On Thursday, September 27, 2018, at ten o’clock in the morning Eastern Standard Time, the United States of America—and much of the world—readied itself to watch the most anticipated confirmation hearing ever to take place in the chamber of the US senate. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh arrived at the dais, to answer questions related to charges of sexual assault dating back to his senior year of high school. His accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, took her seat before America’s senior legislators, recounting events and making her case in moving detail. For all of the questioning, however, and for all of the journalistic investigations and speculation by the American punditry, no one beyond the parties to the incident can say what—if anything—happened between Kavanaugh and Ford on that summer day in 1982 in Bethesda, Maryland. In all probability, we will never truly know. Yet, at least one thing Judge Kavanaugh declared in his opening remarks is undoubtedly true. Referring to the impact of the theatrical proceedings that brought American life to a standstill, Kavanaugh stated, “The consequences will extend long past my nomination. The consequences will be with us for decades.” True—and there is a tragedy in this. It is not the tragedy of an innocent man fallen victim to the slander of a dishonest accuser or, alternatively, that of a deceitful judge elevated to the highest court in the land, despite the petitions of an honest victim. It is the tragedy of a political society that has become unmoored from humility in the face of stark uncertainty. It is the tragedy of a civic culture in which all rush to moral judgment on the basis of tribal bonds. Regardless of the outcome of the proceedings, the American people prepared to avenge injustices of which they could only be certain in their imaginations. Yet, if we were willing, we could withhold unfounded moral certitudes, preserve the integrity of our civic processes, and see to it that the bonds of civic fraternity are not needlessly dissolved.
The question of who is telling the truth and who is lying is not one that we can answer with empirical certainty. Reasonable people can, of course, make reasonable estimations of the probability of guilt or innocence, on the basis of the evidence available. In our personal lives, our feelings about others are at times determined by things we suspect to be true, but that we cannot necessarily prove. These intuitions are often validated, which is why we feel so justified in framing our attitudes towards these particular civil proceedings in unvarnished moral certainty.
In a report titled “Approaching the Distinction Between Intuition and Insight,” conducted by the Research Center for Brain Function and Psychological Science at Shenzhen University, researchers Zhonglu Zhang, Yi Lei and Hong Li describe intuition in the following way: “Intuition can be conceived of as a sudden apprehension of coherence (pattern, meaning, structure) above chance level with little conscious retrieval.” Intuition is not a rigorous process. But it is not irrational either. Our intuitions search out patterns that generally indicate certain realities. Since life often calls upon us to make snap judgments, or judgments based on incomplete information, intuition is of necessity our default mode of sense making. Regardless of what a more rigorous examination of the facts and details related to the Kavanaugh case might reveal, understanding this mode of sense making allows us to see how both sides of this national argument are justified in their divergent intuitions, given the perceptual biases that we can expect America’s partisans to bring to bear on a social/political question such as this.
There are people—particularly Republicans—all across the United States, who believe that Brett Kavanaugh is innocent of the accusations that have been levied against him. Are their intuitions not understandable? Judge Kavanaugh (unlike Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, Roy Moore and many other public figures) had no widespread reputation for mistreating women, prior to his nomination to the Supreme Court. Powerful men who abuse women are frequently (though not always) known for doing so, even if it is only whispered about in closed circles (many such whispers have since graduated to booming yells, with the advancement of the Me Too movement). This does not seem to have been the case for Brett Kavanaugh. Yet, disbelievers of Kavanaugh (overwhelmingly Democrats) are intuitively justified on the basis of a counterbalancing observation: Dr. Ford is, by most accounts, a credible professional in a respected field (a psychology professor) of whom no reports of professional or personal dishonesty in important matters have emerged. This is contrary to what we would expect of a false accuser.
The tit for tat of reasonable competing pattern observations is extensive. Ford can cite as character witnesses friends from high school who claim to recall, circulating at the time, rumors that Brett Kavanaugh acted lewdly towards her at the party in question, and who also claim that Kavanaugh was known to drink and party to excess. Kavanaugh has also produced a list of peers and supporters from that time, who refute the claim that it was rumored that he had behaved inappropriately towards Ford, or that he was an excessive drinker, and who paint a radically different picture of who he was than that contained in the accounts of Ford and her allies.
More importantly still, this particular question of bias and intuition is influenced by broader social patterns, which trigger our emotional convictions when we analyze this pointed drama of personal and political conflict. In the light of both Me Too and, indeed, all of human history, Democrats know that powerful men—and even privileged teenage boys—often take advantage of their power to abuse women and girls and that a slew of factors (including shame, intimidation and even loyalty) can keep women from coming forward in the early aftermath of abuse. Yet we also know that men—particularly powerful men—can also be falsely accused of abuse. Many careers and reputations have been destroyed because of this as the social tides lifting the ship of gender equality have risen.
