Faculty Journal Posted on Thursday, January 03, 2019

Apology v. Apoplexy: Contrasting Rhetoric in Christine Blasey Ford’s and Brett Kavanaugh’s Hearings and Testimonies

Politics was not the only polarizing aspect of the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings on September 26, 2018. Under intense national scrutiny, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh became avatars for the most recent episode of the decades-long American “culture wars.” With the divides of bitter partisanship and gender relations on full display, the rhetoric of Ford and Kavanaugh threw fundamental questions into sharp relief: which person’s truthfulness and credibility would outweigh the other’s? Whose life would be more affected by the proceedings? And, at the end of the day, would accusations of sexual predation 36 years prior be sufficient to deny a position on the highest court in the land?

Ford’s testimony was a living embodiment of modern gender politics. Despite being eminently qualified to speak on memory and trauma as a trained professor of psychology, Dr. Ford was, according to Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen, repeatedly “self-effacing, [and] deferential” to the members of Congress leading the hearings. Ford frequently apologized, noting that she was “used to being collegial,” and “terrified” in the current context. But in his coverage of the testimonies, progressive CNN journalist and frequent President Trump critic Jake Tapper characterized Ford as “pretty likable, pretty believable;” this served to underscore  to the viewer the importance of her demeanor as opposed to being able to objectively evaluate the content of her testimony, which was, according to trauma psychologist Jim Hopper, credible despite a few gaps in her recollection.

In contrast, Kavanaugh repeatedly interrupted female senators, including Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). His combative exchanges with female senators were bookended by his charges of accusations against him as a “joke” and a “farce.” Kavanaugh, along with the male senators present, repeatedly referenced  the suffering he had endured since Ford’s allegations became public, citing that the process had “destroyed… [his] good name…a good name [he had] built up for decades.” His seeming outrage suggested that he perceived his anger as righteous fury, even as he digressed into partisan conspiracy theories that the interrogation into his sexual history and drinking habits was a revenge plot by the defeated Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. While Ford focused her narrative on her memory of the alleged assault, Kavanaugh created a miasma of anger and resentment around the tarnishing of his reputation, which he and his supporters proclaimed to be sterling prior to the allegations becoming public.

Mindful of the optics of the hearings, the Judiciary Committee directed Arizona sex crimes prosecutor (a “female assistant” in the words of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY) Rachel Mitchell to question Ford; members of the Committee had the opportunity to individually question Kavanaugh. When Senator Klobuchar, a former prosecutor, pressed Kavanaugh about his drinking habits in high school and his presence in hard-drinking social circles, it prompted an angry outburst from him. Klobuchar later contended that if she had mirrored Kavanaugh’s aggressive response − failing to answer the question and interrogating the senator about her own hypothetical binge drinking – it would have resulted in her being “thrown out” of the hearing.

In contrast to Senator Klobuchar’s yes-or-no prosecutorial style of questioning, Senator Chuck Grassley, the Judiciary Committee Chair, adopted an irritable, combative tone throughout the hearings. After being mildly chastised by Senator Feinstein for not formally introducing Ford to the committee members, Senator Grassley interrupted to clarify: “I was going to introduce her, but if [Senator Feinstein] want[s] to introduce her, I would be glad…I didn’t forget to do that, because I would do that just as she was about to speak.” When Senator Grassley interrupted lines of questioning, he appeared to do so only to defend the processes of the Committee and to chastise his female colleagues, and not to ask substantive questions of Kavanaugh. These adversarial exchanges with members of the Committee embodied what was so troubling about the entire picture: a group of visibly disquieted partisan men elevating their own voices over those of their female colleagues in a high-stakes environment to diminish the importance of sexual assault and trauma endured and painfully remembered.

While Kavanaugh repeatedly emphasized his suffering at the hearings, it is worth noting that since Dr. Ford released her testimony, she has reported that she has been unable to return to work due to repeated threats of violence. She has moved four times for the safety of her family and has hired a private security detail. Justice Kavanaugh may have had the closest ratio of approval to non-approval in Supreme Court history, but he “won” his prize while Ford has had to hide from the public eye for her own safety.

The outcome of the hearings is a stark reminder of how far we remain from gender parity. It reflects the deeply entrenched inequities in the ways in which men and women have to navigate the public space: whether it be being interrupted by a man insisting he was about to say what a woman has already stated, as Senator Feinstein was during introductions, or being relentlessly questioned on one’s indelible traumas as Ford was, or Kavanaugh’s supporters overlooking the irony of a full-on partisan and combative opening statement by him in a hearing that would confirm his lifelong position on the Supreme Court.

Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings represent a watershed moment: can the Roberts Court truly be a neutral arbiter on important gender discrimination cases or those that might seek redress to violations of the equal protection clause? The rancor of the hearings raises the troublesome possibility of a compromised and partisan Supreme Court with far-reaching implications.

 


Monica Parks is the Public Policy Program Manager at Hunter College’s Roosevelt House, where she advises undergraduate students across all majors in pursuing minors and certificates in Public Policy. She also edits the Institute’s Faculty Journal and manages the Eleanor Roosevelt Scholars cohort, which is generously supported by the Jewish Foundation for the Education of Women. An avid reader and writer, Monica holds a B.A. in English Language & Literature: Writing & Rhetoric from the University of Maryland, College Park.