Forgetting ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’
The MeToo movement has sought to turn some stones in our culture, to expose and reveal some of its enduring nastiness, especially in regards to sexual harassment and assault. It has resulted in the comeuppance of some powerful abusers and justice for victims that was too long-awaited. Nevertheless, as the movement has grown and gained traction, many wonder if it “goes too far.”
This week, on Today, actor Sean Penn voiced concerns about the excesses of the movement. He stated:
Well, we don’t know what’s a fact in many of the cases…Salacious is as soon as you call something a movement that is really a series of many individual accusers, victims, accusations, some of which are unfounded.
The spirit of much of what has been the MeToo movement is to divide men and women.
The current chapter of the movement places significant focus on allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s most recent nominee to the Supreme Court. Professor Christine Ford of Palo Alto University claims that Kavanaugh attempted to rape her while at a party in high school. Reaction to the accusations has largely split along party lines. Democrats have been quick to believe her, while Republicans see this as merely a tactic to disrupt the judicial appointment process. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized the Democrats, stating, “But now, now, at the eleventh hour, with committee votes on schedule, after Democrats have spent weeks and weeks searching for any possible reason that the nomination should be delayed, now, now they choose to reveal this allegation.”
Writing for USA Today, Jonathan Turley has offered what seems like a rare, middle opinion, that both Ford and Kavanaugh deserve “blind justice.” He contests the idea that an accuser has “a right to be believed,” in reference to the supporting remarks of Hillary Clinton. He even observes, “Moreover, it is possible to believe Ford while believing that she could be mistaken on the identity of the attacker. It is possible to pass a polygraph examination with a false memory or association.” Ultimately, he concludes:
Members cannot demand an assurance from a nominee that he will approach all cases with an open mind when they are promising voters that their minds are already made up before any testimony is given on these allegations.
Many Democrats, however, argue that belief is important in the backdrop of our sexist culture. Katie Anthony, in an opinion for NBC, wrote, “ The process by which the American public evaluates women who levy accusations of sexual violence against men who look like Brett Kavanaugh, after all, is depressingly predictable, as reliable as an expiration date.” Those who side with Ford at this stage in the process feel that belief is necessary to combat years of our failure to address victims of sexual assault adequately and that refusal to believe will result in dismissal of any and every allegation.
Nevertheless, I think another backdrop of our history proves why the Democrats’ approach cannot work: racism. Best exemplified in Harper Lee’s fictional novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, where a black man is wrongfully accused of raping a white woman, the principle of “belief first” only serves to bring out the worst of a Southern community in the 1930s. The character of Atticus Finch has been widely celebrated for his role in defending a man from the treachery of mere accusation, particularly when doing so defied the social norms of the time. He is a character that, perhaps ironically now, holds high esteem among Democrats and liberals.
To Kill a Mockingbird is fictional, to be clear, but its resonance is borne from the fact that such accusations — and their deadly results — were a part of American life during the era of Jim Crowe. During this near-century, thousands of African-American men were murdered by white lynch mobs, often over the accusation of raping a white woman. Three men were murdered in Duluth, Minnesota for just this reason, back in 1920, even though examination of the alleged victim by a physician showed no evidence of rape. With a proper patience and willingness to hear the facts, these men might have gone on to live long lives, the other challenges of that era notwithstanding. “Belief first,” however, was the catalyst of their deaths.
I doubt that any Democrats will deny this violent, historical context that African-American men faced, especially given their predilection for civil rights. I think the real challenge is what they think we can learn from it, namely that we have to be as agnostic and impartial as possible, that we have to be willing to find the facts, before issuing a judgment. I think Democrats are more likely to make comparisons that do not matter. They might note that Kavanaugh is a white man, not a black man, so the problems of “belief first” cannot apply here. That might be true statistically, but it only takes one motivated person with a gun to block Kavanaugh’s appointment and show that they do, indeed, apply.
Standards are essential in the proper administration of justice. They ensure that everyone gets their due before the law. This requires us to avoid taking sides and ensure that due process occurs. This is not true of simply law and order. It is true of Western epistemology, of the fundamental principles behind the scientific method. To know before we investigate is something that we are physically unable to do, yet we have an eagerness to believe otherwise.
By ignoring standards, especially in the context of a highly politicized event, we actually lower the chances that victims will be believed for anyone on the other side. We will sow suspicion and make revelations look like nothing more than calculated maneuvers. Meanwhile, on our side, we will subject innocent people to punishments that they do not deserve, as thousands of men under Jim Crowe learned.
The Senate, as body of national leaders, has a duty to address such concerns with diligence as well as restraint. Any decision it makes in response allegations should not be based on assumptions in advance. Democrats should not assume guilt, and Republicans should not assume that Ford is lying either. A proper review of the facts is in order for both sides, in order to ensure justice for Kavanaugh, justice for Ford, and justice for the American people. Until then, the most valid answer a Senator can give is, “I don’t know.”