The Importance of a (Man’s) Name: Remembering the Blasey Ford - Kavanaugh hearing
By Melody House
On the 27th of September last year, the world watched as Professor Christine Blasey Ford gave a powerful account of the night she says Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and his friend Mark Judge, attempted to rape her. Blasey Ford presented a cogent account of the event and its subsequent effects on her life. At the same hearings, Kavanaugh angrily and emotionally denied that he had been involved in the attack. Blasey Ford’s bravery in publicly addressing her deeply traumatic experience was widely acknowledged, and many commentators who thought she was mistaken in identifying Kavanaugh as her attacker nevertheless accepted that she had been attacked by someone. Yet, much of the press concentrated on portraying both Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh as victims. As the first anniversary of the hearings approach, and with Kavanaugh’s past behaviour towards women again under scrutiny, it is worth revisiting how this played out.
Brett Kavanaugh is an immensely privileged man. He attended a prestigious Jesuit preparatory school, and an Ivy League university. Whilst Blasey Ford’s high school memories are haunted by the sound of the ‘uproarious laughter’ Kavanaugh and Judge shared at her expense, Kavanaugh spoke of ‘Five-Star Basketball camps’, beach holidays with friends, and beer (lots of beer), at parties where he ‘spoke about girls’. These discussions, full of graphic, sexually explicit 'jokes' aimed at women, are immortalised in his yearbooks and diaries. Where Blasey Ford’s trauma from the event extended well into her adult years, manifesting itself in her desire for a second front door to their house as an escape route; Kavanaugh enjoyed a wholesome family life, and a prestigious career. Where Blasey Ford continued to receive threats months after the hearings, preventing her from returning to work; Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh doesn’t sound like a victim at all. Yet somehow his reputational damage was deemed just as egregious as the effects of sexual assault on Blasey Ford.
Kavanaugh was painted as a victim by himself, by the Republican members of the judiciary committee, and by large sections of the media, purely because his name was attached to a scandal. The Republican senate member Lindsey Graham described what happened to Kavanaugh as ‘the most despicable thing’ he has seen in politics. The conservative media agreed. The hearing was dubbed a ‘#metoo ambush’, a ‘political ploy’, an ‘un-American attack’. Kavanaugh was described as a ‘casualty of war’, and a victim of ‘psychological terrorism’ and an ‘evil smear campaign’. For the Wall Street Journal Libby Locke detailed the ‘painful personal costs of defamation’, and in an op-ed for The Federalist Stella Morabito likened the ‘attack’ on Kavanaugh’s good name to gang rape.
Screenshot of an article for The Federalist by Stella Morabito, posted 28 September 2018
All of this is typical of the conservative media’s obsession with reputation. It was emphasised in the Anita Hill - Clarence Thomas hearing in 1991, and even before that in Robert Bork’s failed nomination in 1987. In fact, Republicans were so incensed by Bork’s rejection that his name became a verb, which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as ‘obstruct (someone)…by systematically defaming or vilifying them’. In fact, the discourse of 'character assassination' is incredibly popular amongst conservatives, particularly when it comes to defending men who have been accused of sexual violation, whether they are found innocent or guilty.
Kate Manne, a professor of philosophy, has dubbed this kind of excessive and inappropriate sympathy for male perpetrators of sexual violation and misogyny, ‘himpathy’. Himpathy is a moralistic blinder, that blocks out any perspective that does not focus on the perpetrator. The victim/survivor is almost completely forgotten, and the concern is instead for the perpetrator and his reputation. The more powerful the man, the more himpathy he garners. The conservative media around the Blasey Ford - Kavanaugh hearing is the perfect example of this. Instead of focusing on the prevalence of sexual violence, or the implications of promoting a man who had numerous, “credible” allegations of sexual misconduct levelled against him, the focus instead was on the injustice of ruining a man’s name.
Why does a man’s name matter so much? In my research on the Kavanaugh case, I found his name functioned in four ways: First, as a means of individualisation, which worked to distinguish Kavanaugh from other male perpetrators of sexual violation - such as Bill Cosby - and to frame him as a victim of the feminist movement that, his supporters argued, was punishing him for being a (white) man. Second, his name was used to refer to the Kavanaughs, so that any accusation levelled against Brett Kavanaugh was read as an attack on his entire family. Third, the name became a representation of men’s ‘vulnerability’ in the #MeToo era, with writers warning men to never find themselves alone with a woman for fear of being, ‘Kavanaughed’. And finally, his name came to symbolise the destruction of the entire nation, as explained in Morabito’s article above. This last example was especially pernicious, as it was used as a means to create national shame around the treatment of Kavanaugh. This was demonstrated in Donald Trump’s apology to Kavanaugh for what he hadendured, which Trump issued on ‘behalf of the nation’. A nation, it should be remembered, of which Blasey Ford is a citizen. Kavanaugh’s name, and indeed men’s names in general, are given considerable social significance. Perhaps this is one explanation for why, in ‘he said/she said’ cases, ‘he’ is more likely to win. After all, ‘he’ represents his entire family and at times his entire community; where ‘she’ only represents herself.
There is no doubt that defamation can have a corrosive effect on someone’s life. Yet the reputation attached to our names is not fixed. Like most things it is constantly in flux, and subject to change. It is true that, at least for now, the connotations of this allegation will be attached to Kavanaugh’s name. It may result in some repercussions for him. Yet, this is bound to change. In fact, for Kavanaugh, it already has. Not only was his nomination successful, he has the constant support of the conservative people and the media. His victimisation is purely discursive. Blasey Ford’s victimisation is material. She was physically held down on that bed, her mouth was physically clamped shut, she feared for her life. There should be no comparison between these two events. Yet the media’s insistence on equating the two, is the perfect example of the importance of a man’s name.