Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid: Anything in Your Past Can and Will Be Held Against You (Even Without Corroboration You Did It)


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My last post on the Senate confirmation hearings regarding the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to be a Supreme Court justice went live on September 10, 2018. Two days later, on September 12, an anonymous claim surfaced that he had sexually assaulted a teenage girl when he was in high school. Over the last two weeks, we’ve learned his accuser is Dr. Christine Blasey Ford of Palo Alto University.

Dr. Ford alleges a single instance of sexual assault more than 30 years ago when Judge Kavanaugh was still a minor and both of them were in high school. Many of the details surrounding her claim remain hazy, including the date (and even the year), the location, how many people were present, and who they were.

I do not mean to imply that the allegation does not involve a claim of serious misconduct. It does. But Dr. Ford’s delays in making this allegation, Senator Dianne Feinstein’s further delays in publicizing it even to other Senate Judicial Committee members, and the fact that Dr. Ford and her attorney have spent many days negotiating her appearance before the Senate Judicial Committee, all make it seem that the drama was primarily raised for political reasons.

As of this morning, September 24, 2018, when this post is published, it appears that Dr. Ford will testify about her assault charge on Thursday, September 27, before the Senate Judicial Committee. So as I write this, we don’t know the end of this story.

Dr. Ford appears to be a respected member of her professional community, just as Judge Kavanaugh is of his. When two opposing witnesses are both credible, and when the facts are so fuzzy, it is very difficult to ever determine the truth, even if they both testify under oath. Investigating any situation that occurred more than 30 years ago is challenging under the best of circumstances. Refuting—proving the negative of—a vague allegation about something that happened so long ago is almost impossible. (Perhaps this is why Senator Feinstein didn’t publicize the claim earlier.)

Based on what has been made public thus far, all that Judge Kavanaugh can say is what he has already said—he never behaved like that. He can’t claim he wasn’t at a particular place because the place hasn’t been identified. He can’t obtain denials from other witnesses, because the witnesses haven’t been clearly identified, though two males and one female who may or may not be people the accuser has mentioned have denied any knowledge of Judge Kavanaugh behaving in this fashion.

One of the most distressing aspects of this case for me is the grievous harm that can be done to a person’s lifetime reputation with so little evidence. In today’s 24/7 news cycle, social media publicizes every allegation almost instantaneously, and often presents these allegations as the truth. Things we did—or are alleged to have done—long in the past, in times and places we don’t even remember, can haunt us in ways these incidents never did before. We essentially cannot outlive anything we’ve ever said or done. Even if we deny we ever said or did it.

In some situations, when many witnesses allege someone engaged in similar wrongful behavior, as in many of the recent #MeToo claims against public figures, we can comfortably conclude that the misconduct probably happened in at least some of the times and places claimed. But where there is only a single wrongful act alleged, and when that act supposedly occurred over 30 years ago, it is hard to accept that the incident should have an impact on a person’s future, unless there is some further corroboration.

“I believe the woman” seems to be the accepted response to all claims of sexual harassment and assault these days. Though most allegations of sexual misconduct have some basis in fact, I have personally investigated at least two cases in which women did not tell the truth. I am therefore reluctant to automatically believe the claimant, unless there is more than just her word.

In one case I handled, a female employee claimed that a high-level male employee had harassed her repeatedly. When I first learned of the complaint, I leaped to the conclusion it was probably true and started thinking about how the company should handle the man’s exit from the company. But within thirty minutes after I started interviewing the complainant, she alleged that at least six or eight other men had harassed her, all in vague ways (“he looked at me weird,” “he smiled at me in the stairwell”). It became clear after very little questioning  that she was paranoid and mentally unstable. She might have believed she’d been harassed, but she was not credible to a rational person.

In another situation, another female employee claimed that her male supervisor had harassed her in a retail store where there were multiple people present. None of the other eleven employees in the store had seen anything untoward. Moreover, her allegation was made on the Monday after the Clarence Thomas hearings, giving me a strong suspicion she’d made a false claim because of what she’d heard over the weekend. It turned out the accuser wanted more work hours than her supervisor had given her, and thought her complaint would give her leverage.

In addition to my personal experience, there are other, more public situations of wrongful accusations of sexual misconduct. One notable example was the false claims against the Duke lacrosse players. Those young men saw their promising careers go up in flames, because a lying complainant was supported by an unethical prosecutor.

I am not saying Dr. Ford’s claim is false. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. It is entirely possible her memory is as she has described and he has forgotten whatever happened between them. In that case, neither of them would be lying. The testimony this next week—if it takes place—might prove convincingly what happened, if anything. Although if we only have her memory and not his, I doubt it.

What I am saying is that before an allegation about a single 30-year-old act stops the career of a man who has no other such blemish on his record, we should require more than one person’s say-so. We should require other witnesses, or contemporaneous documents, or corroborating physical evidence, or something else that makes us comfortable ignoring his thirty years of exemplary behavior.

Because if we allow a single, ancient, unverified and unverifiable claim against an otherwise upright citizen to besmirch his reputation, then none of us is safe. Our fathers and husbands and sons are not safe from allegations of long-ago harassment. Any of us might be slammed by a claim that we made a sexist or racist or homophobic comment in the past. Whether we did it or not. Whether we’ve changed and matured or not. Whether what we believed at the time was what most of society believed or not.

Just ask Brendon Eich.

Is that the type of world you want to live in? I don’t.

LATE-BREAKING: As of Sunday evening, September 23, 2018, a second allegation has surfaced of sexual misconduct by Judge Kavanaugh, this time in his college days. In addition, Judge Kavanaugh has his old calendars which might cover time of the alleged high-school incident. Obviously, this story continues to develop.

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