How much has changed since Anita Hill?

Jill Abramson, Charles Blow, and Rachel Sklar join Brian Stelter to compare news coverage of the Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh confirmation processes. "What I've been struck by is the anger of women that I've heard from," Abramson says. "If they feel unheard at the end of these hearings, I think there are gonna be big political consequences."

Posted: Sep 24, 2018 4:10 PM
Updated: Sep 24, 2018 4:17 PM

"Listen to us," wrote Anna Quindlen in the New York Times, in 1991. She declined to say 'please.' "The gender divide has opened and swallowed politeness like a great hungry whale," Quindlen wrote -- turning a request into a demand, a suggestion into a mandate.

Quindlen's call to listen -- directed toward white male senators, in particular -- went largely unheeded on that occasion. Anita Hill's powerful testimony about Clarence Thomas proved insufficient to block his confirmation as a Supreme Court Justice. Many people simply did not believe Hill regarding Thomas's sexual harassment, accepting his denials over her testimony. Some people likely refused to believe her -- deliberately, willfully, even maliciously.

Others may have believed her, but didn't care, or didn't care enough to deprive him of the power, prestige, and privilege to which he was implicitly deemed entitled, at that point in the process.

The same still often holds today, over 25 years later, with a different 'her,' and a different 'him' substituted as referents. Echoing Quindlen then, and many other feminists, we must now demand that people listen to the women coming forward. Professor Christine Blasey Ford's allegations against Brett Kavanaugh raise broad and deep questions about gender and power quite orthogonal to the byzantine machinations of Washington party politics. And it calls for the application of a general moral mandate: we must collectively listen to women in Ford's position. Now that she has agreed to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and a college classmate has alleged to the New Yorker that Kavanaugh exposed himself to her, this is no longer an abstract proposition. Both the White House and Kavanaugh have denied this second allegation. Although none of those reportedly at the party and contacted by the New Yorker recalled having been there or provided corroboration, another classmate told the magazine he was "one hundred percent sure" that he was told about the incident soon afterward.

"Why? Why? Why?" Quindlen recalls the senators asking. "Why did Anita F. Hill, now a tenured law professor at the University of Oklahoma, not bring charges against Clarence Thomas when, she contends, he sexually harassed her a decade ago? Why did she stay on the job although, she says, he insisted on discussing with her the details of pornographic movies? Why was she hesitant about confiding in the Judiciary Committee?"

These questions have no shortage of answers. As has emerged in vivid and often harrowing detail via the #WhyIDidn'tReport hashtag trending on Twitter, there are many different reasons why women don't report, and no one situation is exactly like another. A woman oppressed along multiple axes -- due to her race, class, sexuality, or being trans, for example -- may face barriers to speaking out that are especially or even uniquely formidable. That is a crucial reason why Tarana Burke, a Black feminist activist, founded the #MeToo movement over a decade ago: to center the experiences of abuse suffered by Black and brown girls who were and remain disproportionately vulnerable.

But while we shouldn't universalize, we can identify some patterns that keep women who have been assaulted conveniently quiet -- especially when the assailant is a privileged boy or powerful man, whom many people will rush to defend on instinct. There will be hand-wringing even among the people who judge him guilty, with women very much included, over the loss of his bright future -- as if its derailment were not his fault, and the envisaged path were his birthright.

Kavanaugh has denied Ford's account (as well as that of his second accuser) -- but suppose for the sake of argument that Ford's account is true (and for the record, I believe her). Think of what the assault reportedly involved: a 17-year-old boy's trying to rape a 15-year-old girl, while covering her mouth with his hand to prevent her from screaming, in such a way that she feared he might accidentally kill her.

In that smothering gesture, that silencing violence, lies an ominous reminder of why such boys and men often avoid facing any negative consequences for victimizing a girl or woman (among vulnerable others, such as nonbinary people). They literally shut her up; some subsequently issue threats to stop her from talking. And such powerful, abusive men can later trade on the prevalent social mechanisms that now serve to uphold his reputation as a "good guy." Who has ever heard a bad word said against him? Silencing begets crickets; such silence is self-sustaining.

Even when victims do speak out, that is not the end of it -- not by a long shot. The terrible consequences that often attend testifying have been outsized for Christine Blasey Ford, who had to flee her home due to the death threats since she came forward with her allegations against Kavanaugh. Such is the extent to which some people are determined to prevent her from being heard at the hearings.

And so it goes: a woman speaks out against a privileged boy or powerful man only to face willful denial, moral indifference, and seething rage from many sources. She will be subject to stonewalling, gaslighting, and the impugning of her character, her motives, and her history. (Also, what was she wearing? Can she even remember?) Meanwhile, he remains a robust "good guy" figure in the minds of many people, who feel sorry for him, given what he's going through. She becomes a pariah; he gets what I call "himpathy."

This is one element at the crux of #WhyIDidn'tReport: testifying or speaking publicly about an assailant's crimes or wrongdoing may seem not only risky but also likely futile. A tendency to self-censor may result, which the philosopher Kristie Dotson calls "testimonial smothering" -- a coerced self-silencing due to the pernicious, often willful, ignorance of the would-be hearers. They refuse to get the message, or get it but dismiss it -- as nonsense, as lies, as "fake news," or trivial.

This is not to say there has been no progress since Anita Hill testified and Anna Quindlen made her case, all those years ago. In the #MeToo era especially, it's reasonable to hope that more people now believe, and more avidly believe, that one ought to listen to a victim's testimony about sexual violence and harassment, in order to do her justice.

But doing her justice requires more than simply letting her speak and forming a judgment on this basis. It requires nonhostile attention in order to achieve what the philosopher Miranda Fricker would call "virtuous hearing." The hearer must take care to be fair-minded, rather than exclusively listening for reasons why someone in Christine Blasey Ford's position must be lying, mistaken, or speaking truths somehow past their moral use-by date. It requires resisting the temptation to reach a foregone conclusion, justifying one's belief in the innocence of the accused via motivated reasoning and post hoc rationalization.

To listen properly must be to reject Trump's question as to why Ford didn't come forward some 36 years ago. It has already been answered by Ford herself, in a written statement: because she was afraid of getting into trouble with her parents for being at a party where alcohol was being consumed by minors. And after the assault, she entered a state of deep denial familiar to many women (me included, for the record). She told herself it didn't happen, or, if it happened, it didn't matter. Belt and braces.

In other words, Ford internalized some of the deep denial that Republicans have been peddling this week in an attempt to prolong her silence. Virtually all of us have absorbed such a tendency to minimize, at least when it comes to ourselves, on the subject of sexual violence. It is a testament to Ford's wisdom and courage that she is now saying: "Listen." This time we must hear her, along with others coming forward.

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