#MeToo, Brett Kavanaugh, and the influence of social movements

Teenagers do stupid things, particularly under the influence of alcohol; for boys, sometimes those stupid things are criminal or violent. Often, offenses are unreported, unprosecuted, or otherwise concealed, and teens get second, third, and sixth chances to grow up. Affluent white kids from “good” families (Brett Kavanaugh’s mom was a judge!) are far more likely to get those extra chances than less advantaged children. I suspect most go on to live better lives, regretting or forgetting youthful mistakes–no matter how awful.

#MeToo has changed the rules about what can be forgotten.

Christine Blasey Ford’s story about being assaulted by drunken teenage boys at a house party is disturbingly believable. In short order, 200 alumnae of her high school signed a letter attesting to the familiarity of a distorted social milieu in which such sexual assaults are part of the atmosphere. Yuck.

#MeToo made it a little bit easier for women to tell their stories, sometimes publicly, but also to each other. It also made many men rifle through their own memories, hoping not to find such stories, and seeking absolution. The world IS changing.

Professor Ford’s willingness to tell her story, first to her family and her therapist, and then to a larger public, reflects the changes in progress. She found immediate amplification and support from an awakened movement against sexual violence. The Senate’s response is also telling, particularly in contrast with the body’s response to allegations against Clarence Thomas in 1991:

When Anita Hill offered testimony of repeated sexual harassment from an uninebriated adult supervisor, the Senate Judiciary Committee looked for ways to contain it. CommitteeFILE - University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill is sworn in, in the Caucus Room before testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, in this Oct. 11, 1991 file photo. Virginia Thomas said in a statement Tuesday Oct. 19, 2010 that she was "extending an olive branch" to Hill, now a Brandeis University professor, in a voicemail message left over the weekend asking Anita Hill to apologize for accusing the justice of sexually harassing her. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson, File) Chair Joe Biden refused to allow corroborating witnesses to testify.* Republican senators Arlen Specter and Alan Simpson ridiculed Ms. Hill, subjecting her to the same sorts of prosecutorial attacks that women who reported sexual assaults typically faced—but in front of a national television audience. Judge Thomas grandstanded in response, comparing the accusations to lynching–and the Senators sat and listened to him.

Justice Thomas has sat on the Supreme Court for more than a quarter-century.

Should she testify before the committee, it’s hard to imagine that Prof. Ford will endure a similar cross-examination. No senator with any thought of ever facing voters again would be willing to do a full Specter.

I don’t expect Judge Kavanaugh to acknowledge that even he was a stupid, drunken, teen boy who did things he now regrets, and that he has, in fact, repented and tried to do better–although this is probably the truth.

I predict a well-prepared Judge Kavanaugh will decry the assault Ford recounts, even as he denies any part of it. He will announce his respect for women, remind the audience that he is the father of daughters, the coach of a girls’ basketball team, and the employer of many women as law clerks. This is, by the way, far more than Clarence Thomas did.

#MeToo has won this rhetorical battle already.

Academic note: people who study social movements have a hard time making sense of this kind of social movement impact. There is no change in law that can be directly traced to the influence of this newest iteration of a movement against sexual violence. Civility in Senate hearings is hard to code, and Kavanaugh may still end up on the Supreme Court. And it’s hard to think of any way to track how many boys will be a little more restrained at parties because they fear some punishment or accountability somewhere in the future.


* Much, much later, former Vice President Biden revisited and regretted the way the Thomas hearings that he managed turned out, although he didn’t contact Hill directly, nor did he come close to apologizing.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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