What I'm Afraid You're Learning

On October 1, I addressed our weekly Town Meeting of students and faculty to share my concerns about the lessons I fear they may be learning from the recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for Brett M. Kavanaugh's nomination to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Address to Students and Faculty, Town Meeting (October 1, 2018):

First, I want to make sure you know the story. Last Thursday, the country was riveted by the Senate hearing of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who is a professor of psychology at Palo Alto University and a research psychologist at Stanford School of Medicine, and Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who is a nominee for the Supreme Court of the United States, as each answered the questions of a Senate committee vetting his nomination. Both were testifying about Dr. Ford’s recent allegation that Judge Kavanaugh, when they were both in high school, sexually assaulted her. Kavanaugh denies the allegation, and those of two other women who have said he was sexually inappropriate with them while in high school and college.

I have struggled with whether or not to read Dr. Ford’s allegation in her words, because it is hard to hear. But again, I want to be sure that you know what the immense, painful, and potentially revolutionary fuss has been about, and although this fuss began centuries ago, and has continued tragically until this moment, this allegation is where our current furor begins. Remember that both Ford and Kavanaugh were privileged, white students at elite prep schools at the time of this incident. In terms of their maturity, their development as people, and their ability to be held accountable for their actions, they were not unlike yourselves. Here is Dr. Ford’s allegation:

“I was pushed from behind into a bedroom. I couldn’t see who pushed me. Brett and Mark came into the bedroom and locked the door behind them. There was music already playing in the bedroom. It was turned up louder by either Brett or Mark once we were in the room. I was pushed onto the bed and Brett got on top of me. He began running his hands over my body and grinding his hips into me. I yelled, hoping someone downstairs might hear me, and tried to get away from him, but his weight was heavy. Brett groped me and tried to take off my clothes. He had a hard time because he was so drunk, and because I was wearing a one-piece bathing suit under my clothes. I believed he was going to rape me. I tried to yell for help. When I did, Brett put his hand over my mouth to stop me from screaming. This was what terrified me the most, and has had the most lasting impact on my life. It was hard for me to breathe, and I thought that Brett was accidentally going to kill me.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee, charged with vetting Supreme Court nominees, listened to this testimony, and to Ford’s answers to the questions being posed to her. Then the committee listened to Brett Kavanaugh, who vigorously denies Ford’s story and claims she is telling it as part of a political conspiracy against his nomination. Kavanaugh read a statement containing the following testimony:

“Over the past few days ... false and uncorroborated accusations have been aired. There has been a frenzy to come up with something—anything, no matter how far-fetched or odious—that will block a vote on my nomination. These are last-minute smears, pure and simple. They debase our public discourse. And the consequences extend beyond any one nomination. Such grotesque and obvious character assassination—if allowed to succeed—will dissuade competent and good people of all political persuasions from serving our country.”

 Head of School Dr. Sharon Howell

Head of School Dr. Sharon Howell

Now remember, members of the Supreme Court are supposed to be non-partisan, so that we can be confident that they will not rule on cases according to politics, but according to their independent and reasoned interpretations of the U.S. Constitution.  Most members, however, tend in their rulings to be fairly consistently aligned with liberal and conservative positions because of what appear to be more and more fundamental differences in values—liberal and Democratic, conservative and Republican.

I want to be clear that despite the fact that Kavanaugh, the nominee, is heavily favored by the Republicans on the committee (all 11 of whom, incidentally, are men) the hearings on Thursday were not—or should not have been—political in nature. What we heard on Thursday was a serious allegation of sexual assault by a woman, and an equally serious refutation of that allegation by a man accused of sexual assault. What was at stake was a lifetime appointment to a job requiring judgment, integrity, and respect for all of the people of the United States, including women.

Colleagues at other schools have been talking with their communities in many ways about this multi-dimensional situation, but I think that whatever angle they take they are all wondering about the same thing. That is, what concerns all of them, as it does me, is what young people are learning from what they’re seeing and hearing as these events unfold.

You might be learning that our government is partisan to the point of paralysis—split into opposing factions so immovable that looking for truth and justice and serving citizens often seem secondary to the goal of staying in power, and beating the other side at all costs.   

You might be learning about the ways that the actions and behaviors of some white men of privilege are excused, mitigated, and downplayed when they are bad—but are defended, emphasized, and praised when they are good. You might be learning about the ways that women’s stories are serially disbelieved, marginalized, and downplayed when they involve white men of privilege behaving badly, especially when believing them involves also believing that those men should not be in power.

