The Bad Optics of Bad Representation at the Kavanaugh Hearings

This is not a statement about whether we should believe Brett Kavanaugh or Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who alleges that he attempted to rape her in high school.

This is a statement about gender and governance.

Protestors in Los Angeles took part in a nationwide show of solidarity with survivors last week on the heels of the Kavanaugh hearings. (Kohinur Khyum)

When an all-male panel of Republican Senators decided to bring in outside legal expert Rachel Mitchell to conduct the questioning of Blasey Ford at Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing last week, they demonstrated their inability to speak to women.

Clearly, their concern was with “optics.” It would look bad for a panel of men to question a woman about her experience of being sexually assaulted by a man. They may have felt that it would appear insensitive to question her themselves; they may have feared they would blunder, saying things that were sexist, misogynist, ignorant or just culpably unkind; presumably, they did not believe they had the requisite composure, sensitivity, understanding or ability to question Blasey Ford directly.

Instead of risking exposing the inadequacy of their understanding of sexual assault or of gender, instead of risking a public scene in which it might become clear they are incapable of listening to or taking as credible the speech of a woman, instead of taking the opportunity to learn from whatever “mistakes” they might make in addressing Blasey Ford themselves, these men instead hid behind the cover of a woman—or “female assistant,” in the condescending words of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

They knew that they might say the wrong thing, and it would be all over the media. They needed to hire a woman to do their (dirty) work for them.
In the present age of their own party’s vilification of “politically correct” speech, the male Senators’ unprecedented deference to prosecutor Rachel Mitchell was strong evidence that Republican leaders know that words reveal truths about character and about values, and that a misstep in public speech here, when the whole nation was watching, might quickly reveal some rather ugly truths about their regard for women.

If learning to speak respectfully to and about women is “politically correct,” these men knew they couldn’t trust themselves to do it. Indeed, the only thing they seem to have learned from Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony about sexual harassment at Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing is that they had better avoid the appearance of being ignorant, insensitive and disrespectful.

It won’t do to excuse these Senators on grounds that they felt uncomfortable. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable about, say, an awkward political conversation at a dinner party—but embarking on challenging conversations at a confirmation hearing for a Supreme Court nominee is the primary responsibility of Senators on the Judiciary Committee. It’s quite literally the job description. Frankly, if it isn’t challenging or uncomfortable, they aren’t doing it right.

We need probing scrutiny of prospective Justices, who, if confirmed, will assume a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the nation. We, as the people served by that body, are entitled to as much. And that means Senators on the Judiciary Committee should be competent enough to conduct a hearing that engages with difficult questions of legal precedent, political orientation, philosophical principle—and, yes, individual character and integrity.

If and when citizens bring credible and serious allegations of misconduct to the Committee, its members must be willing and able to assess them. It’s not okay to be incapable of performing these duties when they require you to interact with a woman, or to address matters that are of special concern to women, such as sexual violence.

The Judiciary Committee’s task was not to conduct a legal trial. It was not a court proceeding; intervention by legal counsel was neither necessary nor customary. The Republican Senators’ choice to bring in Mitchell seemed to signal an attempt to avoid the appearance of browbeating Blasey Ford. Yet, by hiring a sex crimes prosecutor, they seemed to be signaling an intent to initiate tough questioning—and, to make matters worse, of of the alleged victim and not of the alleged perpetrator.

It similarly won’t do to claim that the Senators in question were simply leaning on Mitchell’s expertise. Ultimately, the panel was happy to dismiss their dispatch from her task when it came time to question Kavanaugh. Presumably, the men were comfortable addressing a fellow man, someone they regard as a peer. (In fact, many seemed foaming-at-the-mouth eager to do so.)

Perhaps this was because they believe Kavanaugh. Perhaps it was because they became concerned that Mitchell had failed to uncover anything damning in her questioning of the woman who accused him of pinning her down, putting his hand on her mouth and trying to rape her when she was 15. Or perhaps they feared that Mitchell and her expertise would wind up turning the tables against the nominee if she continued her questioning.

However you look at it, it is conspicuous that the whole scene was constructed by men, to protect men, all of whom don’t know how to show respect for women.

Apparently, Republicans don’t think it looks so bad that they are all white and male—apparently, that fact doesn’t register for them as bad optics. Instead, it seems, they’re concerned instead with making sure not to expose that the systemic inequities that keep women out of public office are the hindrance to a highly-functioning democracy that they really are.

Until our elected representatives more truly represent our population, things will continue to look bad. And as midterm elections near, I’ll be watching closely to see if voters decide to reject the angry face of white male entitlement in pursuit of a better picture.

Brook J. Sadler, Ph.D.,  is a poet and professor of philosophy who lives and works in Florida. Her writing can be found in many academic and literary journals, including Philosophy, Journal of Social Philosophy, The Monist, Social Philosophy Today, The Cortland Review, Chariton Review, The Boiler Journal, Tampa Review, ROAR, SWWIM, Atlanta Review and McNeese Review. 

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