To a surrounded enemy, you must leave a way of escape.
–Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Last Friday I spoke at a school-wide forum about the Kavanaugh hearings. Since then, several people have come to thank me for voicing a perspective that is fairly uncommon in the progressive milieu. It is one of the pathologies of the partisan culture we now live in that one must subscribe to positions that often lack nuance and sometimes contradict factual and empirical evidence. The people who spoke to me asked me if I would be willing to share my perspective more widely, so here goes.
I’ll open by saying the obvious: I believe Dr. Ford. Not so much because of any indicia of reliability in her demeanor, but because, for the life of me, I can’t see why anyone would put themselves and their family through this particular variation of hell by lying. The incentives all line up toward the opposite direction. I think a mistaken identity is very unlikely here–even though eyewitness identification is a common source of wrongful convictions in sex crimes, that applies to stranger assaults, not to assaults by people familiar to the victim. It is also not unlikely that my sympathy for Dr. Ford also stems from the fact that she and I share the same milieu: she lives, works, dresses, and talks like me. She uses words like “hippocampus” and “sequelae.” By contrast, the prospect of an aggressively conservative turn in the Supreme Court frightens me because of the risks it poses to basic civil rights and to American democracy, given the corrupted and unprincipled stance of the Trump administration.
A widely publicized letter signed by law faculty was circulated, in which many people I like and respect challenged Kavanaugh on account of his demeanor, which they perceived to suggest lack of judicial temperament. I did not sign this letter for two reasons.
First, I have years of experience defending people in criminal courts against charges of sexual assault. During my time as a military defender, one of my responsibilities was to represent people in the special military court. What was so “special” about the special court was that its jurisdiction extended to high-ranked officers (colonel and up). These are, of course, career officers; the lower ranks in the Israeli army are occupied by young people aged 18-21 in mandatory service. This puts 40-something-year-old men in regular contact with 18-year-old women, in the context of a hierarchical institution that adds rank and military power to age and seniority. The outcome is that a considerable chunk of my legal practice was devoted to defending career officers against charges of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
My experience with these cases taught me a lot of things. One lesson was that most bad behavior is largely situational (as the Stanford Prison Experiment taught us, and as Ashley Rubin recently reminded us.) Another was that two people could be telling you widely divergent versions of an incident and both would be telling the truth, which is shaped through subjective experiences and feelings to a surprising degree. It also taught me that the best strategy for sex crime defense is to agree with the complainant’s version as much as possible. We called this “narrowing the scope of dispute.” The less contradictions there are between the prosecution’s version and the defendant’s version, the less there is to impeach the defendant with.
That Kavanaugh chose as his line of defense absolute denial was against any sort of sensible advice I ever gave a client in these circumstances. It is a sad testament to the partisan culture we live in that people were predisposed to believe him even though his strategy would have been disastrous in court. In addition, Kavanaugh’s religious background, and his base of supporters, would have been receptive to a cultural trope that is very common both in Catholicism and in Evangelical Christianity–talking up bad behavior in the past to emphasize change. Had he admitted to being wild and drinking in his adolescence, this milieu would have embraced his rehabilitation as a moral and religious victory. A similar strategy certainly underlined similar confessions from both George W. Bush and Barack Obama about their drug use. Again, that Kavanaugh did not recur to these sympathy-garnering tactics and still prevailed is an indication that the real mechanism behind this confirmation is partisan animosity, rather than factfinding.
But why did he do that? Here’s where I differ from my friends who signed the judicial temperament letter. I have spent a lot of time in the company of people who were (falsely OR truthfully) accused of sexual misconduct. I have spent time with their wives. I have heard them react to the complainant’s versions. I have seen them contemplate the real possibility that their personal and professional lives will fall apart. And each and every one of them–the guilty and the innocent–reacted in exactly the same way: yelling, tearing up, clenching fists, demonizing their accusers. It is not a peculiar reaction indicating a personal pathology. It is how humans universally react when they face an existential threat.
Now, every progressive outlet I know wrote the same op-ed, published the same meme, and made the same tired argument: Privileged white man, just a job interview, yada yada yada, what is he whining about? These arguments and memes completely miss the point. Everyone–yes, everyone, even you–deals with the emotional bind of the entitlement effect. Everyone tends to attribute the benefits and perks of their social position, no matter how high or low, to their own merit, and their deprivations to the failings of others. Everyone subjectively believes that they worked hard to earned what they have and react poorly to the prospect of losing that. That there is entitlement, privilege, and hubris at work here is obvious. This man’s problems seem perhaps, to you, as not very big problems compared to those of the poor and disenfranchised. But they are his problems. And, to him, the threat is palpable. His personal integrity has been besmirched, his personal life in tatters in front of the whole world, his family publicly humiliated and pitied by millions. This is the sort of thing that makes anyone react in that way–even people who exhibit calm tempers and evenhanded decisionmaking when dealing with other people’s problems. His behavior is not an indication of some sort of unique individual failing. It is the behavior of a person who is threatened and suffering.
