One of the least interesting details of the Brett Kavanaugh sexual assault story is that it fell apart. Anyone who could follow the scent-trails of power could have seen it coming. From the start, something was off when rape accusers asked the then-potential Supreme Court justice’s nomination to be delayed instead of just squashed outright — it’s hard not to suspect that someone instrumentalized society’s hatred of a wicked crime. What good is a delay going to do if this guy is morally unfit to sit on the bench?
Then the evidence started to pile up in one direction. All four witness named by accuser Christine Ford said that they have no knowledge of supposed incident. It looks like Ford wasn’t honest about building a second front door due to her groping-related trauma. And, in a sworn testimony, Ford’s former boyfriend said that she, a psychologist, lied when she claimed to have never coached anyone to beat a polygraph. Others have made similarly weak claims about unrelated incidents; some in the Senate had taken this duplication as proof, the logic of belief in the Jersey Devil.
People are worried about precedent. And civility. And that the trick of pulling a rape victim out of hat could be repeated by the bad guys. But again, none of that is the interesting part. It’s obvious to the point of being boring that this a play in the contest of power. It’s supposed to happen — a feature of the game, not a bug. We let deliberative bodies touch our courts, and no-holds-barred deliberative theater is the result. The court of public opinion has lower standards than its legal equivalent, and so this fiasco is the game-theoretic response. This doesn’t mean Kavanaugh isn’t a rapist. Maybe he is. But if Kavanaugh’s rape victims weren’t actually victims, then Dianne Feinstein would have needed to invent them.
I am confident that very few people care about that detail in and of itself. But why the specific accusation of rape? Dianne Feinstein could get someone to say that Kavanaugh routinely called black people the n-word. Or she could produce someone who claims that the judge, in a drunken haze, made a credible threat to their life. The only thing standing between these claims and widespread belief in them is Occam’s Razor, or the intuitive, mass-market version of it. But the same goes for sexual assault. So what’s different?
The answer, the interesting part of all this, is that otherwise-accepted epistemological substance twists when a woman’s testimony about sexual assault comes into the equation. It becomes an unanswerable spell: Occam’s Razor is powerful, but the peculiar epistemics of believing women is more powerful still. A woman’s accusation is culturally immune to contradiction because contradiction is designated as immoral — being immoral is being wrong, plus other bad stuff. This isn’t so much a feminist ploy but a feminine epistemology: if slogan of “always believe woman” shoots anxiety into the logical-implications part of your brain, it’s likely that that brain is male, or at least masculine. (No, this has nothing to do with intelligence.)
This isn’t to say that system-based reasoning is good and empathy-based reasoning is bad — that’s wrong for a number of a reasons, and if you believe it, you’re LARPing as Mr. Spock. It’s that, when it comes to solving problems with strangers, systematization scales and empathy does not. Large-scale systems can be gamed when they abide conventions that only make sense on a smaller scale. Yeah, a contest for control over the most dispassionate branch of government can be short-circuited with the alarmedly personal. A smuggling operation between these different epistemic orders of magnitude is the perfect crime. How has this only happened once before?
If Kavanaugh deserved the Supreme Court seat that he got, then this was indeed the cynical ploy that we fear it is. It was carried on the wings of sentiment of a mother not letting her good-for-nothing son sleeping on the street, a standard that makes sense on the feminine scale: local, domestic, parochial, personal. Consider the four different types of truth that we use in the four different scopes below.
Tier 1: Imagine something terrible: your daughter, tears in her eyes, comes to you and tells you that she was sexually assaulted. Anything except utter trust in her story would be monstrous. The same goes for such a story from your sister: either of those people claiming to be victims of assault should be, for your purposes, identical to them actually being victims of assault. We’re tribal for a reason. These people rely on your empathy for succor in an uncaring world, and it works in small, high-trust groups.
Tier 2: Moving across the gradient of trust, we come your cousin or friend making a claim of sexual assault. Your faith should still be strong, but a few notches further from absolute truth. That’s enough for you to take a firm side, lack of evidence be damned.
Tier 3: Beyond the boundary of the Dunbar number is a hazy, echoey place. Here are people who wouldn’t come to you about an assault: coworkers, acquaintances, neighbors you never see. Despite the fog of unfamiliarity, though, you can still make out shapes. Sure, we don’t know the claimant, so we can’t be sure she’s not one of the few bad apples who would falsify a rape accusation. But when nothing is at stake, we can still safely side with the accuser. What’s in it for her, after all?
Tier 4: Things get plain uncomfortable when we mix a room full of strangers with the bid for power. Here live politics and absolute strangers with something to gain from false claims, things that go hand-in-hand. Confidence in a “he-said, she-said” situation might even push trust below 50/50, due the incentives at play.
As we traverse this hierarchy downwards, it’s obvious that we need more coldness and less empathy to secure our systems from the threat of being gamed. Universalizing impulses take wing at tier 4 and beyond. If we systematize too hard, the pain of existence becomes pronounced: everything that matters to a person being undeniably small. As we zoom out from the familiar so as to try to dissect the Big Picture, we leave an enchanted garden behind, and things become less human and less humane. That’s the pain of being a man. Systematization is exhausting.
Female subtlety is like a ghost story. It confounds any algorithm, and no matter how the algorithm is tweaked, it will only be confounded again. Women are wilder and more mutable, they have always been considered to be more magical — maybe in the way that sub-literal social rules are wild and mutable to an autistic person. To men, this is a dark enchantment to take comfort in. Even though watching Christine Ford cry wasn’t easy, a woman’s tears just seem to have truth in them, alluring like a credible tale of the supernatural. Believing is having hope that there could be something true that’s beyond the harsh, anemic light of the mechanistic universe, that the things we are attached to really do matter.
At certain points during his four hours of questioning, Justice Kavanaugh showed anger over being accused. This indignation probably felt good at the time, but he learned the hard way that we can only enjoy the enchanted garden of the subjective for so long. He was snapped back to reality by a uniform media outcry over his temperament, and he apologized. We need people at the levers of power to put their own passions away, that outcry reminded us. Governance can’t tolerate the subjective truths that are cherished in intimate life.