Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was called to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee last Thursday to account for one of several sexual assault allegations against him.
In his opening testimony, Kavanaugh expounded a long list of the women who have worked with him and believe him — 65, according to one letter he received — and at one point mentioned that he has “always had a lot of close female friends.”
The remark reminds me of the hackneyed refrain of, “I’m not (insert –ism), my best friend is (insert identity),” as if the bare minimum of human decency is proof enough to disqualify oneself from an accusation as compelling as that of Christine Blasey Ford. But the examples are inherently positioned against the assumption that if he was a rapist, he’d act the trope.
In other words, Kavanaugh wants people to know that he’s a “good” guy. But “good” men still do bad things.
The public display of intense emotion that Kavanaugh exhibited and the sympathetic response to it are symptoms of what New York Times contributor Kate Manne calls “himpathy.” This is defined as the “inappropriate and disproportionate sympathy powerful men often enjoy in cases of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, homicide and other misogynistic behavior.”
Bill Cosby’s sentencing only last week is a convenient example. Cosby’s comedy had endeared him to American families, teaching people how to laugh at and love themselves. But his 40-year tenure as America’s TV dad was cut short after he was accused of sexually assaulting 58 different women.
Even then, his publicist compared him to Jesus Christ, stating that Cosby, too, had been wrongfully persecuted.
Is sexual assault not serious enough that Cosby, a man convicted for drugging and raping a woman and accused of doing it 57 more times, is still considered a “good” guy?
The Cosby-Kavanaugh analogy isn’t perfect, as Cosby’s conviction intersects a history of racial politics in the United States and the power dynamics present when assailants are black men. Nevertheless, the publicist’s comment shadows a larger discourse surrounding Cosby’s prosecution that, despite the corroborated accusations, he was still inexplicably deserving of the same humanity he denied scores of women for several decades.
But that comment isn’t inexplicable when one considers how often accusations against powerful men are muddled by the sympathy that shrouds their reputation, which must be protected. It’s why sexual assault accusations, less than 10% of which are statistically false, are met with such backlash.
Even with much to lose, victims are often met with incredulity because their stories hold a mirror to the face of elite institutions, such as the ones that bore and bred our Supreme Court candidate, and reflect a harrowing history of systemic oppression in the United States.
Although it would be grossly unfair for Kavanaugh to be barred from this opportunity should all of the accusations prove false, a candidate nominated to the Supreme Court should be able to withstand basic scrutiny. Even though missing out on this opportunity may be personally devastating, this position is not a right, which speaks volumes about the entitlements accorded the white male elect.
Kavanaugh’s character should be a vital consideration in the nomination process, whether or not that process is discriminatory. But someone does not need to fit the stereotype of a sexual offender — a cloaked person scrambling in dark alleys — to be one. Friends have confided in me about their sexual assaults, but even if I had known their assailants, I would never have pointed out that he was a “good” guy or was pleasant to work with. Whether I knew him as amiable and the survivor did not, my job now is to listen, and I encourage others to do the same.
If the Judiciary Committee lets “himpathy” sway their decision to move forward, it will send a message to American women and survivors of sexual assault that a man who has proved his virtue at one point in time will remain guarded by his elitism under scrutiny. The repercussions of this choice may not fully materialize until the time comes for Kavanaugh’s supposed egalitarian track record to reflect in the way he votes.
Contact opinions writer Jessica Winkler at firstname.lastname@example.org.