My second reason for not signing the letter has to do with a personal decision I have made for the sake of upholding my own values: I do not mob people online for any reason, no matter who they are or how vile their failing is. I do not call for anyone’s firing, incarceration, or public shaming. When I join a political struggle–of which there are many–I join it toward something, not against something. I have found that online mobbing, which is rife on both sides of the political divide, carries with it plenty of mobilized rage (a hot commodity these days) and a detectable dose of schadenfreude. My personal experience marinating in these qualities is that they debase and depress me. I want to be part of positive change, not negative bashing.
The progressive variety of the call to mob, trash, annihilate the objectionable person, which I have come to call progressive punitivism, is especially pernicious. For people who overall fight for rehabilitation, for improved prison conditions, for a lessened reliance on confinement and stigma, it is surprising how quickly these lofty ideals are thrown by the wayside the minute they apply to a person they don’t like. This is why I refused to get on the bandwagon of diminished protections against prosecutions of police officers, vocally objected to the dangerous and counterproductive recall campaign against Judge Persky, and spoke up against Oakland Mayor’s Libby Schaaf call to lower the burden of proof in trials of people she dislikes. Constitutional protections and a rehabilitative stance are really not worth much if they only exist for the people we like. Changing regimes and preferences might mean that the next target for harshness and stigma might be you or me–as we have daily proof on the federal level–and removing them for one is removing them for all.
Progressive punitivism is not worse than conservative punitivism, but it stings more, because it comes from people who understand the system enough to know better. It also strengthens other pathologies of the progressive left, such as the exclusive and vitriolic ideological purity, which demonizes and ostracizes any potential ally who is not 100% on board with every word you say, and the regrettable tendency to sometimes ignore facts because they are not politically expedient.
An adjacent problem is the fact that, as Jonathan Simon argues in Governing Through Crime, the quintessential American citizen is no longer the yeoman farmer or the small business owner: it’s the potential victim. By rewarding (or compensating) victimization, real or potential, with social capital, we have created a situation in which people are essentially forced to deprioritize their personal healing and marinate in their own victimhood as a condition of being heard. It’s true on the right, and has shaped some truly atrocious sentencing policies, and it’s true on the left, and has shaped some of the more egregious instances in which the overall commendable #metoo campaign became a victim of its own success. My law professor Ruth Gavison used to say that the first and foremost thing we owe victims is that they stop being victims as soon as possible. American public discourse propagates exactly the opposite.
The overwhelming conservative response to the Kavanaugh confirmation, and the energized Republican base as we go into the midterms that may decide the face of our democracy, is proof that the antagonism and demonization of individual wrongdoers is a failing strategy. Whaling on Kavanaugh or Brock Turner (righteous as it might feel) does not, sadly, bring us even a bit closer to eradicating sexual violence. Sexual domination, patriarchal hierarchies, and entitlement based on gender, class, and race, are systemic. People who exploit these to hurt other people do it largely in the context of situational factors that are bigger than their own pathologies. Calling out these pathologies by stigmatizing individual perpetrators and demanding their head on a stick does not lead to deep social reckoning, because it is not an environment that invites any sort of restorative conversation. Demonize people in public and what you’ll get is what you got from Kavanaugh: counteraccusations, yelling, crying, clenched fists. When people’s liberty, employment, prestige, and family are at stake, and when they feel attacked, they are very unlikely to feel reflective, and they will not feel safe to offer an apology. More to the point, whatever apology they offer, because of its circumstances, is not something you or I would find genuine (as an aside, one hopes against hope that this experience will have offered Kavanaugh a window of empathy into the lives of criminal defendants and suspects, but I’m not holding my breath. He is likely to remember this as an effrontery, not a teaching moment, to the detriment of us all.)
The answer to hurt and violence is not propagating more hurt and violence. The answer lies, I think, in early education. Children are open to the idea that other children–regardless of their gender, color, or wealth–are human beings that can be their friends. Aiming at a diverse group of friends for your young child and prioritizing social experiences that place them in the company of people who live different lives of their own is essential. Teaching children gratitude for what they have can counter the bitterness that can accompany the entitlement effect. Teaching happiness, resilience, and compassion are antidotes to the zero-sum thinking that accompanies the excesses that come with entitlement. If the current administration does not prioritize this kind of administration, let’s go to the polls in November and vote for people who will. And let’s start the revolution inside our own homes, by instilling a sense of community and mutual responsibility in our children.
Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world.
By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased.
This is a law eternal.