These are the personal and social intuitions that Democrats and Republicans are subject to. Then there is the partisan instinct itself: the intuitions Democrats and Republicans have about each other’s honesty.
We could compile a vast anthology of the lies of powerful men, who stood straight-faced in suits, robes or priestly garb, in a church, court of law or on television, falsely declaring that they had never touched a certain woman, never intimidated a certain employee or sought to silence a certain student or family member to preserve their own reputations, when faced with accusations of assault and harassment. Those accused have often been white Christian men, in a society largely run by white Christian men. This would seem to justify refusing to grant such men the benefit of the doubt when it comes to questions of whether they are guilty of sexual abuse. Add to this the GOP leaders’ and the Republican electorate’s mass disregard of what most believe to be the obvious sexual sins of Donald Trump and Roy Moore, and the left may seem eminently justified in their tribal sense that a de facto tolerance of chauvinism and sexual exploitation is embedded in the conservative movement.
Yet Republicans can easily find examples of dishonesty about and false demonization of men, which have come from the left. It is scarcely any wonder that they themselves feel hardened in their resentments and justified in their cynicism about the motives of Democrats and liberal activists. Al Sharpton, a former presidential candidate, a regular figure on MSNBC and a respected voice on the left, was initially introduced to the American public through his advocacy of a woman named Tawana Brawley, who claimed to have been raped by four white men. This claim was eventually proved to be a lie—yet it launched the career of one of the left’s most iconic voices. There was also mainstream media outrage over the Duke University La Crosse team’s rape of an innocent woman of color—a woman who ultimately also turned out to have been lying. The Democrats’ reputation for sincerity has also been damaged by Bill Clinton’s reputation—even before he became president—and by the words of liberals like Gloria Steinem, who argues that, even if the allegations of women accusing Clinton of unwanted sexual advances are true, “feminists will still have been right to resist pressure by the right wing to call for his impeachment.”
It is important to understand partisan intuitions in cases like this one, and to realize that such intuitions can easily be justified. The impatience we have with one another for disagreeing about what strikes us as such clear-cut questions of guilt and innocence reflects our failure to recognize just how persuasive the contrary evidence is, undergirding the perceptions of those whose biases lead them to focus on a different set of data then we do.
What then is the responsible way for us to discuss such a subject, as a society?
We should start by remembering that the significance of these hearings goes beyond the guilt or innocence of one man. The integrity of the confirmation process—as with all civic processes—is necessary to preserve society’s confidence in its leaders’ and institutions’ commitment and capacity to enable justice and stability.
When lawmakers like Cory Booker accuse Kavanaugh supporters of being “complicit with evil” or alternatively describe Ford as “heroic,” they betray themselves as being guided more by emotional pre-commitments than by an interest in the impartial judgment of the Senate. This, in turn, prompts extreme reactions from others.
As Kavanaugh exclaimed:
Millions of Americans listen carefully to you giving comments like those, is it any surprise that people have been willing to do anything to make any physical threat against my family, to send any violent email to my wife, to make any kind of allegations against me and against my friends, to blow me up and take me down. For decades to come I fear the country will reap the whirlwind.
It is not just Kavanaugh and his family who have received threats and insults from across America. Dr. Ford has been recipient of such hate as well. For this reason alone, Cory Booker’s statements were irresponsible. But they were also intellectually irresponsible, in that Cory does not actually know that Ford is heroic because he does not know (as a matter of objective fact) that she is telling the truth. Neither does Senator Lindsey Graham know this to be true of Judge Kavanaugh. Yet, even if they did have some sure psychic way of arriving at these conclusions for themselves, their feelings with respect to the honesty of the individuals whom they believe is, in the most important respects, irrelevant.
The question before the United States Senate was not one of guilt or innocence. It was a question of whether or not the allegations made against Brett Kavanaugh are credible, and whether they are credible enough to bear upon his fitness as a nominee to the United States Supreme Court. It is entirely possible that these allegations could be credible, but that Kavanaugh might ultimately be innocent. It is also entirely possible that these allegations fall utterly short of the proper threshold to bear upon the Senate’s consideration of Kavanaugh as a nominee—but that he might still ultimately be guilty. Furthermore, conclusive evidence of either case might arise tomorrow. But such future evidence cannot justify the behavior of American political leaders today.
This was the question before the Senate. But it should, in fact, have been the question before the American people. Once again, liberals and conservatives are destroying relationships with each other over disagreements about a matter that does not allow for a conclusive judgment. In rooting for one or the other of these individuals—Kavanaugh or Ford—we are rooting against each other, and making the mistake of believing that our partisan opponents are necessarily willful agents of injustice. Were we to root for a logical, dispassionate process of civic consideration instead, the outcome might turn against the party we perceive to be in the right. But doing so would allow us to preserve our collective confidence in the basic integrity of the systems we rely upon to adjudicate these complex and delicate questions with wisdom and humility. And it would give us the chance to preserve our trust in one another’s ethical intentions.