Thank you for “This I Believe About Blasey v. Kavanaugh.”
Recently, my colleague Al Smith has been holding down the fort at the Department of Corrections, but he’s out of the office today as his chronic gastrointestinal condition has been acting up. He asked me to fill in on this one, saying that you desperately needed my help. So let’s get right to it.
These opening grafs are a little concerning:
I believe that statements on the controversy that begin, “I believe Blasey,” or “I believe Kavanaugh” — because they jibe with personal experience or align with a partisan motive — are empirically worthless and intellectually dishonest. I believe the defect could be corrected by saying, ‘I want to believe’ Blasey or Kavanaugh.
I believe that when Kirsten Gillibrand says, “I believe Dr. Blasey Ford because she’s telling the truth,” the senator from New York is either deceiving herself or deceiving you.
I know belief is a complex topic, one that history’s greatest minds, like Freud, Nietzsche, and Cher have all grappled with. But have you considered how belief actually works in a psychological sense? You may not agree with Gillibrand, but that doesn’t mean she’s being deliberately deceptive. According to psychologists and neuroscientists, belief is flawed in its very nature, and those flaws are universally human and inevitable. The theory of motivated reasoning proposes that “the motivation to arrive at particular conclusions enhances use of those [beliefs and strategies] that are considered most likely to yield the desired conclusion.”
People often accept or discredit evidence according to their preexisting beliefs. A 1998 study from Brown University and the University of Michigan found that the depth of an individual’s disconfirmation bias is enhanced when that belief arouses an emotional response. In a Psychology Today essay, Dr. Alex Lickerman argues that infants are uniquely free of this psychological predisposition to bias, lacking object permanence—the belief in the prior existence of objects that have just appeared—which develops from 8 to 12 months of age. Unlike adults, whose meta-cognitive abilities may lead to beliefs guided by experience or prior influences, infants believe only what they see in front of them. Since, sadly, no infants sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, I guess we’re stuck with the flawed belief systems of adults. Instead of making the blanket statement that someone’s beliefs are “dishonest” or “deceptive” you might reconsider the empirical evidence at hand?
I think you’re unequivocally correct here:
I believe locking a young woman in a room, groping her aggressively against her will, and turning the music loud so her cries can’t be heard, isn’t harmless teenage horseplay.
But there are some factual inaccuracies in your discussion of events that we’ll want to clear up. Let’s look at Blasey Ford’s original July 2018 letter to her Congresswoman, obtained by CNN. She wrote, “They locked the door and played loud music precluding any successful attempt to yell for help,” possibly meaning that the music was already loud; you seem to be implying that the music was purposely turned up “loud so her cries can’t be heard.” That may have been the case, but it also may not. Like you said in your second paragraph, “Unless you were at the party, I believe that you don’t [know what happened], either.” Since your argument focuses on empirical facts and the faultiness of belief I think it’s best to incorporate primary sources.
I believe the thing that matters now is that Kavanaugh categorically denies the sexual assault allegation.
I’m not your editor, but I can’t help pointing out that it’s illogical to present Kavanaugh’s denial as the most important fact without giving Blasey Ford’s accusation equal consideration. Since we’re explicitly dealing with the unreliable nature of belief in this piece, why does this belief—your belief—merit more credibility than anyone else’s?
Psychologist Craig N. Shealy suggests that when we judge the relative value of our beliefs over those of other people, it might be a good idea to “describe and reflect openly upon the origins of our worldviews, before scrapping with others.” To extrapolate slightly: Something that may be the integral fact in this case for you may equally be the least important for someone else. For the sake of transparency, maybe you should mention what politically or personally informs your worldview, rather than presenting yourself as the ultimate arbiter of “the thing that matters now.”
I believe women lie just as often as men do. I believe the standard ‘presumed innocent’ must always trump the slogan ‘Believe Women’ if we intend to live in a free and fair society.
You’re talking about a very specific context here as though it were an abstraction. It’s not. There’s a lot of debate surrounding the issue of false reports and lying about sexual violence, but there is at least some data on the question. A 2010 Boston meta-analysis estimated the rate of false accusations of sexual assault as falling between 2% and 10%. Those numbers don’t appear to support the high rate of false accusations you’re implying. At the very least, clarify how often it is you think “women lie.”
I believe that Blasey has a moral obligation to demonstrate, as best as she can, that the serious charge she has brought against Kavanaugh is true. I believe that if she fails to do so, after having reluctantly but voluntarily come forward, she will have smeared Kavanaugh.
I believe that Blasey has yet to offer definitive evidence of what she alleges. Notes taken by her therapist that an unnamed man loosely fitting Kavanaugh’s description are marginally corroborative but not dispositive. The same goes for polygraph exams, which is why they are rarely admissible as evidence in court.”
Three questions here. Firstly, the allegations against Kavanaugh are of a very intimate nature. I think you have to say exactly what you mean by “demonstrate” in this passage, and what “definitive evidence” could possibly consist of in this case. That is, you owe it to your reader to state exactly what kind of demonstration would satisfy what you consider to be Ford’s “moral obligation.”
Secondly, the role of the Senate Judiciary Committee in this matter appears to weigh very little with you. Have you considered that they are charged with determining the veracity of these allegations? If the committee weighs all the testimony fairly and exonerates Kavanaugh, bringing a clear account of its eventual findings to a concerned public, that will have been a failed attempt to “smear” Kavanaugh. That is the whole point of the Judiciary Committee.
And it must be admitted that many GOP leaders, although they have consented to the hearing, have already declared its results meaningless. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that regardless of the results Republicans “will plow through” and Kavanaugh will be confirmed.
Finally, when you said there’s nothing corroborative, have you factored in the new reporting regarding Kavanaugh? Deborah Ramirez, a classmate of Kavanaugh’s at Yale, alleges that Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at a party. Although this isn’t a criminal trial, multiple instances of this behavior, if true, fulfill the legal definition of a pattern of conduct and could substantiate Blasey Ford’s claims.
Maybe Blasey Ford was smearing Kavanaugh with false accusations; maybe she’s telling the truth. We don’t know. As you kind of point out, “belief” doesn’t really enter into this. We owe it to our reader to reserve final judgement until we find out. If you can clarify that point I think it will greatly strengthen your argument.
Best of luck with your next draft! Please let me know if you have any questions.
Regards from Al.