The #MeToo movement has elevated personal trauma into a political tool in American public life, and the battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court has brought out more visceral modes of this expression, as activists have taken to shouting directly into legislators’ faces. The confrontation between two protesters and Senator Jeff Flake in a Capitol Hill elevator became an iconic moment for those looking to stop Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher harangued Flake for four minutes about their experiences as victims—or survivors, as they prefer to be called—of sexual assault. “You’re telling all women,” said Gallagher, tearfully, “that they don’t matter, that they should just stay quiet because if they tell you what happened to them, you’re going to ignore them. That’s what happened to me. . . . Don’t look away from me! Look at me and tell me it doesn’t matter what happened to me.”
Gallagher and Archila were credited with convincing Flake to insist on an additional FBI background investigation into accusations that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted women, thereby forestalling—perhaps permanently, it was hoped—his accession to the Court. “Truth spoke to power,” wrote former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, “and the U.S. Senate finally listened.” Personal narrative, always central to the feminist movement, was shown to have the power to affect public policy at the highest levels of government.
The #Resistance to President Trump had already embraced direct confrontation of administration figures, whom Democratic legislators such as Congresswoman Maxine Waters encouraged protesters to harass in restaurants or at home. But survivor-protestors’ demand to be looked at—seen—became integral to their campaign to stop Kavanaugh. “Look at us! Look at us! Look at us!” chanted a crowd of protesters to Senator Joe Manchin. “How many stories of sexual violence do you need to hear in order to believe women?” three protesters shouted at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in an airport. “Senator McConnell, do you always turn your back on women like this?” one asked, as he ascended an escalator. “We believe survivors! We believe survivors! We believe survivors,” yelled a mob surrounding Senator Ted Cruz and his wife at a restaurant.
The narratives of survivors, combined with the spectacle of their distress, are presented as irrefutable proof of their victimization, and by extension, their political rectitude; believing them becomes an act of faith compelling whatever action the survivors themselves dictate as necessary. The intensity of their anger and pain is self-justifying. Sexual assault traumatizes its victims, in this view, such that their manifest agony transcends standards of physical evidence, coherent timelines, corroborating testimony, or the presumption of innocence of the accused. Gaps in survivors’ accounts—such as Christine Blasey Ford’s inability to remember much about Kavanaugh’s alleged assault of her—demonstrate conclusively that the event occurred, because only trauma can distort memory so precisely. Elle praised Maria Gallagher for breaking her silence about her rape to Senator Flake, supposedly for “the first time,” though her statement contradicts that claim, and actually refutes itself: “I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me. I didn’t tell anyone.” Trauma overwhelms history and fact. The narrative is paramount; every telling is the first telling.
“I was raped thirteen years ago and I don’t remember the date, do you believe me?” a woman asked Senator Lindsey Graham. Graham’s response—“I’m sorry, but then you should go to the cops”—was criticized as “horrifically insensitive and dismissive,” but his answer is the only one that makes sense, because it takes the debate out of the transcendent realm and into the world of facts and accountability, for all parties. Demanding that lawmakers “believe” what other people tell them is what happens in theocracies. Our criminal justice system is equipped with the tools to handle sexual assault claims and ascertain guilt: we don’t need a quasi-religious parallel process to adjudicate one class of crimes according to a different set of procedural standards.
In the wake of its failure to stop Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court—its first political defeat—the #MeToo movement seems to be reeling, furious that its demands for conviction prior to investigation are not being heeded. Whether #MeToo can mature beyond emotionalism remains to be seen. For now, in its inability to submit to claims of evidence or engage in debate, it is becoming indistinguishable from other anti-rationalist movements on the left, and unable to grasp the meaning of the word “No.”
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images