Finding a “teachable moment” in the Kavanaugh hearings

By Deborah Lindsay Williams

My son is seventeen. He regularly goes to parties where there are girls and lots of booze, and he doesn’t keep a calendar, unless you call “writing things on my hand so I don’t forget” a calendar. He’s going off to college next year, and every time I look at him, I think about all the things I still want to teach him, all the last bits of parental advice I want to cram in before he leaves home.

I hadn’t expected the Trump administration to offer me such a golden opportunity—such a ready-made set of evolving “teachable moments”—about power, patriarchy, and privilege, as evidenced in the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. At the same time, of course, these hearings also enrage me. I’ve always told my sons (the younger one is 14) that “boys will be boys” is neither a license nor an excuse, so to hear that rhetoric used to erase Christine Ford’s allegations makes me want to scream.

These hearings remind me of the moment when Toto pulls back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz, revealing an old white guy desperately pulling at the levers of power in order to preserve the illusion of his omnipotence. Dorothy calls the wizard a humbug, and a bad man; he agrees that he’s a humbug, but protests that he’s a good man, just a very bad wizard.

Christine Ford’s allegations have pulled back the curtain to reveal the ways that those in power will do whatever they can—grasp at whatever levers they can pull—to preserve and protect that power. The brazenness with which these men want to dismiss Ford’s allegations, their attempts to silence and discredit her, offers a painful illustration of what it looks like when the powerful forget (if they ever knew) that theirs are not the only voices that matter. When Mitch McConnell says that the Judiciary Committee will “plow right through” to get Kavanaugh confirmed, what’s actually being confirmed is a kind of bureaucratic re-enactment of the very event alleged by Christine Ford: Kavanaugh plowed right through her protests and in fact held his hand over her mouth to ensure her silence.

“That,” I said to my son, “is what we mean by white male privilege.”

“Why is Kavanaugh’s story the one that matters?” I asked. “Why should we care that Kavanaugh feels stressed about these personal questions? Why aren’t any of these men asking about Ford’s feelings?”

My son looked uncomfortable, and I was glad. I wanted him to be disconcerted by the sight of privilege being deployed to do damage; I wanted him to be shocked by rhetoric that suggested it was the natural order of things for a boy’s “seven minutes of heaven” to be purchased at the expense of a girl thinking the boy might inadvertently kill her, which is what Ford said she thought the night of the alleged assault.

Kavanaugh’s wingmen—the men of the Judiciary Committee central among them—would have us believe, as wingmen always do, that it’s all fine, that Kavanaugh is a great guy once you get to know him, and that we should all just relax. I keep waiting for one of them to tell the press that we should all just have another drink, or to shout that we shouldn’t pay any attention to the man behind the curtain. Usually these manipulations of power happen behind closed doors; we are lucky to see all these machinations being performed out in the open.

“What if I do something stupid this year,” my son asked. “Does that mean nothing important gets offered to me when I’m old?” I know that he wishes there was some magical Etch-A-Sketch that would shake away any adolescent malfeasance, but for him, even less so than for those of us who are “old,” social media has made erasure all but impossible. “It’s confusing,” he said. “What if I kiss a girl at a party and then the next day she decides I assaulted her?”

In order to answer, I had to put aside my initial reaction, which was, You are not old enough to kiss anyone, and my second reaction, which was, Do not drink at college.

Swallowing my unrealistic—but heartfelt—responses, I came up with an answer that combined a mini-history lesson with something I’d learned from the counselors who work in the Student Life office at the university where I teach.

I pointed out that for centuries, even millennia, women have been silenced, dominated, taught that their role is to support men in all their endeavors, regardless of their own feelings. Maybe, I suggested, the fact that men have to be nervous about how they approach a woman, have to pay attention to what she says and does, maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s the pendulum swinging in the other direction.

He looked skeptical. “But how do I know what to do?”

I didn’t have any for-sure answers to that question, so I offered the advice that Student Life gives to the college students: FIRE! Consent should be Freely given, Informed, Reversible, Enthusiastic.

“I have to ask someone before I kiss her?”

“It could even be romantic,” I said, and held up a hand to forestall more skepticism.

For a moment I contemplated telling him about my own painful high school experiences, almost all of which involved booze and boys of the Kavanaugh sort—“good boys” who were probably just “having fun” and were oblivious to the fact that I, most emphatically, was not. Christine Ford’s story hit me, and so many other women, in a way that the Weinsteins, Cosbys, Lauers, Louis CKs, and others have not, perhaps because there’s no “celebrity” involved here. Ford’s story is our story, and if we don’t have our own version of her story, we know someone who does. It’s that sense of shared experience—of assault, or worse, and the silencing afterwards—that has made so many of us incandescent with rage.

And yet, I didn’t share my own stories with my son, and not entirely because of cowardice. I think instead I wanted to keep the conversation on him, and on the world he will inhabit, now, in college and afterwards.

These hearings are trying to send us the message that boys still, in the twenty-first century, don’t have to pay any attention to girls: not their voices, not their bodies, not their experiences.

But there’s another message there, too, a more powerful teachable moment: I hope that my son, and the other teenagers—boys and girls—who are following these hearings, ignore the example of the humbugs who are willing to sacrifice everything (and anyone) in order to keep their hands on the levers of power. Instead, let these kids learn from the example of Christine Ford, a citizen who put the interests of the community above her own well-being. If that lesson can be gleaned from this terrible situation, then perhaps all will not have been for (Kava)naught.

Deborah Lindsay Williams lives in Abu Dhabi (which is not Dubai), in the UAE, and is a literature professor at NYU Abu Dhabi as well as a columnist for The National. 

Illustration by Xavier Schipani

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