As Judge Kavanaugh’s Senate Judiciary hearings unfolded on a national stage, tensions climbed, accusations flew, defenses rose, and our discourse tanked. Given the chance to address our conflicted teachings on gendered behavior and how they wound all of us, we failed. I don’t mean to say we failed because Kavanaugh was confirmed, or because a woman was praised as “compelling” and “credible” but ultimately dismissed as neither, or even because of the nearly strict party lines which determined the outcome, although I admit my bias in thinking these things are true and terrible. I am most interested in the failure of our collective consciousness as we reflect on recent weeks. What was revealed, and what we must learn, according to many loud voices, is that we are too partisan and too angry. I have wept, sat stunned and paced angrily for many reasons in the last few weeks, but the thing I lament is much bigger than people addicted to picking sides.
After Judge Kavanaugh cleared the committee, Jeff Flake, from Arizona, took to the Senate floor to suggest the real danger in what just occurred was the elevation of a false binary: You either honor women and vote no on Kavanaugh, or hate women and vote yes. Flake is right that binaries take the nuance, the uncertainty, the confusion about what happened, out of the picture. I too, find binaries absurd, weak attempts to make easy choices of complicated matters; however, the danger here was not a false binary, but the exposure and endorsement of a culture that gives power to people who don’t value the experience of others.
Pastors and pundits alike echoed Flake by saying the real tragedy here was partisan people, addicted to outrage. They make a good point: we are angry and divided, and our problems are certainly exacerbated when we leap to outrage from our huddled corners. However, rather than outrage, I grieve the failure of empathetic listening, of engagement, of the willingness to get involved.
I am bothered by the grandstanding, the side picking, the blaming anger. Our political habits are troubling, but the realities around which our political circus swirls is devastating:
Girls are assaulted at alarming rates, and they often hide this destructive secret in the center of their being, where it continually wounds them.
Boys are often raised to respect and even protect women, while simultaneously enjoying porn, celebrating sexual conquests, and noticing the mixed messages adults send them about (dis)respecting themselves and others.
We actively endorse the notion that behavioral standards fluctuate depending on one’s location (Vegas), wealth bracket (wealthy kids likely avoid jail), or age (if you are just a kid then a mistake shouldn’t ruin your life, even if your mistake haunts someone else’s).
We are more likely to believe devious conspiracy theories than the idea that entitled kids do entitled things, and have little reason to regret or confess them.
With or without Kavanaugh subtext, these revealed realities suggest devastating consequences for our shared future. To say that the primary problem exposed in these hearings is one of angry side picking is to miss the point entirely. First, such a view suggests that every testimony, every word uttered in the public sphere, has a clear agenda. It obscures the idea that truth telling comes from honest reflection, and that meaning making is a communal activity (to paraphrase David Dark). This view presupposes that since we cannot be certain about everything, it is better to stay aloof, uninvolved. Could we care enough about the communities we share to actually listen with respect, even when our stories are messy?
Second, this point of view is founded on the idea that any meaningful engagement in the public sphere is too much engagement in the public sphere. It suggests that any interest or passion is too much and too far, that reasonable, grounded people abstain from getting involved. If this is actually true then we should not claim to be a democracy, right? How often do you hear a person accosted for thinking about how one’s choices or ideals might affect the people around them: “Stop getting political, I’m just talking about my personal faith/school choice/business habits/tax strategy.” Truth be told, I am not sure what “getting political” means, but if it means investing my time, thoughts and energy in public meaning making, in the creating of norms, in the exploration of potential leaders and their points of view, then “getting political” is the foundation of democratic participation. Could we care about the norms, laws and people who govern us enough to engage ourselves in our governance?
Third, the idea that all who were interested in the Senate procedures, anyone who diligently watched, forming opinions and expressing outrage, was a symptom of ‘the problem with society,’ is based on the notion that our country, courts and legislators are never wrong, and always worthy of our trust. To hold them accountable is a sign of hysteria. This perspective has been used to silence protest and to undercut those who would resist oppression. It suggests that the status quo is always just, so any person who robustly criticizes the system has gone overboard and is simply addicted to outrage, passionate about their passion. The reality is that we have often gotten it wrong in our country. The long arc bends toward justice because people are willing to change the trajectory of the arc. Inertia wins unless a new force is introduced in the pathway. If such a new force is always dismissed as too intense, or too involved, then inertia will win, and injustice will stand. Could we care enough to be outraged?
I understand the impulse to choose apathy instead of engaged dialogue. This is a complicated and high-stakes moment. There is much to learn, much to mourn, much to ponder about the last few weeks. If influential folks decide that our central problem is that people are “too political” or “too outraged,” then I’m afraid I need to announce that I am about to become a bigger problem than I have heretofore been. I care too much about the way our public sphere, courts, leaders, houses of worship and laws treat young women and men to pretend like apathy or divestment is a noble act of reason. It is cowardly to not care, and I invite you to be brave with me, to listen to different perspectives with empathy, and to engage in the process of making meaning out of our messy democracy.
Next week, practical ideas on how to respond to this moment.