This week’s renewed attacks on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh revealed a great deal about the entrenched partisanship and lack of journalistic integrity that have prompted so many Americans to lose faith in political institutions and mainstream media outlets. It also starkly revealed the feminist movement’s unwillingness to grapple with the logical fallacies of #BelieveAllWomen.
The animating impulse behind #BelieveAll Women is understandably appealing. It demonstrates compassion for those who make the difficult decision to come forward about the harassment or assault they have suffered; it offers implicit recognition of the fact that for too long women’s concerns and legitimate complaints about abuse have been downplayed or ignored; and it is perfectly crafted to reach a large audience in an age of hashtag activism.
But if we are required to believe every woman who makes an accusation, then every allegation, simply by the act of making it, becomes “credible.” This leaves little room for raising questions about honesty and due process, and plenty of space for ideological distortion.
And since ideology abhors nuance, simple narratives come to dominate the discussion when an allegation is made (in Kavanaugh’s case: beer-drinking private school boy = bad; beer-drinking private school girl = good). And anything that contradicts the narrative is explained away or ignored (such as, being drunk is damning evidence if you’re the accused man, but exculpatory if you’re the woman who made the allegation).
Despite the demand to believe all women, the claims of Kavanaugh accusers Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez have been unraveling of late. As CBS News reported, “All four people that Ford identified as being at that high-school party in the summer of 1982 have now said no such party occurred, and today both the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Democratic chair of the House Judiciary Committee said they would not support impeaching Kavanaugh.”
As for Ramirez, who was in the spotlight once again thanks to the hype surrounding New York Times reporters Robin Pogrebin’s and Kate Kelly’s new book, her story about Kavanaugh exposing himself to her at a college party hasn’t withstood scrutiny either. After the Times issued a clarification about a misleading excerpt published in the paper’s opinion section over the week, the book’s authors have been doing a lot of damage control about the veracity of their sources, not all of it effective. In a radio interview this week, Pogrebin acknowledged that Ramirez “was incredibly drunk,” at the time the alleged interaction with Kavanaugh occurred, which likely affected her memory.
In some ways, #BelieveAllWomen is the natural successor to second-wave feminism’s insistence that the personal is political. But it goes further by insisting that experience carries as much if not more weight than the facts if the two are in conflict.
In an essay in the Atlantic describing their book, for example, Pogrebin and Kelly mention their jobs as reporters, but more frequently cite their experience “as women” and as “mothers of daughters” (and of sons), as well as invoking their “gut reaction” to what they heard about Kavanaugh from others.
“Ultimately,” they write, “we combined our notebooks with our common sense and came to believe an utterly human narrative: that Ford and Ramirez were mistreated by Kavanaugh when he was a teenager, and that Kavanaugh over the next 35 years became a better person. We come to this complicated, seemingly contradictory, and perhaps unsatisfying conclusion based on the facts as we found them.”
But that conclusion is unsatisfying because the facts they relied upon to make it were suspect, and there’s no way to fact-check someone’s gut feelings. No matter how emotionally satisfying it may be, the feminist version of “common sense” they invoke (shaped by commands such as #BelieveAllWomen) isn’t sensible at all. It’s ideological.
Believing that every woman who claims to speak “her truth” is actually telling the truth causes problems when the facts reveal otherwise. That’s why, absent a straightforward ideological enemy like Kavanaugh, feminist protest so often devolves into abstractions and semantics—literally. Even a senator chuckling at the absurdity of some of the claims made about Kavanaugh is now deemed a dangerous example of a man “weaponizing” laughter.
What’s going on with the feminist movement? How has it gotten itself into this trap? Feminism’s younger activists often seem more interested in raising their follower counts on Instagram than raising anyone’s consciousness.
Consider Lauren Duca, the twenty-something who was anointed the feminist voice of her generation a few years ago. In a recent BuzzFeed profile, she declares, “My power is as a great communicator,” and it’s true she gained Internet fame after writing about Donald Trump’s gaslighting of America and calling Tucker Carlson a sexist pig while appearing on his show. But her feminist communication skills failed her when she was hired by NYU to teach journalism. Her students lodged a formal complaint against her, according to BuzzFeed, claiming she “didn’t follow her own syllabus,” she “spoke often and inappropriately about her personal life,” “she would belittle and yell at students,” and that she “targeted one student in particular.”
Duca’s response? “It’s okay if I’m not a great teacher because I’m great at lots of other things.”
That includes writing a book aimed at young people, How to Start a Revolution, that peddles such revolutionary ideas as “learn — empower yourself with information,” “decide — form a political opinion,” and “act — put your beliefs into action.” Duca is the logical conclusion of a brand of feminism that is all too eager to sacrifice old-school activism for social media stardom and principled disagreement for political expedience.
Jane Coaston of Vox argues that in defending Kavanaugh, conservatives are really defending an idea represented by Kavanaugh: “a placeholder rather than a person, a stand-in for an idea prevalent among many conservatives that every conservative, even the most milquetoast, will ultimately be the victim of vicious liberal attacks based entirely on partisan politics.” This caricature might apply to some conservatives, but it fails to acknowledge that many more are defending ideals—ideals such as due process, innocence until proven guilty, the compelling force of fact and corroboration as opposed to emotional appeal and scurrilous rumor that even Coaston, with her peculiar arch condescension, should appreciate. Such principles should be defended regardless of sex.
Feminism is an ideal, too, but it’s one that needs serious reform given the excesses done in its name in recent years. It needs fewer hashtags, stunts, and It Girls, and more reflection and self-criticism. It needs to retreat from the ideological position that women always tell the truth, because they don’t.