Anecdotal evidence, especially from Twitter, suggests that the American Right and Left reacted to the Ford/Kavanaugh Senate hearings in the following three ways:
- Both tribes generally thought that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was believable and sympathetic. Most seemed to feel bad for her, even wishing that she didn’t have to expose herself in this way.
- The right essentially had the same response to Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony. It made sense that he would be angry, but even more so, if he was innocent he should have been angry.
- The left universally seems to have found Kavanaugh’s testimony to not only be unsympathetic but on some level an indictment of him personally.
Basically Dr. Ford was met with near-universal empathy but Kavanaugh was a like a thermometer for partisanship. This outcome wasn’t terribly surprising to most conservatives. But does it have an explanation beyond tribal loyalties?
Yes and the beginnings of the answer can be found in The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. This excellent work identifies three great untruths that the current generation of college students have bought into.
- The Untruth of Fragility: whatever doesn’t kill you makes you weaker
- The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: always trust your feelings
- The Untruth of Us vs. Them: my enemies are always evil
They provide a thorough analysis of why these untruths have been embraced specifically by the so-called “Generation Z” (children born after 1995). But for present purposes, the most relevant part of their explanation is a change of culture. They argue that sometime in the last several decades America transformed from a culture of dignity to a culture of victimhood.
Dignity culture is essentially the idea that every human has intrinsic value and worth. This kind of culture approaches individuals as persons and assumes that every person is deserving of respect. It presumes objective morality and expects that most persons will strive to be moral. Criminals are supposed to be the exception but should generally be treated as responsible agents and held accountable for their crimes in some way. A culture of dignity views civility as fundamental and incivility as a horrible deviation. Obviously America at her best has never really lived up to these ideals, no country has. But in general western liberal civilization has seen itself within this framework of fundamental dignity.
But according to The Coddling, this has been transplanted by a culture of victimhood. This new culture grants special moral status to victims. A culture of dignity should, of course, be sympathetic towards victims and try to help them. But it does not give them special status and privileges. In a culture based around victimhood the victims are venerated as heroes deserving of special attention. They are treated as having special mystical knowledge. Victims are granted more social capital than nonvictims. I would say they actually occupy an entirely different caste. This culture is clearly a logical outgrowth from the theory of intersectionality which essentially turns minorities into a kind of Olympics of oppression.
It is true that a large and influential segment of the west has become a victim culture. The American hard left and the so-called alt-right are clear-cut examples of this. Intersectionality has become ubiquitous within the American Academy and mainstream media. And of course Richard Spencer-style white identity politics certainly portray white folks as victims. The election of Donald Trump was in many ways an outcome of this unfortunate dialectic. And along these lines so is the Ford/Kavanaugh debacle.
The empathy granted to Dr. Ford was universal. But it wasn’t universally due to her victimhood. On the right, the empathy was granted because of her inherent dignity. Sexual assault is wrong from this perspective because it is a violation of moral order. And this same argument was extended to Kavanaugh. To be accused of these things without evidence was seen as deeply unjust. The right treated both Ford and Kavanaugh as persons first and foremost. Both potentially had been wronged because each of them possesses rights that may have been violated.
But for the American left, Kavanaugh was guilty by definition due to his white male privilege. It was never possible that Kavanaugh would be viewed in terms resembling fairness and objectivity by the left. He was guilty with no avenue for proving himself innocent. He was the villain because of his maleness and Ford was the hero because of her femaleness, and because she had been victimized. The truth simply did not matter.
This is remarkably similar to the way that many traditional honor cultures treat parallel situations. For instance many years ago while visiting Nepal, it was explained to me that if a married woman is raped her husband throws her out and then she is supposed to go live with her rapist. Tragically rape has been a trending topic in Nepali news. One publication recently reported:
Two years ago in Mahottari, a young woman was forced into a sugarcane field and sexually abused by Farmud Ansari and Murduj Ansari. They were arrested, but instead of punishing them, the locals padlocked the girl’s house and expelled her from the village for having “corrupted” the local youths.
A system like this isn’t based on truth, facts, or argumentation. It’s based in honor. The end of the story is predetermined based on social status.
Our dignity culture wasn’t displaced by a new culture of victimization. Instead, western culture has experienced a divergence. One tribe has maintained the dignity culture. But the other tribe hasn’t acquired a new kind of culture either. Rather they have regressed to an honor culture. And in this honor culture, white men are unequal. Dr. Ford occupies a higher caste than Judge Kavanaugh and honor says that she is in the right, whether she’s telling the truth or not simply does not matter.
ThinkProgress recently demonstrated this perfectly when they commented on the obvious parallels between Tom Robinson’s rape trial in To Kill a Mockingbird.
The character of Atticus Finch, as readers might remember, was defending a Black man from a white woman who had accused him of a rape he didn’t commit, in the Jim Crow South. The GOP are trying to ensure a privileged white judge gets an even more privileged position on the Supreme Court.
The presumption of innocence or evidence simply isn’t relevant to this new (old) honor culture. The only thing that is relevant is a person’s intersectionality rating. Of course, the stakes are different for Kavanaugh and Robinson. Robinson went to prison for the false accusations leveled against him. Kavanaugh can’t be prosecuted for his alleged crimes. But the connection is still clear. Evidence and presumption of innocence should have saved Robinson from his tragic fate. Entertaining such accusations without evidence is unjust. That is true regardless of the consequences.
But this is no longer common sense to the Honor culture of American leftism. The consequences for this failure of reason are far from obvious, but unlikely to be good.