The #MeToo newscycle continues to be hell for survivors—hearing stories of abuse that echo your own experiences is bound reopen old wounds—but when it comes to the allegations of sexual assault made against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, I have been thinking less of the traumatic emotional impact it has on women (which isn’t to suggest that that’s not extremely important) and more about how frightening the ordeal must be for other powerful men. They've spent their lives thinking they could get away with similar abusive behavior, only to have the rug pulled out beneath them.
Even as multiple women have accused Kavanaugh of assault and other bad behavior—another allegation surfaced Wednesday evening in an anonymous letter to Colorado Senator Cory Gardner—men, especially conservative men, have stood by him publicly. Given how broadly unpopular defending him has become, this defense isn't an expression of political savvy—rather, they are motivated by raw emotion.
“Remember, if they cannot confirm Kavanaugh, they cannot confirm anyone,” tweeted conservative pundit Erick Erickson, whose claims to fame includes shooting the frontpage of the New York Times in an emotional protest to a gun safety editorial and lying about how his parents wouldn’t let him eat "Asian food" on Pearl Harbor Day. “This is the beginning of a new age of judicial character assassination and it only gets worse from here.”
The bullshit at the core of Erickson’s claim—which other conservatives have echoed—is easily dispelled when you remember that the equally conservative Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation went off without a hitch. Kavanaugh defenders are eager to discount the accusations made against him as part of a broader liberal conspiracy. “Please help me with this,” David French, another right-wing pundit, pleaded on Twitter. “Georgetown Prep boys frequently committed gang rape… And despite this common knowledge no one has talked publicly for three decades, until the day before a crucial Senate hearing. What?”
This argument smells of fear. If expressions of male violence that were once justified as “boys will be boys” are no longer permissible, it will mark a major cultural shift, one which many men are not prepared for.
In perhaps a less emotional defense of Kavanaugh, Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle tweeted, “Kavanaugh is older than I am, and it would be inconceivable for anyone of my generation to think of an incident that took place in high school as constituting ‘sexual harassment’ in the way it's now meant. It was barely a thing in the workplace in that era.” McArdle’s premise gets at the truth of the matter, answering French’s question about why stories of these alleged gang rapes committed by prep school boys didn’t emerge until now: Back in the 1980s, these acts of violence against women were barely considered a crime.
In an obscenely melodramatic op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Lance Morrow, a fellow at a conservative think tank, compared the accusations against Kavanaugh to the literal Salem Witch Trials, where women were murdered for being witches, as opposed to not getting a job they wanted. But like McArdle, Morrow somewhat accidentally hit on the truth of why men are defending Kavanaugh: "The thing happened—if it happened—an awfully long time ago, back in Ronald Reagan’s time, when the actors in the drama were minors and (the boys, anyway) under the blurring influence of alcohol and adolescent hormones. No clothes were removed, and no sexual penetration occurred. The sin, if there was one, was not one of those that Catholic theology calls peccata clamantia—sins that cry to heaven for vengeance." This is code for: I don’t think a prep school boy drunkenly trying to rape someone in the 1980s is a crime.
Last week on MSNBC, controversial New York Times opinion writer Bari Weiss posed the question: “What about the deeper, moral, cultural, like, the ethical question here? Let's say he did this exactly as she said. Should the fact that a 17-year-old, presumably very drunk kid, did this, should this be disqualifying? That's the question at the end of the day, isn't it?” Weiss’s question gets to the heart of the issue— Kavanaugh supporters fear living in a culture where decades-old accusations of sexual assault and bullying could cost a man his dream job, or in the case of Bill Cosby, even send him to prison. What if we held men responsible for the things they did while drunk or high on "adolescent hormones"? How many men would suddenly find themselves disqualified from important positions in public life?
Male emotions are running amok because the stakes are higher than ever before. They are scared they won’t be able to get away with it anymore, and they are going out of their way to stand by Kavanaugh not only to spite their ideological opponents, or because of their internalized misogyny, but to uphold the status quo. Perhaps the women defending him are afraid of change too, but I think they have different motivations that are tangential to this—Weiss is asking a question about the meaning of the conversation we’re having about Kavanaugh, while his male champions are dramatically responding to his reports of his unsavory yearbook scribbles with stuff like, “So he should spend the rest of his life in jail?”
Within the conversation about whether Kavanaugh should be confirmed, we are trying to determine what we should do with the men who have been accused in the #MeToo era. We're deciding whether men can continue to get away with abusing women. We're asking if we should we take the horrors inflicted upon young women seriously. In their hearts, men know the answers to many of these questions. That's why they're afraid.
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