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Tracks of Our Tears

eye on the news

Tracks of Our Tears

The Ford-Kavanaugh testimony was emotionally grueling on both sides—but emotions should not guide our conclusions. September 28, 2018
Politics and law

It was about ten minutes after Christine Blasey Ford began her opening statement during Thursday’s Senate Judiciary hearing on the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh that I began noticing the tweets. “I am crying. Are you crying?” Stella Bugbee, a writer at New York magazine, posted. “Yeah I’m crying already,” Jessica Valenti, Guardian columnist, wrote moments later. Rebecca Traister, a columnist at New York and author of the just-published book Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, followed with a “genuine question: were men out there brought to tears or shaking visceral response [sic] by that? Because the messages I have from women, and what’s happening in my own apartment, suggest that many many women were.” Others reported seeing women in cafes and airport lounges crying. Most of the tweets in this vein came from women, but some men joined in. “I can’t believe there isn’t one republican on this committee who has the heart to stop this emotional abuse by saying he (yes, he) won’t vote for Kavanaugh,” Keith Williams chimed in. 

Now, I admit that I had something in my eye during Ford’s testimony. I found her vulnerable, moving, and, yes, believable. It seemed indisputable that she was recounting deeply felt memories. The coldness of the congressional rules, the irritation of the committee’s fumbling chairman Charles Grassley, and questioner Rachel Mitchell’s matter-of-fact interest in the process that had pushed a reluctant Ford to the Everett Dirkson hearing room made a jarring contrast with the psychologist’s combination of conviction, fear, and almost-desperate agreeableness.  

It didn’t take long to relearn the age-old lessons of untrustworthy emotion, however. In the heat of the hearing’s personal testimony, it was too easy to forget that corroboration, evidence, due process, and reason should transcend untamed feeling. That’s a mistake made by both sides. Those critical touchstones of the liberal heritage that gave us a Supreme Court to begin with were largely MIA in, of all places, the Judiciary Committee hearing room.

In The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff described three “Great Untruths.” The second, “Always Trust Your Feelings,” is worth pondering today. The authors warn against teaching young people that feelings—of anger, of fear, of vulnerability, of hurt, of righteousness—are the best guide to understanding reality. Their main concern is college campuses, where students’ emotions provide the logic for censoring ideas or speakers whom they find disturbing or challenging. The same untruth has infected our politics. Valenti, Traister, and the others were using emotion as a divining rod for finding truth. Watching the hearings, I was, too.  

By the afternoon, Kavanaugh’s testimony changed that dynamic, but not because reason and evidence suddenly entered the room. He cried when he spoke of his daughters, one of whom asked to dedicate her bedtime prayers to the woman who was accusing her father of villainy. He broke down when he told how his father taught him to keep calendars of his activities to aid his memory and when he recounted the support he has gotten from women friends and colleagues. If he was putting on a show, Sir Laurence Olivier must have come back from the dead to give him lessons. In the morning, I had been swayed by Ford’s barely contained emotion; by the afternoon, I was moved by Kavanaugh’s more uncontrolled anguish.

Not everyone was so volatile. It was striking how people moved by the tears of women seemed convinced that if you prick a prep school quarterback, he should not bleed. “He’s crying because he’s been found out,” writer Emma Kennedy tweeted. The actor John Cusack accused Kavanaugh of crying “cause a life time of snarky country club Ass kissing GOP water carrying groveling to power—is going down the drain—fast.” “Pure aggrieved entitlement,” Cusack concluded, repeating a meme that proliferated on social media. No way could such a man genuinely grieve the pain suffered by his wife, children, and elderly parents who, like Ford’s family, had been threatened, abused, and frightened by howling mobs. “Kavanaugh crying about a calendar?” Anne Helen Petersen of Buzzfeed News jeered, oblivious to this expression of feeling for his father. 

The Kavanaugh haters might be cruelly partisan, but they are right about this much: the judge’s sadness and indignation cannot give us insight into the reality of what happened in the summer of 1982 in suburban Maryland. What they tried to ignore was that the same applies to Blasey Ford’s sympathetic recounting of that dimly remembered party. Likewise, the tears of the thousands of women who wrote on Twitter or op-ed pages​ or called into C-Span about their own experiences may suggest that sexual assault is far more widespread than many imagined. But their tears tell us nothing—or shouldn’t—of what happened to Ford. Crying is not corroboration. Anger, however righteous, is not evidence.

Photos: Getty Images

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