Political sensationalism is putting our human rights at stake

Milena Messner /
Oct 8, 2018 / Culture

Since Dr Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, September 27th, we all held our collective breath waiting to see what would happen next.

After a brief and limited FBI investigation, the vote on Kavanaugh has been pushed forward, and his appointment to the Supreme Court has been confirmed 50-48. All in all, it’s been a painful few weeks.

But how exactly did it happen, and what does it mean for us now?

With the rise of fake news, politics has taken a sharp turn away from real politics and towards reality TV. Never has this shift been more painfully evident than following Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court Nomination hearing. As people weighed in Dr Ford’s credibility, their language centred around how “compelling” her speech was and what a great “performance” she had given. And while it is true that Dr Ford’s testimony was convincing and credible, this wasn’t a matinee we’ve been jostling for seats in the theatre to watch; this was a survivor sharing her story of sexual assault with the world.

This isn’t a spectator sport, it’s real life, with very real stakes when it comes to our rights.

Over the past week, we’ve watched as Dr Ford’s report have been reduced to conspiracy theories, a political campaign tool and material for mockery by the President himself. All of this political white noise has made it near enough impossible for us to orientate ourselves to the matter at hand. This is the work that political sensationalism does. It floods us with so much information that we don’t know where to turn, what to think, or what is real.

Amongst the haze of TV coverage, however, one thing is clear: the way we think about sexual assault has got to change.

Since Dr Ford’s testimony, many have directly associated her credibility with her educational background, her ability to speak eloquently about her own psychology and ‘her womanly manner’. There’s no doubt that Dr Ford’s knowledge of the hippocampus is impressive, but should it really have so much bearing on whether we believe her or not? She is a doctor, but she’s also a person. And emphasising her ‘womanliness’ as a factor in her believability is a palpably sexist move to keep her, and by extension all women, in their place. Preferably in silence.

When high profile cases of sexual assault come into the public eye, other survivors stand and watch to see what society is telling them. And right now it’s telling them that their stories aren’t enough on their own.

As for those who have claimed that even if Dr Ford’s testimony is true, it shouldn’t disqualify Kavanaugh from the Supreme Court, their message is abundantly clear, and it is perhaps the most frightening of all: we believe you, we just don’t care.

While I struggled with about 99% of Kavanaugh’s testimony, he was right about one thing: this really is a circus. But the circus isn’t the hearing, it’s the current state of American politics.

Seeing men with allegations of sexual assault in the highest positions of power is sadly nothing new to us, just look at Donald Trump. But having potential perpetrators of sexual assault in power minimises survivors who deserve a platform, regardless as to how many degrees they have, their economic status, the colour of their skin, or how they identify on the gender spectrum.

So let’s break down Kavanaugh’s testimony for a moment, because reading between the lines, it tells us a lot about how we think about sexual assault today:

“One feature of my life that has remained true to the present day is that I have always had a lot of close female friends […] The committee has a letter from 65 women who knew me in high school. They said that I always treated them with dignity and respect.”

This line of defence is just as insulting as the person who feels inclined to mention that they “have a black friend”. Just as having a black friend doesn’t make you any less racist, nor does having female friends constitute solid evidence that you haven’t committed sexual assault. I had a lot of male friends in high school who openly treated me with “dignity and respect” and were just as openly sexist towards other women. Plus, given what Kavanaugh wrote in his yearbook about one of these alleged friends (naming himself a ‘Renate alumnus’), it doesn’t seem like he was all too respectful behind their backs.

“A lifetime of high-profile public service at the highest levels of American government and never a hint of anything of this kind, and that’s because nothing of this kind ever happened.”

Every 98 seconds someone in America is sexually assaulted, but 63% of cases are not reported to the police. Rape is historically the most unreported crime of all. Many survivors of sexual assault hold it inside for years or never tell anyone at all. Given that our society victim blames, shames and disbelieves survivor’s reports when they do come forward, this is hardly a surprise. That doesn’t mean that the assault never happened. Many men in the public eye have committed assaults only to have it come to light many years after the event in question, Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby are but two recent examples.

“As students at an all-boys Catholic Jesuit school, many of us became friends and remain friends to this day with students at local Catholic all-girls schools.”

The significant difference between men who commit sexual assault and men who don’t is their attitudes towards women. Catholic school, at least the last time I checked, isn’t preaching especially respectful views with regards to women. Separating the sexes from a young age perpetuates gender stereotypes that are harmful to society at large and reinforce the patriarchy, which in turn reinforces rape culture.

“If every American who drinks beer is suddenly presumed guilty of sexual assault, it would be an ugly new place in this country […] I never had sexual intercourse, or anything close to it, during high school, or for many years after that.”

Sexual assault isn’t about drinking. It isn’t really about sex, either. It’s about power and control.

Young girls are raised with the expectation of being assaulted. They are warned never to be alone at night, to carry pepper spray with them and to dress appropriately when out drinking. What they aren’t told is that in 3 of 4 cases a survivor of sexual assault knows their perpetrator, and the assault happens in a setting they know, where they thought they would be safe. But what are we teaching our young boys?

Kavanaugh’s testimony endeavours above all to present evidence for his excellent character. But this is also founded on myths because perhaps the scariest thing to face us to is the fact that perpetrators of sexual assault aren’t evil, they’re just like everybody else. Until we start to unpack the cultural systems that first produce them, and then support them in their actions, we won’t make any progress. Because exposing one perpetrator isn’t going to change the culture that produced them in the first place. We need more men to challenge patriarchal norms, break their silence and challenge each other behind closed doors. This is especially true of men in power, who young men look to as their example for what is an acceptable way to behave.

When will the onus be on men’s action, and not women’s silence, to end reports of sexual assault for good?

In a Mississippi rally this week, Trump openly mocked Dr Ford’s testimony, encouraging crowds of people to join him in laughing at her. As the taunting came to a close, Trump implored the audience: “think of your sons, think of your husband. I’ve had many false accusations, and when I say it didn’t happen, nobody believes me”, concluding: “it’s a very scary time for young men in America”. Trump’s tactics of manipulation aren’t to be underestimated here, because he’s tapping into fear, and fear is a very powerful emotion.

The Daily Show host Trevor Noah hit the nail on the head when he called Trump’s speech out for “weaponising victimhood”, a rhetorical move which transforms the person in power into the victim, just like that. This is precisely what Trump does. He levels our own fears against us to turn everything on its head. In this case, he taps into the fear that men will be falsely accused, turning men, not women, into the victims of the #MeToo movement. And suddenly it doesn’t matter that proportionally minuscule numbers of men are falsely accused compared to the high numbers of women who are actually assaulted. Suddenly the idea that its men who are in danger seems real.

The last time I checked, there’s still a gender pay gap, we still live in a rape culture, and the rights to our own bodies are still negotiated in the courts of white men.

The reality is that reports of sexual assault threaten men like Trump because they embody a convincing critique of the society we live in, a nation which objectifies women and allows men to continue to dominate systems of power. Men like Trump aren’t used to having their position in power questioned. So while Kavanaugh’s election to the Supreme Court is profoundly disempowering, our voices still matter, and they are still changing things, even if we don’t see it in our day to day. Together we are stronger than the fear that would strive to divide us. And while Republican senators may want to force us back into silence, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

Political sensationalism is putting our human rights at stake

Photography by Lorie Shaull

Words by Milena Messner

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