These and other subtle hints signal that the Holocaust-denying Nazis in fact understood the truth of the Holocaust (and the involvement of yellow stars and ovens), and they (somewhat covertly) celebrated this truth.
This was consistent with an observation I have made about the way in which people who hate or otherwise persecute others think about the targets of their hatred: (1) it is fine (or even good) to inflict harm on them, and (2) each individual infliction of harm did not actually happen. The seemingly contradictory but actually complementary strategies are devaluation and denial.
White supremacists more generally exhibit these tendencies in connection with African Americans. They believe that African Americans should enjoy fewer of the available goodies (housing, entertainment, food, clothing, education, power) than whites do. In other words, white supremacists (and white “nationalists”) want to live in a country that frankly discriminates against black people in every sphere of life and requires them to live apart from white people.
At the same time, white supremacists deny that African Americans are currently experiencing discrimination on the basis of race. And to be clear, I do not mean that white supremacists apply an intent-based definition of discrimination as opposed to an effects-based definition and disagree with anti-racists over what should count as discrimination. I mean that white supremacists believe and say that black people do not suffer from intentional discrimination at the present time and that white people do.
It may be far easier to get people to go along with the proposition that a group-based harm is not happening at all than with the idea that the group-based harm is an affirmatively positive (or only trivially negative) phenomenon. I suspect that many white people who feel a sense of status-anxiety readily embrace the notion that they rather than African Americans are the ones who really suffer from discrimination. It is perhaps only after they spend time in the company of “very fine people” that they come around to articulating the more plainly hateful idea that black people should suffer discrimination and that white people should grab more of life’s goodies for themselves. In that sense, denial is a gateway drug to devaluation.
Devaluation and Denial of Gender Oppression
How do devaluation and denial operate in the gender sphere? Amy Wax, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, recently weighed in on the Kavanaugh/Ford hearings as a guest on the Glenn Loury program. Here is part of what she said: “I think it violates principles of basic fair play for her [Ford] to be bringing this up. I think she should’ve held her tongue. If I were her, I would have…. I think basic dignity and fairness dictates that, you know, it’s too late, Miss Ford…. Even if there would’ve been consequences to bitching about it at the time…. Even if he did it. Seventeen years old. We now are saying that a man is gonna pay for the rest of his life for a momentary act of, you know, recklessness which didn’t leave any permanent, you know, didn’t create any permanent harm except through this manufactured idea that this is such a horrible traumatic thing. It’s not a good thing, but honestly, you know, the woman is not going to recover from that? And his whole life now is ruined.”
There is more, but I’ll spare the reader. Suffice it to say that Wax expressed strong doubt about what might or might not have happened, and she commented that “we have no way of knowing.” So there we have denial. But something else precedes the denial. First, Wax is quite clearly angry at Dr. Ford for coming forward at all. Ford’s conduct harmed Kavanaugh, and Wax would have held her tongue. Rather than condemning Kavanaugh for what he did (or even might have done, if we honor Wax’s skepticism), she instead condemns his (alleged) victim. It is not even clear that Wax would have liked for Ford to have spoken up in 1982, given that Wax refers to the prospect as “bitching about it.”
In her anger and her rather cruel judgments about Ford, we can tell that Wax was unmoved by even the possibility that Kavanaugh was guilty. She was now engaged in devaluation. She said that the attempted rape was “a momentary act of, you know, recklessness which didn’t leave any permanent…harm except through this manufactured idea that this is such a horrible traumatic thing.”
What Kavanaugh allegedly did was unimportant and could not possibly have caused lasting trauma. That Ford thought she might die under the weight of Kavanaugh was immaterial to Wax. She declared that the notion of lasting trauma from such an experience was false, a declaration that constitutes an elegant bit of denial that also expresses certainty that the one thing the alleged victim would not likely have misremembered during her testimony, her own fear of dying, was a lie. Denial thus augments devaluation.
Wax is not the only person to speak like this, but most people who sided with Kavanaugh in this fight appeared more or less to stick with the denial narrative. Note where Wax did manage to summon some appreciation for how harmful another’s experience must have been. We see it in her anger at Ford on behalf of Kavanaugh, where she said that even if Kavanaugh had tried to rape her, Ford should still not have come forward now. She should have kept her mouth shut, she should have left the “bitching” to the time when the event took place. And even then, what he did was “not a good thing” but was also not terribly bad either, nothing that would cause real—as opposed to “manufactured”—trauma in a victim. And now “his whole life is ruined.”
We see here that Wax—and seemingly Loury as well, based on his supportive reactions to her—denied Ford’s experience so thoroughly that the only pain they could see was that of the accused, even if the accusation is true. A seventeen-year-old who tried to force himself on a fifteen-year-old magically becomes the victim, and his victim, the perpetrator.
Like the Jew-hating two-step with respect to the Holocaust, we have here the misogynistic two-step as well: deny what happened and minimize its significance by suggesting that it is no big deal and that it could not possibly have resulted in lasting trauma. By saying it is “not good,” while otherwise indicating that it is not bad either, Wax perhaps resembles the Holocaust revisionists who say that “it was probably not six million” or that “no one really knows how many it was, and lots of the people were not even Jewish,” both of which comments someone made to me at a dinner.
Wax is unusual only in how clear she was about both denying and devaluing the victim’s story. Many of Kavanaugh’s diehard supporters profess a commitment to denial only. But the devaluation leaks out sometimes.
Donald Trump, for example, mostly operated in denial mode, suggesting that Kavanaugh is a “good man” and therefore would not have done what Ford says he did. But then when asked what lessons young men might glean from what was happening, Trump said that it is a scary time for young men and urged women to think of their sons and husbands. Concerns about women’s safety from sexual assault—and how men might learn to respect women’s right to decide whether to have sex—had no place in Trump’s priority list. That is where we see devaluation. Trump mocked Ford as well, falsely portraying her as supposedly remembering nothing about when or where the attack took place. And finally, in the end, when the Senate, in a 50-48 vote, confirmed Kavanaugh, Trump called the entire thing a hoax.
Denial and devaluation can be costly when people espouse marginal positions. But when they deny and devalue in pursuit of mainstream (if odious) views, they lose little or nothing, and they know that going in. They become heroes, in fact, as now-Justice Kavanaugh has become to misogynists everywhere, for his courage in bellowing at the Senate, in standing up to questions about alcohol-soaked violence, and in providing false or misleading responses to senators’ questions. Kavanaugh almost certainly never imagined that he would have to endure even this cost, the hearings where people dared to inquire about his character before installing him on the highest court in the land. Though Trump sadly declared that “a man’s life is in tatters. A man’s life is ruined,” Kavanaugh still became a Supreme Court Justice. And if that had not been the outcome, he would have remained a judge on the most prestigious court of appeals in the nation.
It is always possible to try to characterize disbelief as mere skepticism rather than denial. Those who doubt Ford’s story say that that is all they are doing, doubting a story, because of the lack of corroboration. But that is true only if they are as skeptical and dubious when they hear other accounts of crime and abuse, accounts that have nothing to do with sexual assault or other gender-motivated violence. Otherwise, their selective skepticism looks a lot like denial.
It may be hard to tell when those who practice denial are simultaneously engaged in devaluation. If they are honest, they admit, like Wax admitted, that they think the harm or atrocity that others highlight is trivial and that the accused is the true victim when anyone calls attention to the crime. This is why it is worth examining the people who call for skepticism—and who virtually always call for skepticism when women say they were sexually assaulted—for whether they are in truth comfortable with or even committed to the persistence of sexual assault.