You might be learning about the circumstances in which men are allowed to be angry and show emotion, and those in which to do so for a woman would be to undermine her credibility, strength, and authority. Then again, if you are reading The New York Times, you might be learning that the radiant despair of many women bearing witness to this spectacle—one in three of whom have experienced sexual violence in their lives—is not just sorrow or disappointment. It is rage. They see a woman telling a story completely familiar to them, and telling it with courage and care, being disbelieved and called a political operative who must be doing this for her own gain. When these women cry, their tears are tears of fury.

But you may also be reaching very different conclusions, as many are.  These might include that this is what Kavanaugh calls a “circus,” and a “farce,” and that the whole thing is a shameful attempt to smear a good man.  You may be concluding that there is no end to which Democrats will go to prevent a conservative Supreme Court Justice from being appointed, including ruining the career of a brilliant and accomplished Judge.  These are some conclusions you would be forgiven for reaching as you watch this situation unfold. I see it as our responsibility as people charged with educating you to help you understand ways you might address them.  

Because the most disturbing lesson that I fear you may be learning is one that is perhaps the most crushing of all for women. It is this: that this is not a matter of people disbelieving Christine Blasey Ford at all. At least half of the people conducting the Senate hearing believed her.  Most women in the world believe her. Even President Trump found her testimony compelling. All but the most politically or ideologically rabid, in fact, are being forced to admit that her story feels like a likely story told by a trustworthy person.

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The lesson that I am terrified that you may be learning, as high school students who have the chance to make the next wave of leadership and power different, and better, is the lesson that having committed a sexual assault at any time in your life does not actually matter. I worry desperately that the girls in this room are learning that they have no power to hold men accountable for harming them in high school or college, or indeed ever. And worse, that even if you are brave enough to report something that happens to you, that the adults in your community might not take you seriously, and that your report might end up hurting YOU more than it hurts the person you’re accusing. And you girls are probably also learning that even if all of those things make you angry, make you furious—you are not allowed to be angry about them publicly, you can’t yell the way Kavanaugh did during his hearing, and you certainly can’t shed those tears of fury, without risking being called unstable, over-emotional, irrational, bitchy, abrasive, aggressive, and my favorite: weak.

I also worry very much about the boys in this room, because of the role models this situation offers you. I worry that from this you are learning that a little drunken horseplay when you’re a teenager, even if it utterly traumatizes someone else, will not be held against you. I worry that you might not know how to recognize that a girl is saying no to you, because the messages you’re receiving from our leaders suggest that those “no’s” are just part of the game. I worry urgently for the white boys of privilege in this room, who are probably NOT learning that some behavior is hurtful and unacceptable, because our current social climate appears to accept or excuse most of whatever you do by saying things such as “boys will be boys,” which is a formulation that hurts you terribly. If “being a boy” means disrespecting anyone different from yourself; being cruel to individuals for your own amusement; or supporting a culture of misogyny by minimizing and objectifying women, what does that mean for those boys who would never, ever do those things? Of course being a boy doesn’t mean these things—but what a terrible burden that idea is to all of you.

These and many more are all conclusions available to you, as high school students, and I know that many of you are already speaking about them and trying to make sense of their implications. So I hope you know that we are your allies in this sense-making. We care deeply about you all—we care about who you are and whom you are learning to be when you’re here. And we promise that we will listen to you and take you seriously if you bear a serious message, or come to us with genuine intent to understand.

Some of you have said that Indian Springs can feel like a “bubble” where many of the bad things we see in the world are held at bay. I hope that in some healthy, informed way that can be true, because it can be an important condition of learning. But we are far from immune to the forces that are being brought into focus by this moment—to the extent that we live in this country and this world, we are subject to its culture. But we are subject to its culture only until we become educated about the experiences of others, the history of our society, and how power works. Once we understand those things, if we have also learned how to empathize with people, and how to respect them fully for who they are, then we get to shape the culture instead of submitting to it. We get to create it, and be in charge of it; and most importantly, if it needs changing, we get to change it.

Please think about what you might do personally, or in your friend groups, or in your families, to bring light to these subjects by studying them and paying attention to them. Please listen as much as you talk. And please be open to seeing the world in a different way. We have to.