By Laura Finley and Matthew Johnson
The dust has settled on Judge Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court and the strong, complex emotions associated with it. Despite being the least popular, most polarizing nominee in recent memory, his legacy is far from settled. It remains to be seen whether progressives’ worst fears or conservatives’ best hopes will come to fruition.
It goes without saying that Kavanaugh’s confirmation process was about more than filling one seat on the highest court of the land. It was even about more than securing a 5-4 majority for the conservatives or blocking an attempt to do so. It was about justice for sexual assault survivors.
Although justice was delayed (to put it optimistically) the unprecedented campaign to shed light on Kavanaugh’s high school and college exploits was not waged in vain. Progressive activists can learn a lot from it about strategy and tactics — beyond the obvious negative lessons regarding the extent of Republican partisanship and white male privilege.
Takeaway #1: Survivors can be taken seriously
Yes, despite the result of the Senate hearings, Christine Blasey Ford was considered credible by many commentators from Left to Right. Her testimony was a transformational moment in U.S. politics, and it’s reasonable to say that history may condemn the Kavanaugh confirmation and praise Ford as a hero. More and more people on both sides of the political spectrum are coming to realize the complex reasons survivors do not always report sexual assault to the police or even to their loved ones. The harassment of Ford and her family — including death threats requiring relocation and other personal security measures — was repugnant to many conservatives as well as progressives. Ford’s picture on the cover of the mainstream magazine Time further demonstrates the continued shift in the degree to which the nation will discuss sexual violence, riding on the heels of the many celebrities outed, accused, and occasionally convicted as a result of the #MeToo movement.
Takeaway #2: If you can’t beat ‘em, confront ‘em in an elevator
After Ana Maria Archila, a sexual assault survivor, confronted Republican Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator, Flake called for a one-week delay in the Senate floor vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination. This was a dramatic shift, as Flake had just said he would unequivocally vote to confirm Kavanaugh. Flake noted how moved he was by the woman’s story, while she said it was good to know that “people who have the responsibility of making decisions for our country can actually listen to their conscience.” This type of confrontation — non-threatening but forceful — has long been a tool of nonviolent activists and has been successfully adopted by #MeToo. Moreover, grassroots activists can utilize principles of what criminologist John Braithwaite calls reintegrative shaming. That is, once individuals are shamed for an offense, concerned citizens can then find ways to educate them, to change their thinking, and to offer them second chances.
Takeaway #3: Women are not monolithic but have common interests
The consensus among conservative women, once the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh surfaced, seemed to be that the judge was the one in need of protection. This “himpathy” is not new, and, despite their condemnation of the Left for trying to hold “victim status,” it is a frequent tool of conservatives. Many expressed concerns that their sons could some-day face unfair or false accusations by women. This might be a concern shared equally by progressives if it were likely to occur, but the data show that false allegations of sexual assault and similar offenses are rare. According to the FBI, an estimated 2 to 8 percent of sexual assault claims are false — a rate lower than that of most crimes. The challenge for progressives is to break through the information barrier on multiple fronts because, while many conservatives deny the rarity of false reporting, they also deny the frequency of sexual assault. This is despite the obvious fact that sexual assault directly affects conservatives at comparable rates to the rest of the population. Feminist and playwright Eve Ensler alluded to this in her recent “Letter to White Women Who Support Brett Kavanaugh.” The common, uncontroversial goal of all sides of the spectrum should be to end rape culture in the United States. This will not only ensure that no one is ever-again falsely accused but also, more importantly, that no one is ever-again sexually victimized.