In a powerful op-ed in the New York Times, Bonnie Mann, a professor of philosophy at the University of Oregon, reminds readers that the fight to confirm Brett Kavanaugh, even amid mounting allegations of sexual assault and in the wake of heart-wrenching testimony from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the first woman to come forward with such allegations, is about more than a seat on the Supreme Court.
The fight to stop Kavanaugh’s appointment to a lifetime position on the Court is about a fight for meaning—and defining the future of this country’s narrative. Mann explains that Kavanaugh’s nomination has become a battle between two epistemic worlds: one in which “aggressive sexual behavior toward women, far from disqualifying a candidate for the highest offices in the land, demonstrates the kind of manhood that is felt to be a qualification for such positions,” and one in which “the default position is to believe women who make sexual assault allegations.”
Mann asserts that “women’s human rights will be set back for decades” if Kavanaugh is confirmed, citing a photo of the male-dominated Senate Judiciary Committee on the day it voted to advance his nomination to the Senate floor. That photo, she declares, summarizes the real goal of his appointment and the larger mission of his supporters:
That photograph of the panel of 11 white men who represent the Republicans on the judiciary committee for Kavanaugh’s nomination provokes such unease in the second epistemic world, because it is the visual representation of the kind of institutionalized white male power that is supposed to be receding into the past. But make no mistake — the “old” world represented by that photograph is right here, right now, and despite the remarkable gains of the #MeToo movement, it controls every branch of our government.
Much of the media spectacle around the Kavanaugh nomination has made it seem as if the epistemic battle is about the truth. She says he did this to her. He says he didn’t. The very notion of a “he said, she said” situation reduces the conflict to a battle of credibility — but we are mistaken if we think the clash of belief is over the facts of the matter. The women who’ve brought the allegations forward and the Democrats who demanded an investigation from the beginning hoped that getting to the truth would break the epistemic impasse.
The investigation is going ahead, but the Republicans still hope to win a battle of belief, sealed off from the truth. This suggests that both sides believe the alleged facts are likely to be true. Speakers on Kavanaugh’s behalf have repeatedly betrayed this belief by saying things that imply that even if he did do these things, they are typical rambunctious male behavior and not worth ruining his career over.
Kavanaugh’s supporters want to be sure that what is at stake is not truth but meaning. It isn’t really about who you believe so much as which epistemic world you believe in. Will the first epistemic world retain its power to determine the status of such happenings, to determine what they mean, how they matter? Retaining the power of meaning is tightly connected to retaining the power to continue reproducing a world that looks like that disturbing photograph.
In the wake of Blasey Ford’s coming forward, so have more survivors—including Deborah Ramirez, who alleges Kavanaugh aggressively exposed himself to her without her consent in high school; Julie Swetnick, who alleges that Kavanaugh regularly was present at parties where girls were drugged and gang-raped; and two anonymous women, one of whom claims Kavanaugh aggressively pushed her up against a wall when he was in this thirties, and in front of four witnesses including her daughter.
Coming forward has not come easy. Blasey Ford and her family were forced to relocate after death threats; Swetnick risked her career by issuing her declaration through a sworn testimony. All of them have also risked character assassination and harassment—in Ford’s case, by anonymous Internet users and even by the president, who publicly mocked her at an event yesterday for forgetting details of the night she alleges Kavanaugh and a friend held her down, covered her mouth and tried to rape her; and in Swetnick’s case, by Kavanaugh himself, who dismissed her claims as “a joke” during his testimony before the Judiciary Committee last week.
The battle between Mann’s two epistemic worlds is a fight for survivors across the country—for a world in which they are heard, believed and respected. That world, it seems, won’t come without a shift in power on Capitol Hill. President Trump is worried that it’s “a scary time for young men.” For young women, it’s undeniably been an ever more tragic one.
“Aided and abetted by misogyny, presidents are elected, Supreme Court justices are seated,” Mann explains in her op-ed. “Whatever happens, we owe a debt of gratitude to the women who have stepped up as a matter of civic duty to challenge the epistemic world where such men deserve power, women who are now confronting its well-oiled machinery of misogynist annihilation.”